‘I always try to communicate how blessed we are as human beings.’
“I was 15 when I came to this country from South Korea. In 1975, there were very few Asian people in Newburgh, New York, and I didn’t know American culture. I couldn’t speak English; we didn’t have ESL. They just threw me in the classroom. I went through a lot of culture shock. I learned to exchange cultures. Art has been great at introducing that. I always think, ‘How can I mix the two cultures?’
“Lately, I’ve been working with bamboo. We grew up around bamboo as a decorative item, a functional item or even as food. When I moved to Aquebogue five years ago, we had a property next to us with a lot of bamboo growing, and all I heard was how bad bamboo was — it’s invasive, it’s not allowed. I realized how different cultures perceive bamboo. In my work, people see how cultural differences shape how we look at things.
That has been my mission besides teaching, to introduce other cultures to Long Island.
“Bamboo is like depression. When it’s covered with snow, it bends over with the weight, but once the snow melts, it stands back up. That’s a beautiful symbol, how flexible we human beings are. I always try to communicate how blessed we are as human beings. I think that came from coming to the United States. The reason my mother took me and my four brothers to the U.S. is we were so poor in Korea.
“My father died when I was 5, and my mother tried to survive in Korea. Korea has advanced so much since then. It was totally Third World in the 1970s. No matter how many problems we have, America is a wonderful country. You can still talk freely. If you work hard, you can go someplace. I went to college at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, then grad school at Pratt Institute in New York.
“I’ve been a college professor of art for over 30 years. In September, I’ll have a big show in Seoul, Korea, and then Tokyo, Japan. I drove a taxi cab in the city for about six years trying to make it as an artist. That’s when I learned about different types of humans, talking to different passengers. That taught me to treat each of my students as individuals; I don’t try to group them. That has been my mission besides teaching, to introduce other cultures to Long Island. As an artist, I’m always interested to get a response to how other people see it, and that’s how the dialogue starts.”
Interviewed by Rachel O’Brien – Morano