First lady Yumi Hogan uses her art, experiences to reach out

Maryland's first lady, Yumi Hogan, throws out baseballs, hosts dignitaries

She was graceful and engaging while entertaining the politicians from South Korea, gliding from one conversation to another and sharing warm words of welcome. She gave a speech that drew applause.

But Yumi Hogan blushed from time to time during the reception at the governor's mansion, appearing a little uncomfortable at the flattery that often came her way.

She's the first lady of Maryland, but the Korean-born Hogan invariably describes herself in a decidedly personal way — as a first-generation immigrant, a former single mother of three, an "artist first and a political person second."

"I enjoy hearing the voices of people from all over the state and learning about their lives," she says. "I see a first lady's role as being almost like a mother."

Hogan, 55, the wife of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, has spent her first months in Annapolis turning the elements of a nonpolitical past into strengths.

Her principal goals, she says, are to spotlight and connect with ethnic communities, to use art as a means of promoting social causes and to reach out to single mothers.

Observers on both sides of the political aisle say she is doing that, usually in a gently insistent manner.

"She can't make policy, of course, but she can create sensitivity around issues that are important to Marylanders, and she has done that with effectiveness and grace," says state Sen. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat and the first Asian-American elected to the Maryland Senate.

Hogan's background is different from that of recent first ladies. Kendel Ehrlich and Katie O'Malley, her immediate predecessors, are an ex-prosecutor and a judge, respectively.

Hogan, a specialist in traditional Sumi ink painting, is an adjunct professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art. She incorporates those talents into her new role.

She has judged art competitions, presented awards to student artists and accepted a position as honorary chair of the Council of Arts & Culture at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She plans to exhibit her work as part of the New Day Campaign, a series of exhibitions and events planned for the fall by local artist Peter Bruun, whose daughter, Elisif, died of a drug overdose last year.

The goal of the campaign, Bruun says, is to use art to "challenge stigma associated with behavioral health conditions," including depression, alcoholism and heroin addiction.

Hogan is excited to take part.

"Art has the power to heal," she says.

She brings a similar belief to her work at Sarah's House, a nonprofit in Anne Arundel County that helps homeless adults and their children.

Hogan has offered art instruction to children at the facility, raised thousands of dollars for it and spent hours listening to residents' stories of living homeless, in many cases raising children in a single-parent environment.

After a first marriage failed in the early 1980s, Hogan spent nearly 20 years raising three girls by herself, working as a restaurant cashier and tutor to support them. She married the future governor in 2004.

"She struggled to make sure her daughters were well taken care of, and that comes across in this way she has about her," says Kathryn Phillben, director of Sarah's House. "You can tell she's a teacher. Her interaction with the kids is delightful. They hang onto her physically, covering her with hugs. They want and need attention, and she gives it to them."

Over one weekend in February, she was hostess at a Black History Month celebration and an Asian New Year gala, entertaining close to 500 people in all.

Lee said she appreciated the way Hogan personified Asian tradition by sporting a traditional, brightly colored Korean silk dress and serving her own kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage dish Koreans consider a cultural staple.

But the weekend, Lee said, made a larger point.

"Maryland ... is a very diverse state, and Asian-Americans are just one of the fast-growing ethnic groups. [Hogan's presence] promotes not just the mainstream, but all cultures, and that's appropriate in this day and age."

In early May, Hogan organized an Annapolis screening of "Ode to My Father," a Korean blockbuster that retells the history of that nation from the bloody Korean War through its more prosperous present.

The evening resonated beyond the 200 Korean and American veterans of that war who attended.

"It moved many people that [Mrs. Hogan] did this; it was moving to me," said Moo Sung Kim, the head of South Korea's Saenuri Party and a likely presidential candidate next year.

Later in May, Hogan served as unofficial ambassador and guide on the Hogan administration's trade mission to China, appeared with her husband at a celebration of Korean War veterans and met with Korean-American business owners in the aftermath of the April rioting in Baltimore.

Peter Hwang, the executive director of the Korea Society of Maryland, says the first lady "was very proactive" in making sure the merchants — many of whom, he says, feel removed from government — understood the resources available to them as they sought to recover.

Hogan helped lead meetings that included officials of the Maryland Insurance Commission and the Department of Business and Economic Development, serving as go-between where cultural and language gaps arose.

"When you have a large minority community that feels disengaged, that kind of effort brings hope," Hwang says.

Journalists for Korean-language newspapers say Hogan is a kind of rock star among readers. Ki Chan Park, a reporter and editor with the Korea Times, says "her driving effort and determination" have "touched hearts" in the Korean community across America and overseas.

According to her office, the first lady has altered her public schedule since her husband was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma only on the days the governor receives his treatments, because she always accompanies him to those appointments.

When chefs around the state created dishes at a cookout showcasing Maryland-grown produce, Hogan served up pork bulgogi, a Korean barbecue dish, using meat and vegetables raised in the state.

Last month, Hogan donned an Orioles jersey while visiting the members of a South Korean youth team at the Cal Ripken World Series, throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before a game. (It was a strike.) She also hosted a delegation of Korean legislators at Government House, an event aimed at strengthening business ties between Maryland and her native land.

She's proud to be the state's first Korean-American first lady, she told the guests, not because of who she is but because of the generations of Asian-Americans who came before her, achieving so much with so little fanfare.

"There's a saying: 'In order for you to know who you are, you must remember where you came from,'" Hogan said, and the room burst into applause.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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