Ms Lee SeungMi: Building a Haven for Artists in southern South Korea

August 9, 2015 • Asia, Chuck Travellers, Culture, Featured • Views: 1035

Words and Pictures By: Maria Iotova


It started with a conversation.

Are you Maria? I want to learn Art English.

Yes, I am. Nice to meet you. Well, my father was an artist, and I am proficient in English. I believe that we can start tomorrow.

Ms Lee SeungMi is not one of my strong students – she never does homework and always answers the phone in the middle of our lesson. But she is willing to make a change in her life, and if there was one thing you could identify about Ms Lee, it is her way to open horizons and doors of opportunity – to shock people and shift the society they come from.

Haenam-gun in Jeolla Province in South Korea is an 80,000-citizen-county. I estimate that my husband and I amount to the 20% of foreigners downtown, and he alone covers the 100% of coloured people.

The locals grow rice, onions and cucumbers, own independent coffee shops below vast mountains, which nest the most respected South Korean Buddhist temples, or if more wealthy, they cultivate their own green tea plantations and sell the produce at a premium.

Ttangkkeut 2

In November 2014, Ms Lee introduced to Haenam County the Artist as the next door neighbour, through a project that establishes creative spaces for artists and for citizen’s enjoyment of culture.

It’s one of those things that Ms Lee doesn’t mean to brag about, but she totally means to brag: “The artists are sensitive people who need support and peace in order to create,” she said.

“They also need change of environment – sometimes leaving the city is a necessity for inspiration. Or they simply need some company of like-minded people. This is part of what our Imado Residence for artists is about.”

The Imado Residence can host up to 10 artists at the same time, and the more they vary in nationality, age and background, the more interesting the result is. Lonely artists go fishing, write or think while extroverts collaborate and discuss. But they all enjoy their time in Imado and recognise the changes in their work thanks to the new routine and surroundings they find themselves in.

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My biggest concern when I moved to Haenam-up in April was the luck of cultural life in this rural area, so far away from the beat of Seoul. However, meeting Ms Lee, under the awkward circumstance of being her teacher, has taught me to be more of an explorer – there is always someone somewhere who is doing something worth discovering.

Ms Lee has energised and intrigued Haenam’s populace, who see flocks of artists arriving to their area, and they start to wonder why.

Contemporary artists are interested in Haenam because of the region’s art history: The Mihwangsa and Deheungsa Temples in Haenam are home to paintings, sculptures and tombs from 400 years ago.

Daeheungsa Temple

If you happen to visit the area in October, attend the Scroll Painting Festival at Mihwangsa Temple. Among other events there is the annual public unveiling of a 20-metre-high painting of Buddha.

From my personal experience as a stranger in Haenam, I would say that the artists choose the Imado Residence also for the area’s rich and serene nature, the palatable food, and for the people who in their great simplicity carry passion in their hearts for what they do and for the land they live on.

At the moment a two-month art activities course is in full swing. Ms Lee is curating 40 artists from South Korea, and they will all be part of the Pun You Namdo Art Project. Their creations – including short films and photographs – are about the county of Haenam in terms of its natural beauty and lifestyle.

Ms Lee with her student at Mokpo University

The events will be taking place from the 30th of July until the 30th of September. My husband and I are the protagonists of a documentary, which captures the story of a foreign English teacher and his wife in Haenam: what brought them to this small and remote place? How do they cope with the customs and the working conditions? What is that they love about Haenam?

Haenam’s cultural activity doesn’t begin and end with adults. In March 2015, Ms Lee started an art programme for children from 6 to 17 years old.

“This is my favourite job because kids play with art,” she explained.

“There is no reason behind what they do and no duty – they develop their creativity. All children are clever and shiny.”

“As a young artist and later on a curator, I was learning about Western Art only, so one day I felt that I didn’t know about my culture” Ms Lee said.

Thus, from an ardent devotee of abstract art, she has developed the eyes for oriental painting and traditional Korean art, and invites all of Haenam people to join her in this journey of self-discovery.

My husband’s and my social life in Haenam-up winds about BookCafe – a family-run café-bar that could be your local library, living room or backyard depending on the mood you are in and the people who happen to sit around. I have just finished my lesson with Ms Lee and I am taking a look around at the books, the photographs and the black ink paintings.

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The music plays smooth jazz and two Buddhist monks come in for a pot of hot green tea. And let me tell you that this is a very artistic image, as painted by everyday life in Haenam. I am just grateful to my Father who all these years has trained my eyes and emotions to be able to recognise it.

This is what Ms Lee is for Haenam’s people – the Artist Father in their homes.

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