ABOUT SUK JA

I first met Kang Suk Ja in the spring of 1988, in Seoul, South Korea. I was teaching conversational English, and she was working as a newspaper reporter. South Koreans in general seemed to feel very self-conscious that year, and rather nervous. In just a few months, their nation would be hosting the summer Olympics. Koreans had been working hard toward international recognition as a country that had clearly transcended "developing nation" status (it's currently the globe's thirteenth largest economy), but the only information the rest of the world seemed to hear and see from Korea took the form of anti-American demonstrations, which sometimes flared up on college campuses. Heat-seeking cameras caught occasional images of raised fists and shouting faces, tear-gas clouds and fleeing youth, but Western reporters rarely mentioned how confined the supposed "riots" were (the students were not allowed to take their "demos" to the streets), nor how ritualized and nearly normal much of the agitation was (Korean student protest has a long and noble history).

So, aside from the reckless, careening drivers, Seoul wasn't an especially dangerous place, and the larger current events had little direct effect on our lives. I was more concerned with having been suckered into a year-long contract with a profit-driven language institute, whose manager insisted that I work almost continuously from seven in the morning to ten at night, and Suk Ja was almost as busy with her work. We found time here and there to get to know each other, and a year or so later found us in her parents' backyard, dressed in traditional robes, bowing to each other and carefully avoiding eye contact. Over four hundred relatives, friends, and neighbors had gathered and were now pressing us into a tiny circle as they tried to see the spectacle, two people performing a nearly forgotten wedding ritual, and one of them an American!

We did not disappoint them. As the choppy videotape produced by a local wedding photographer now attests, the crowd exploded every minute or so with loud (but generous) laughter, as we bumbled our way through an elaborate, mostly incomprehensible ritual. Oddly enough, nobody had explained anything about the ceremony to us beforehand. Adding to the confusion were six or seven guests who began arguing about whether we were performing various steps correctly, or what the next steps should be. The bride and groom had each been appointed two handlers, who did what they could to indicate that our duties included pouring wine, drinking it at some points and tossing it out at others, bowing this way, bowing that way, looking here then looking there (but again, never at each other), and then receiving a wooden duck from the bride's father as he passed it from the folds of his robe to ours. We still have little idea whether we did much of anything right. In particular, thanks to my especially clumsy efforts, Suk Ja flat-out failed to follow the admonition that the bride must maintain her composure throughout the ceremony. At several points she smiled, clearly sharing the crowd's finger-pointing delight, a crime for which the punishment, according to folk custom, would be the birth of a daughter in place of a son.

We escaped as quickly as we could for a romantic tour around the country by car and train, and then by plane a few months later to America. Forces steered us toward the University of Georgia, which we both attended. Photography and drawing courses soon revealed Suk Ja's obvious, incredible talent for the visual arts. Sincere acclaim rapidly multiplied, as her drawings and paintings went from local coffee shops and restaurants to galleries in Atlanta, Florida, Idaho, Chicago, New York, and Seoul (and now a museum, in nearby Peoria). Painting has been her favored medium, though she's also produced sculpture, "installations," shadow boxes, public murals, performance pieces, and video works. Suk Ja continues to branch out in her current positions as a graduate student and a teacher, in the University of Illinois MFA painting program. Her energy level, a radiating life force, seems endless. She's already produced more "bodies of work" than some artists produce in a lifetime. —Tim Engles

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