Students reach new horizons through art
It all started with a postcard and a calendar.
After seeing the work of artist Ahn Yun-mo, a group of high school students was so inspired that they sent him a postcard and calendar featuring works of their own. It may seem like a rather ordinary gesture, but it was not a typical act for the students, all of whom have developmental disabilities that render their mental ages younger than their actual ages.
“The postcard from the students moved me,” Ahn said. “They said they liked my paintings and wanted to see them. When I saw the calendar with their paintings, I wanted to meet them, too, since their use of color was so imaginative.”
The group started working together in 2010 and their collaboration was so fruitful that Ahn decided to organize an exhibition to give them an opportunity to share their work.
The six students - Kim Tae-young, Kim Sae-joong, Gye In-ho, Lee Seung-hoon, Lee Byung-chan, and Cho Jae-hyun - are all in their first or second year of high school and all study art with the same art teacher, who is an acquaintance of Ahn.
“It is difficult to tell they are disabled,” said Ahn, “They look like ordinary kids. But mentally, they’re more like children. Maybe that’s what makes them braver in using the colors they want and drawing what they want.”
Ahn recalls that planning the exhibition with them was “interesting,” despite the amount of work that went into it.
“I had a lot of work because I organized the exhibition on my own,” said Ahn. “But my efforts were meaningful to me because I was able to facilitate their communication with people, which is not easy for them. I think this exhibition could provide them with opportunities to ‘jump up’ with their talent.”
For Ahn, having an exhibition with mentally disabled children is not new. He participated in a similar exhibition in 2003 with children who were being treated for mental disabilities at Seoul National University Hospital.
“While the paintings [from the previous exhibition] were very dark, the kids in the ‘Jump Up’ exhibition use very bright colors,” Ahn said. “I think that’s because they got a lot of love from their parents.”
When he first started working with the students in 2010, Ahn asked them to draw whatever they wanted on small circular canvases. Ahn said that communication between he and the students was “not difficult, yet not perfect.”
“They usually understood when I told them to draw or gave them feedback, but their understanding was not perfect,” said Ahn. “We didn’t have any arguments or discussions about the paintings. They would usually say ‘Thank you’ or just not listen.”
Among the student paintings, Ahn said that Gye In-ho’s paintings stand out.
“Gye draws ‘micro paintings,’” said Ahn. “His paintings are so small and detailed that you can only see them with a magnifying glass and he always draws with the same black pen. Only autistic children can draw something like this since they are able to concentrate really well on something they are interested in.”
There were some moments when Ahn was at a loss as to how to guide the process.
“They are innocent and very frank,” said Ahn. “So they do what they want to do, like playing in the toilet with their, you know [poop]. Then they wanted to hold my hand.”
In addition to the student work, the exhibition also features paintings by Ahn depicting the six students as owls in flight. Each owl has its own distinct features, based on the characteristics of each student.
“I love drawing owls because they have big, clear eyes and cute, yet poker faces,” said Ahn. “So I depicted the students as owls. For example, the owl in the center with the trumpet is Seung-hoon because he welcomed me with a trumpet performance when I first met him.”
Owls are a familiar subject for Ahn. He first started drawing owls for an exhibition in 2006 titled “Owls in Cities.” The aim of the exhibition, Ahn said, was to make people aware of the fact that humans seek comfort from nature while simultaneously destroying it.
His recent work has featured drawings of owls in different settings - coffee cups, flowers or paper boats, to name a few.
“People seem to love seeing owls,” Ahn said. “I like drawing owls too. With owls, I can talk about any theme from protecting the environment to criticizing the government, but it’s like a fable. I love drawing things that can make people smile even for 0.1 seconds, since that indicates I am communicating with my viewers.”
Through the current exhibition, Ahn has once again made viewers smile while also bringing new practitioners to art. The students, excited by the positive responses to their work, are eager to draw more pictures.
The Seoul show is just one of three stops the exhibition will make, and the exhibition theme will change depending on the gallery. The first “Jump Up” exhibition, titled “The Biggest Tree in the World” and held in Busan earlier this month, featured a large tree mounted along one wall of the gallery with the artwork hanging from its branches. After it closes in Seoul, the exhibition will travel to Jeonju, where the title will be “Dreaming House.”
“Contributing to society through my art is fun for me,” Ahn said. “I hope I can provide people with disabilities with more opportunities to ‘jump up’ in the future.”
*“Jump Up” will run through Aug. 9 at Gallery CoLA in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays. Admission is free. Go to Apgujeong Station, line No. 3, exit 5. Call 070-4235-6483 or visit www.gallerycola.com.
By Yang Su-bin Contributing writer [firstname.lastname@example.org]