Tae Park | Poignant Beauty

MON AMI, OIL, 18 X 25
18 X 25

By Gussie Fauntleroy

We glimpse a row of boys, good friends in easy conversation, shoulder to shoulder on a bench. Or a couple in love, standing close together on a snowy bridge, enfolded in a shared dream. We know these moments won’t last. The boys will grow up and go their separate ways; the couple’s dream will fade or change.

But for painter Tae Park, these instants of ephemeral, tender beauty don’t have to end. “Painting is a doorway to another world, a gateway to another reality,” explains the award-winning artist, a native of South Korea whose
first name is pronounced “Tay.” “Painting is not only an illusion of three-dimensional space, but also a reflection of the world that exists within the artist, within me.”

Now living in San Francisco, Park has experienced many versions of reality over the years. As a child, her family moved frequently between various small towns and rural areas in South Korea as her schoolteacher father was transferred to different schools. None of the places she lived were all that far from the others, in a peninsular country that measures only about 150 miles across at its northern border. “But when I was small,” she laughs, “I thought it was big!”

The youngest of eight children, Park often spent time alone, walking or playing by herself in nature while her much older siblings were working. “When I look back, I remember green,” she relates. “I remember bushes, wildflowers, birds, green frogs. I think the natural light made me be an artist.”
On occasion she was confined to bed for long periods of poor health. During those times, one of the only activities she could engage in was reading—which she loved to do anyway. Most of the books available to her as a child in the 1960s and ’70s were translations of European children’s books, including Greek mythology and Aesop’s Fables. From these stories grew a young girl’s inclination for finding refuge in the quiet serenity within herself, which later translated into paintings of idealized moments of beauty and playful forest nymphs.

OIL, 36 X 24

Park’s father had a strong interest in drawing, but in a difficult economy and with a large family to support, he was unable to pursue his artistic talent. But he passed on his love of art to his youngest daughter, who remembers her father teaching her to draw a pine tree when she was 6 or 7 years old. In high school Park joined a small group of students in an after-school artists’ atelier, where her art education really began. From there she went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in painting from Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul. After earning her degree she remained in Seoul for a time, teaching drawing workshops and saving money for her move to the United States to continue her studies. “I felt like I wanted more foundation skills,” says Park, noting that while her drawing skills were strong, the art courses offered at Sungshin were short on oil painting technique. “A teacher recommended I go to Germany to study, but I wanted to come here.” In the late 1990s she moved to California to attend the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Until that time, Park’s painting focus was primarily on abstract art, rather than figurative.

Since earning a master’s of fine art at the Academy of Art University, Park has traveled extensively, with many of her painting trips taking her to Europe. She teaches painting part time at her alma mater when she’s in San Francisco, where she lives a short walk from her studio. “I have a really big window in my studio. It’s usually cloudy and foggy, and I love that light,” she observes. Northern California’s climate, she says, is perfect for the moody, atmospheric quality she often conveys in her work.

It’s a feeling she seeks out and finds elsewhere as well. She is especially drawn to fall and winter scenes in places like Paris or Prague, and many of her cityscapes feature figures standing or waking under umbrellas in the rain. One way Park infuses her paintings with feeling is by immersing herself in music that reinforces a particular state of mind as she works. Often the music playing in her studio is instrumental, and she frequently replays the same song until a painting is done. “I choose a canvas size and a mood, but most important, I choose music that has a very similar mood to the painting,” she explains. “My friends think I’m crazy because I play the same song all day, sometimes for weeks!”

The sad, sweet guitar strains of John Williams’ Cavatina, from the soundtrack for the movie The Deer Hunter, provided the background for a painting of a young woman named Nora, shown leaning thoughtfully on a windowsill in a venerable Paris bookstore. The artist met Nora, a writer and traveler, at the bookstore while on a painting trip to Paris. The literary connection gained an added twist when Park realized the young woman reminded her of the character of Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. “She’s a strong character, and I feel that what she learned about life is that it’s sad but also beautiful,” the artist muses. “Life is both light and shadow.”

Likewise, MON AMI (which Park also painted to Cavatina) contrasts dark and light in an image of friends sitting together on a bench. Seen from the back, the young men are highlighted against a background of deep shade. The shadows are a metaphor for the unknown into which the friends soon will step, Park points out. “We don’t know, 10 years from now, where they will be. But at the moment there is friendship, and their hearts are innocent and beautiful, dreaming about the future.”

While Park is especially known for the soft-focus beauty of her paintings of young women in quiet, reflective moments, another of her favorite subjects has more of a mythical, fairy-tale feel. Wood nymphs, both female and male, wear garlands of flowers and often seem to be studying their forest world with a quizzical, curious gaze. “I love the subject because nymphs have to be in nature, so I have to paint the landscape,” Park declares with a smile. In the same vein, she sometimes includes a still life in the background of a figurative work.

Figurative painting also provides Park with the opportunity to incorporate elements of abstraction—splashes of color and shape on a rain-soaked street, for example—within a representational style. “If you know the foundation, you can break the structures of the subject, and that is abstract. It’s
very interesting how that works,” she notes, and then adds, “At some point I may go back to abstract painting, but not anytime soon.”

For now, Park finds people far too interesting. Wherever she goes, her eyes are open to the infinitely changing possibilities expressed in the human form and face. When she glimpses potential models in her adopted city of San Francisco, she may approach them and offer her card so they can contact her. When traveling, she takes photos and makes sketches of people and later incorporates them into a painting. And she still finds inspiration in reading. “Books give me a lot of ideas because I can imagine the scenes. I love poetry and novels. So I sketch scenes and then I look for a model,” she relates. “When I set up a pose, I compose everything. I try to capture in that moment what
I want to see.”

For Park that means halting time to portray an instant of often-poignant loveliness within the human experience. “Humans are the same everywhere, and they’re always beautiful, even when they are sad or angry. That’s why I love painting people,” she explains. “A person’s map is on their face. I can see all the directions.”

To expand the atmospheric and emotional element in her work, Park envisions someday painting moonlit scenes. One of the artists who inspires her most—along with the old masters—is 19th-century painter John Atkinson Grimshaw, whose moonlight paintings have a hauntingly ethereal feel. “It’s just beautiful,” she says of Grimshaw’s art. “I love moonlight. I haven’t tried painting it yet, but I want to. There are a lot of things I want to do,” she continues. “To me a painting is like a matrix. You can use your skills and after you reach a certain point—there’s another door. It’s never ending. I really love that I’m an artist.”

She is represented by Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; New Masters Gallery, Carmel, CA; Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Addison Gallery, Boca Raton, FL; www.taefineart.com.

Featured in November 2008