A few months ago, Mom told me she finally got rid of Dad’s old books.
Well, given the way I reacted – with horror and crushing disappointment – she fished them out of the recycling bin and gave them to me.
I flip through Dad’s gorgeous art books time to time, hoping to learn a bit more about him. I slide the open palm of my hand across the glossy pages of his art books, wondering about the man who looked to these books for inspiration.
Dad was born in 1949 in South Korea. He is the fourth child among seven. His father died in a ferry accident when he was young. Despite his mother’s hard work, they grew up poor, and Dad bounced from one relative’s house to another. Mom tells me that when he was a young man living with his married elder sister, there was a famous artist who was interested in teaching him. But the family could not afford to support such an opportunity. So, that was the end of his artistic aspirations.
My family immigrated to the United States in 1989, when Dad was 40 years old. For over ten years, all he did was work. Long 12+ hour work days. In his fifties, he decided to paint again. No training. No classes. At home, he claimed a small space near the sliding doors for natural light. His art stuff spilled into the dining area: paint, canvases, multiple easels, finished and unfinished paintings on the wall, sketches, and stacks of art magazines and books. After long work days, he would spend evenings and late nights painting. He wanted to travel, to see things with his own eyes so that he could paint them. Later on, he even bought a fancy camera. But traveling was not a luxury he could afford. So usually he turned to magazines and art books to find his muse.
Many times, I would come out of my room in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom or to get a drink of water and catch glimpses of him, sitting in the dark except for the lamp shining on his canvas. A glass of scotch in his hand. Neat.
This is the image of Dad I cling to. From that man sitting in the dark, I learned what it means to have passion, to have creativity inside you that needs expression. And this is the image that I recall when I read birthday cards and letters he wrote to me – always encouraging me to live a full life, to live a life without regret, to live this one life with everything I’ve got. He was also a bit of a poet – and his cards and letters were never ordinary. They were written in beautiful handwriting, always with a flair of poetry.
On my 19th birthday, he warned me that there’s nothing sadder than existing neither here nor there, in a state neither this nor that. He told me to make decisions carefully and to act upon them with passion. He reminded me, “Your life is all yours. All of it.”
Dad himself found inspiration in Claude Monet. And the art books reflect this inspiration: Monet and the Mediterranean, Monet’s Giverny, The Garden of Claude Monet, and simply Claude Monet. He didn’t paint in the style of impressionism. Nonetheless, now I can see the resemblance in the brush strokes and of course his love of painting nature. Like Monet – or perhaps because of Monet – he was interested in painting waterlilies. Later on, he became very focused on painting water falling over rocks. He said it was challenging – getting the strokes just right to represent the motion of water falling over the hardness of rocks.
I wish I had taken the time to ask him more about his art. I wish I had asked him, What makes you paint? Why water lilies? Why waterfalls? Why Monet? Are you happy? If you could do it all over again, what would you do?
These are questions that these beautiful art books do not answer for me. They are not telling me as much as I want to know. Still, I turn to them, as if a response will emerge and I will know a bit more about the man who was and always will be my inspiration to live a life of passion, compassion, faith, love, and optimism.