Reforming cons a brush stroke at a timeKorea may have many rich people, but rarely does one find an affluent person who benefits others with his wealth. There are exceptions. Consider Kang Shin-young, who instructs Korean prisoners in art ― and bankrolls the whole project herself.
Ms. Kang was born into a rich household and graduated from Ewha Womans Middle and High schools. Shortly after completing Kyung Hee University medical school, she opened a clinic. With money she had saved, her family emigrated to Canada in 1990.
While she pursued painting as a hobby, one of her drawings of a tiger graced the pages of an art magazine in 1997, which made it into the hands of a prisoner on death row. The prisoner, whose name is Richard, wrote to her.
“He asked me to teach him how to draw the tiger. So I sent him the drawing book and tools without any expectations,” Ms. Kang says. “After a while, he replied, writing that he had helped some orphanages with his pictures and thanking me for being a benefactor. It was touching.”
From this experience, she says, a new philosophy emerged in her life: “What I have accumulated now is enough for me; from now on let’s live for hundreds of Richards.”
Leaving her grown children in Canada, Ms. Kang returned to Korea in 1998, aspiring to help prisoners return to society. She started at a clinic where homeless people obtained free health care. Then the warden of Chongsong prison, in North Gyeongsang province, suggested that she organize art classes for 25 prisoners.
As Ms. Kang soon discovered, teaching life in “the school” ― the Korean euphemism for prison ― was a bit trickier than teaching at regular schools.
“From the beginning it was not smooth at all. I didn’t know how to teach them. Besides, they wouldn’t open their minds to me,” Ms. Kang says.
The tough treatment did not deter this resolute woman. She invested in some high-priced art books and tools for the inmates, and nagged them to attend drawing classes and art discussions. In time, she began to visit prison three times a week.
Though some prisoners gave up, 13 began to share their pains and sorrows with her through art.
As their drawing improved daily, they swore to her they would never commit crimes again and called her “Mom.”
“All of my sons are good at drawing,” Ms. Kang says. “They can even give expert remarks and impressions of pictures. Pictures can be a good means of bringing about communication, I think .”
Ms. Kang will hold another exhibit of the work of her “sons” in late October at Hana Art Gallery in Gwanhun-dong, Seoul (a show was held last year). Though the artists cannot appear, she plans to show them a videotape of the exhibition.
So how much does it cost to teach art to prisoners? “I haven’t counted,” she replies, revealing only a range of 30 million to 40 million won ($25,400 to $34,000) per year. “But amassing money is meaningless to me,” she says, adding that she harbors plans to build a gallery and workroom which her “sons” can use when they are released.
by Namkoong Wook