One day in third grade, during a bout of artistic expression, I drew a whale breaking out of the ocean surface in front of a setting sun, perhaps inspired by the Free Willy movies I used to love. Later that day, when I returned home from school, I proudly handed the drawing to my mother. Looking at it with the same level of scrutiny she held towards my outfits or my report cards, my mother remarked in Korean, “This just isn’t very good.”
She then handed the drawing back to me. At her words, I turned sheepish and immediately retreated upstairs to my room. After staring at the picture in my hands for a short while, I started to tear up the paper. Watching the little pieces flutter into the trashcan, I felt that art was inaccessible to me, something that I could never fully understand.
With this childhood memory floating around in my mind, I expected the artist Daru to be a mysterious and distant character, even more so due to her impressive credentials: a Bachelor’s degree from the prestigious Seoul National University in 1977 and a Master’s degree from the Pratt Institute in 1980. But at the entrance of the gorgeous French restaurant where Daru agreed to meet me, I was surprised to see a woman warmly greeting me with a friendly smile.
As we spread butter over the soft centers of our baguette slices, Daru began talking about herself. Unlike the polished metropolis we see in K-dramas today, the Seoul of her youth was made up of countrysides and outhouses. She had wanted to become a singer, but in a time before South Korea’s dramatic economic growth and K-pop’s international prominence, a singer was considered a vagrant by Koreans. Her parents urged her to pursue a different career.
Noticing that Daru had always been artistically inclined—drawing cartoons and such—her older sister asked her, “What do you think of ‘artist’?” It was then that Daru began to embrace art, a decision supported by her parents, especially her father. He believed his daughter could achieve anything she desired, even as a woman.
“My father was actually very interested in equal rights for women. He always said, ‘You know what? Even as a woman, you should pursue your dream’,” Daru said. She continued on to tell me that her father had always been an “artsy person” who loved films but never had the opportunity or the means to fulfill his desire to make movies. He grew up in a poor family during the Japanese occupation of Korea and ended up going to a military academy because he could not afford to continue onto high school. Although Daru’s father never became a film director, he understood his daughter’s passion for art.
This passion compelled Daru not only to leave Korea but also to move to a completely different continent. She came to New York City in the summer of 1977 to attend the Pratt Institute. Her first time outside of Korea coincided with a sanitation strike within the city, so Daru’s initial impression of New York was that of smelly garbage bags piled up on every corner. She also found that the people around her were unfamiliar with her culture. At that time, Korea’s public image was very different from what it is today. In the excerpts Daru read about her homeland in American books, Korea was described as a poor, uneducated, third world country. Because of this, as the only fine arts student among the few Koreans attending Pratt, she felt like she was a representative for Korea amidst her American peers.
None of this, however, stopped Daru from enjoying life in a city far from home. Although painting is a male-dominated field, or as she put it, “a macho world”, her recognition as an artist grew.
She had always been invited to exhibit her work in shows and managed to be in the right place at the right time. Her success in snagging buyers, reviews in major publications, and showcasing opportunities came from the appeal her artwork had with the general public. While she incorporated elements of her Korean culture into her art, she did this not to limit her audience but rather to express a part of herself in a way that could be appreciated by all people. Her inspiration for her pieces came from nature and, at times, lines of poetry that caught her attention as she read them, so her colorful paintings convey emotions and moments that can be understood by Koreans and non-Koreans alike.
For example, Daru’s earlier work, “Lotus,” uses aspects of Korean culture to express something universal about life. The contrast of the colors in the two panels reminded me of the taegeuk in the center of the South Korean flag. Just as the taegeuk represents the balance of opposing forces that exist within the universe, “Lotus” presents the same duality seen in life. While the bold and realistic drawing of the lotus blossom on the right panel suggests certainty, the abstract figure on the left panel creates a sense of vagueness.
While the fluid and serene backgrounds on each side induce feelings of harmony and calm, the splatters and splotches of paint interspersed throughout the two panels introduce chaos and confusion into the artwork, similar to the unpredictable way life takes its course. Despite these juxtapositions, the two panels seem to belong together, just as two opposing forces are sometimes united by that very opposition. Cold can only occur because there is heat and darkness can only be known because there is light. If you were to remove one, the other would not exist.
Daru’s more recent work similarly uses themes and designs from nature but with a higher level of abstraction. In “Ox Blood #11,” she paints a landscape that captures the interplay between reality and fantasy and between the perpetual flow of time and the fleeting human experience. I felt as if the opposing forces celebrated in “Lotus” had been combined to form a rich narrative of colors and textures more telling of how life presents itself. For paintings like “Ox Blood #11,” Daru often puts ten to thirteen layers of paint onto the canvas, sanding down each one before applying another.
The traces left behind from each layer create a sense of depth and history within her artwork as colors and brushstrokes from different points in time all coincide to form as one. This, along with the asymmetrical placement of patterns, speaks to the impermanence of experience. The certain emotions and sensations we feel in a particular moment fade away as life goes on. Whispers of that moment, expressed by the muted colors and subtle textures in the painting, may reappear in our dreams and memories, but the experience itself can never be fully relived.
My conversation with Daru continued over a tasty lunch and went on past coffee and dessert as she told me more about her life and her artwork. All throughout my time with her, I was struck by her open, vibrant, and down-to-earth personality. It clashed with the exclusivity I expected from artists since my childhood. She also differed from the standoffish, avant-garde artist often portrayed in the media. From something Daru said, however, I assumed that I was not the only one who held this particular impression of the art world.
“People feel intimidated by art. As soon as they feel comfortable with it, art would be more popular. Art should engage people,” said Daru.
She recalled how people would apologize to her even when complimenting her artwork because they were afraid of offending her or saying something wrong. According to Daru, art should be accessible. This is a belief she has held onto firmly, even going so far as to change her artist name from her Korean name, Jung Hyang Kim, to Daru because she found that her given name was difficult for non-Korean speaking people to recognize and remember. People would stop themselves from approaching her or discussing her artwork since they were too embarrassed to admit that they did not know her name.
Towards the end of our meal, Daru happily shared pictures of her paintings featured in the scenes of K-dramas like Level 7 Civil Servant and Heirs and in the homes of her buyers. She was proud and elated as she showed me these images of her artwork finding places within other people’s lives. After parting ways with Daru, I began to understand that art was not reserved for a few select elite but rather could be enjoyed and experienced by anyone, even a little girl who likes to draw whales.