It takes a brilliant mind to devise art games that not only get at what might be ailing a child’s emotional life, but also help start the cure all in 40-minutes time. Say hello to Joo Hong, artist, art therapist, children’s book writer, and developer of “Music Sand Animation,” and “Colorful Mind,” art projects that teach children so much about how to feel better.
The projects are taking place at the Gwangju Suchang Elementary School which is two bus stops out Geumnamro, on your right, past the NH building and old Citibank, and the famous “Merrill Lynch looking” bull-statue intersection. When you get to the bull, keep going straight halfway down a very long block, and you will see a yellow banner hanging over the middle school gate with obligatory sand playing field. It’s at Geumnamro 99, Bukgu, Gwangju (500-050), if that helps.
Foreigners are encouraged to attend with their children who will delight in making animation in lit-up sand boxes, then turn to making pictures on wooden blocks, while playing games that associate working together with success.
Joo Hong, who holds a Ph.D. in Art Therapy, performs her sand box animations live on stage, and can convert flowers to faces to seascapes and back into faces with smooth finger motions that qualify as performance art, but also make fairly detailed aboriginal pictures that, alas, must be captured by photo or video due to their lack of longevity.
She completed five changing images (a large stemmed flower, a Picasso-esque cubist face, a profile of a mother holding a flower, and a full-box a rosebud, which was finally changed into a birthday cake) while chatting about how working with sand brings to life children’s inner selves via tactile stimulation and creativity at the same time.
“The lit sand boxes are 16 by 28 inches, and the animation process is captured on video. This makes the process as important as the finished product,” Joo Hong said. “Children learn to draw better when they are having fun with it, and the sand allows that.”
The projects are running on a split shift from June 22nd to August 8, and again from August 31 to September 12. The “classes” are 40 minutes long and start from 10am to 1pm.
“Over 5,000 children are slated to take place in these sessions. I’ve done many performances on stage, but this is the first time I have worked with children in a room with multiple boxes,” Joo Hong said, as she led us into the dark, but air-conditioned, bench-lined room. Of course, working in darkness with the images lit from below only adds to the fun for the children.
Throughout the time, music is playing, which is a soothing yet stimulating influence, thus touch, site, hearing and even smell (the sand smelled delicious) come into play as the children work exuberantly on their art.
“Colorful Mind” uses sound as rhythm, as the students clap the 3 x 5 inch wooden “dominoes” together before starting their projects.
“The class starts with children picking out a color they love from yellow, red, orange, purple, blue or green. They use two of these to make rhythms, any rhythm they want, which fills the room with a cacophony. We then stop and clap a rhythm together. We then draw a picture of something in the world that is similar to the individual artists on one side of the blocks, and then write on the other side. “
In order to raise the comfort level of first-time artists, she has the students use triangles, squares and circles as beginning points.
“These basic forms are easy to make, and the children are not scared to use the forms to draw people or houses or anything else. When the art is finished, we line up the blocks like dominoes, and learn that if one member falls, the whole class goes down,” Joo Hong explained, as she lined up 10 blocks and knocked them over, playfully. “We are not alone in the world, we are all connected.”
She has worked with brain damaged people and those facing other challenges to help them relieve stress via art in many settings. In this class she is able to detect personality traits via the colors chosen, character and subject-matter choices, and what is written on the back of the blocks. This can translate into immediate relief during the class for the students, and is an educational tool for their parents.
“Art therapy is a growing field here, but is already well-established elsewhere,” Joo Hong said. “We use a rainbow of color blocks here, and that represents the variety of people in the world. We should work to change ourselves, rather than others, and learn to accept a wide variety of people who may have experienced a completely different life than our own.”
After the students have written their sentence about their miniature paintings, she asks them about what they think, and puts the blocks on shelves to show them that their work is a “window on the world.”
“One child drew a giraffe waiting for friends, then the child was able to talk about having no friends herself. Anyone has their own creative world within. This project can help children find that, which can be a healing process for those who need it,” Joo Hong elaborated. “Modern art is a wide field, and we should have a colorful mind to accept all types of art.”
Though an accomplished artist, Joo Hong is equally dedicated to helping everyone in her community.
“This is a trial project, but we can trust the function, and created this project for international families in which the mother is not Korean,” she added. “So the children can communicate with their mothers, who may not speak Korean well yet, via the art, and the mothers can learn some Korean at the same time.”
It seems natural that if the project is helping non-Korean mothers who live in Korea, it could also be instructive to non-Korean “alien” fathers who want to know more about what is going on in their children’s minds. She encourages parents to also solve their own problems by doing art with their children. “A Mongolian woman drew a green “Cinderella” with her child, and a Filipina lady drew a beautiful Hanbuk,” Joo Hong said.
“In 2014 the “Children’s Cultural Center” will be one program in the Asian Cultural Center,” Joo Hong said, as she looked forward to a time when self discovery could be a part of every visitor’s day in Gwangju.
Her own work is not-surprisingly playful, and upon first glance at Mudol Art (a downstairs gallery toward the “far end” of Art Street) I exclaimed “wow Miro,” only to find out that one of her children’s books is called “Mi-Ro, a Kitty.” The other is called, “An Old Worn-Out Bicycle,” and both have corresponding “junk art” covers. Gwangju, of course, is a haven for those making art from things being thrown out on the side of the road.
She also makes small blank page books with a character called “Papillion” (butterfly in French) and donates them to children suffering difficult medical problems. Her paintings, like Miro and Picasso, attempt to paint with a child’s fresh perspective.
Her three main series are faces, dances and kisses. Note the cubist aspect of “Pattern Kiss 41,” and familiar-yet-unique stick figures in works like “The Dance,” and her face series.
“When I was young I made lots of drawing in books in class, eventually my teachers suggested I look into art,” she said with a smile. “Life is a dance, so I try to make art with the freedom employed when dancing. I have meditated since 2001 and this has freed my mind to make art that is more free.”
As a tip for new residents, Joo Hong suggested that you can get a feel for the history of the importance of art in Gwangju by getting to know living artists.
“From 1980 until now the number of artists in Gwangju has grown immensely. Artists in Gwangju have had a particular passion for their work throughout history, but the best way to know that history is to talk to living artists, maybe older ones, who have had the traditions passed on form other masters. Gwangju needs more ways to connect artists, who work alone, but need the network. Perhaps the Asian Cultural Center will be a place where this can happen,” Joo Hong said with a hopeful tone.