Catherine and Peter Park bringing Korean art, culture, and history to OAC this month

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OWATONNA — Y. Catherine Park and her husband, H. Peter Park, are bringing Korean culture and history to town with their exhibition this month at the Owatonna Arts Center.

They’ll both be on hand from 1-5 p.m. Sunday for a reception to discuss Korea, their art, and their own personal stories. Peter will also provide a calligraphy demonstration.

In addition to the calligraphy, this month’s exhibition features masks, watercolors, and Asian brush paintings on rice paper. Through the various works of art, the couple tells a tale of Korea, Taoism, and regional history.

“We developed our own culture, food, and clothes over 4,000 years,” Catherine said.

For example, dancing groups and artists would travel from village to village throughout history, and by donning masks, they could speak the truth to the public, “expressing our feelings.”

As Oscar Wilde famously noted, “Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Park’s masks, many of which are “wood-fired,” — a “very expressive” method — depict various characters, including a neglected wife, an unhappy servant, and “a figure of hope,” she said. “We have to have hope.”

As opposed to the 26-letter alphabet of English, where letters are used principally to form words, every one of the 50,000 characters available to Peter for his calligraphy has “deep, philosophical meaning,” he said. The letters can also be formed in the standard way or the artistic way, the latter of which “has feeling and power.”

“Dragon,” which is on display at the OAC, “is a very popular” character, especially in America, he said. That dragon symbolizes power and strength, and it’s often used on uniforms or for tattoos.

Korea was ruled by Japan until the end of World War II in 1945, then split into north and south regions — each with a different government — as a product of the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union. In 1950, Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of North Korea’s current dictator Kim Jong-un, invaded the southern portion of the country with encouragement from China and the Soviet Union, leading to the Korean War from 1950-1953.

At one point, the autocratic leader controlled all of Korea except a couple cities and provinces in the southern section, but General Douglas MacArthur rolled in with American military might, liberating the south. He was later relieved of his command by President Harry Truman, and the war devolved into a stalemate eventually resulting in an armistice that divided the countries with a demilitarized zone along the 38th parallel.

Catherine lived in one of the cities that avoided North Korea’s clutches — although she often went to bed to the sound of artillery — but Peter resided in Seoul, which was captured by North Korean forces and actually changed hands several times during the war.

Only 12 or 13 at the time, “we were under communist control,” a miserable experience “like living in a prison,” he said. He was Catholic and had attended Mass with his family, but the communist regime ended church services.

Freedom of speech was non-existent, as was freedom to assemble, he said. “You could not get together with more than five people.”

People needed special passes to leave the city, and “there was no food,” he said. “We were starving to death.”

Many males were captured, conscripted, and sent to the front lines of the war to die, which would likely have happened to Park had he been “a year older,” he said. Many hid in basements to avoid detection, finally able to exit their bunkers when American forces reclaimed the city and leading to residents “crying in appreciation.”

Catherine hopes visitors to this exhibit understand the depths of North Korea’s depravity juxtaposed with the beauty and charm of South Korea.

North Korea’s three despots, Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-Il, and Kim Jong-un, have all been “awful,” she said. Their only interest is “in keeping power, and they don’t recognize any human rights.”

South Korea possesses “so much history and culture,” she said. “We have colorful outfits, we dance, and we know how to enjoy life.”

Catherine wore one of those outfits at the OAC earlier this week, a hand-painted garment with flowers representing Korea’s four seasons, she purchased on a visit there in 1977, she said. “I said, ‘I don’t care how much it is, I’m getting it.’”

Part of enjoying life is subscribing to Taoism, living in harmony with the “Way,” she said. A “philosophy,” Taoism “is like meditation.”

That inner peace is exemplified by her “Serenity” paintings on display at the OAC, she added. “We have to go into our own minds […] and observe why we’re not happy.”

“You cannot just ‘do’ art,” said Catherine, who has also been a yoga practitioner for decades. “You have to get inspired.”

Both Catherine and Peter emphasized how incredibly thankful they are to the United States for saving the country from North Korean communism and have spent their lives “giving back” however possible. In fact, Catherine “wanted to come to America because (the U.S.) helped us” during the Korean War.

Growing up, women were treated as “second-class citizens,” relegated only to being dutiful wives and doting mothers, but Park hoped for more, so she came to the U.S. in 1966 on an internship, she said. “I wanted to be a woman in charge.”

The oldest of eight children, Peter was able to pass the required exams to head to America to study following his year of mandatory military experience in the 1950s. He enrolled at Iowa State University and later achieved his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin.

The exhibition runs through Nov. 26. Gallery hours are 1-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.