At last, showing Korea all her cards

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At last, showing Korea all her cards

If there’s one form of entertainment that is enjoyed by Koreans of all ages, it’s hwatu, the picture card game.
Derived from a game that was popular in 17th- and 18th-century China, hwatu is believed to have gained its current name during the Joseon dynasty in the 19th century. Hwatu, which literally means “flower cards,” is played with four sets of 12 cards symbolizing the months of the year, plus a few additional cards.
The game was popular in 19th-century Japan; thus, cards today bear Japan’s popular flower motifs, such as peonies and cherry blossoms, as well as Chinese characters. Korean merchants based in the port city of Busan, who frequented Japan, introduced the game to Koreans. Despite its popularity, hwatu has also carried some shady associations, as the game often involved gambling and illicit gatherings.
Chang Dong-jo, the proponent of public art in Korea, decided that Korea’s favorite card game needed a change ― for good.
“Koreans can now play hwatu the Korean way ― no more kimonos and Chinese characters,” he says. Mr. Chang, director of Startower Gallery in southern Seoul, has commissioned a local artist, Kim Jom-son, whose artistic style meshed perfectly with the traditional Asian painting found in hwatu cards.
The artist couldn’t agree with him more.
“People look at hwatu cards as points in the game, not as paintings,” Ms. Kim says. “So I updated so-called ‘unlucky’ cards by adding lucky phrases and symbols. They are the same cards, but players will feel better.”
“300 Digital Art Works: Kim Jom Son Exhibition,” at Startower Gallery, displays the artist’s recent works as well as her newest project, the renewal of age-old hwatu images.
A graduate of Hongik University Graduate School, Ms. Kim has held numerous exhibitions in Korea since the early ’70s.
Her colorfully bold images using digital technology are beautifully balanced fusions of Eastern and Western styles, with an element of childlike fantasy. She’s chosen traditional motifs, such as cranes, tigers, rabbits and Korean houses, that are familiar from ancient Korean folk paintings known as minhwa. The bold strokes of digital brushwork depicting these dreamy creatures are evocative of Mattise and Chagall. Looking at these innocently imperfect writings and childlike images, one can imagine the world of the Little Prince.
Until two years ago, Ms. Kim, now 57, was a traditional, not digital, painter,using brushes and large canvases. Shoulder pain from years of painting forced her to discontinue conventional painting. This led to her discovery of computer art, which involves light hand movements.
She is amazed at what computers have done to her life. “My son, a computer engineer, installed Photoshop for me. Every time I tried something new, he taught me more and encouraged me to work on full-scale paintings,” she says. “I believe that soon, diverse forms of computer art will prevail around the world.” Every day, she experiments with new techniques on the screen.
The gallery has released a limited first edition of her hwatu sets, but Ms. Kim continues to update the image of each hwatu card. New editions will be available later this year.
“The beauty of art is that you imagine a certain image in your head and begin to work on it, but something happens, and you get to deviate from your original plan but you fall in love with the accidental result,” she says. “It’s like life!”

by Ines Cho

The exhibition runs until August 23. Startower Gallery is located on the second floor of the Star Tower Building in Yeoksam-dong. The gallery is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. For more information, visit the Web site at
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