Korean folk art a bold display of culture and heritage


The grand imagination of a child and the bold, brilliant colors of the rainbow mark the work of Man-Hee Kim, a contemporary Korean painter with traditional flair.

His tigers grin with big fangs, large eyes and red lips. His blue magpies speak with purple beaks and his trees wear fan-shaped leaves.

Kim, 60, paints with vivid colors and larger-than-life images of animals and fish. He's a minhwa painter -- min for folk, and hwa for painting -- who is preserving traditional Korean art as industrialization sweeps his country.

"His work is just fantastic," said Bob Schingeck, president of Ming's Asian Gallery in Towson. "A big problem is getting the next generation interested in passing on the heritage. He preserves the culture and heritage of Korean people through art."

About 40 of Kim's paintings will be on display today through Oct. 6 at the gallery, which opened five weeks ago. The gallery is among a handful in Maryland that specializes in fine Asian art, antiques and furniture.

Kim, who lives in Korea, imitates the works of artists of the 19th century, the later period of the Yi dynasty. Folk artists at that time were not controlled by the government, allowing them to freely express themselves in bright, shocking colors.

"His paintings have simplicity in design," said Schingeck. "It just goes to prove that there are many things that will stand the test of time."

Korean folk painting is marked by the use of vivid colors and the 10 symbols -- including peaches, cranes, pine trees, deer and turtles -- that symbolize longevity. It's contrasted against Korea's "sophisticated art," which is targeted for the educated and the upper-class, according to Ock-Kyung Lee, an Asian art specialist who teaches at Towson State University. Unlike folk art, sophisticated art is marked by neutral, subdued colors and idyllic scenes of mountains and countrysides.

Religion and art from China and Japan inspired Korean folk art. Kim's style, according to Lee, reflects a combination of Taoism, the belief in harmony with nature, and Shamanism, which dictates that every object in the natural world -- from rocks to animals to mountains -- has a soul.

Korean artists used to wander the countryside to paint murals, the images of tigers and other animals, onto walls in homes. But as the country began to industrialize and families earned more disposable income, they moved into bigger dwellings and left the decorations behind, Lee said.

Today, tigers decorate the doors of many Korean homes and are fashioned on everything from paintings to sculptures to wood carvings. Kim's tigers, smiling and friendly, ward off evil spirits in accordance with Korean tradition. His paintings of birds -- magpies, in particular -- and flowers reflect the hope for a happy marriage. His paintings of carps in vibrant water signify luck.

Korean folk painting is seeing a resurgence in popularity among Japanese investors and Koreans with extra money to spend, driving the prices up, said Lee. The price of Kim's work on display here ranges from $900 to $2,500.

Kim's work has also been on display in Europe and Asia, most recently in Japan. He's the president of the Korean Traditional Art Association. Although he never received formal art education, he learned his art in travels throughout Korea.

Ming's Asian Gallery, 730 Dulaney Valley Road in Towson, is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Call 828-8889.

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