Finding freedom with just a few strokes of a brush

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Finding freedom with just a few strokes of a brush

After a brief telephone conversation with Suk Chang-woo, the calligraphy artist casually offered an invitation to visit his house in Daebang-dong to look at his artworks. "I have no arms to carry my portfolio to your place," he said; he meant that literally.

Suk Chang-woo lost both of his arms from a 20,000-volt electric shock 18 years ago -- he was 30 then, working as an electrical engineer. First the hospital amputated his hands, then his arms. Now he paints, writes calligraphy and even makes sculptures out of soft granite when conditions allow -- all with the two metal hooks attached to his artificial arms.

Starting Friday, his latest series of drawings will be exhibited at London's Medelin Pierson Gallery. Already, it's the artist's 12th solo exhibition.

His new career began when his then 2-year-old son asked him to draw a bird. Fifteen years later, his son wants to study graphic arts in college, and Mr. Suk has discovered a surprising talent.

But like many other physically disabled artists, Mr. Suk refuses to limit his artwork by labeling it "disabled art," and is reluctant to show his work in disability-themed shows. "I just feel a bit uncomfortable, being limited that way," he explained. "It gets difficult to demolish that boundary once your work starts to be read within a certain context."

He may refuse to be defined so narrowly, but his life definitely is reflected in his craft. Art, for Mr. Suk, has always been the means of self-healing. "It liberates me," as he put it.

He draws people who are in the midst of action, models who are in constant motion. But he particularly enjoys drawing athletes in the middle of competition. In the midst of his abstract swirls, one can envision Park Chan-ho winding up for a pitch, a figure skater gliding on ice, a sprinter dashing down the track.

Mr. Suk admits that his subject matter directly relates to his desire to move freely. "I stopped dreaming of playing sports after I started making art," he said. "It's a way to overcome my physical boundaries."

Back in his studio, he takes a piece of granite with his toes, places it on top of the mulberry paper to fix the paper on the table, flattens the paper by rubbing it with his foot, then takes up his brushes. "He is so sensitive to his metal hooks that he is able to tell the texture of the front and back of the mulberry paper," said Sohn Byung-chul, a calligraphy critic.

At 48, Mr. Suk understands that art is about embracing the desperate. "It's strange," he said. "When the player is not doing well in the game or the model is not moving freely as I wish, it takes away my desire to draw.

by Park Soo-mee

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