How I Discovered Korean Artist Mokwon Hur Whie (and Wish I Knew of Him Sooner)

I knew nothing about Korean art before going to Korea. At one point, I was well-versed in some areas of Japanese art, familiar with masters like Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, and even contemporary artists like Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, and Chiho Aoshima.

But I don’t think I knew even a single Korean artist.

Japanese Art in Korea

Yoshitomo Nara in the Gwangbok Lotte Department store

Seeking Out Art in South Korea

Once I got to Korea, I didn’t start seeking out art until one semester had passed. I visited the Busan Museum of Art (BMA) with high hopes and was disappointed.

None of the art stood out to me, although I saved the museum brochures in the hopes that I might get inspired by them later. Fortunately, the next set of exhibits at the BMA renewed my hope with some really beautiful artwork.

Madame Curie, a video installation by Jennifer Steinkamp stood out as the clear favorite on my second visit, but I also marveled over the precision of Lee Jean Ey/이진이 (Age-7624, oil on canvas, 2013) and the severity of Hwa Jai-Hyoung/황재형 (below).

(The romanization of these names might feel awkward to those who can read Korean. It feels awkward to me. But I stuck with the spellings given by the museum, hoping that these are the spellings the artists prefer.)

Hwa Jai-Hyoung 길고 긴 잠 / A Long- lasting Sleep, 80.3x116cm, Oil on Canvas, 1999~2007

I learned peripherally about Korean art movements, through whatever information was available through the museum’s English brochures.


Art in Surprising Places

It turns out Korea has art in a lot of places. Murals on restaurants and small businesses seem to be popular. Whenever there is major construction going on, the temporary walls built around the site are often decorated with public art.

I ran into the art of Mokwon Hur Whie when trying out a new cafe.


Exploring Korea, One Cafe at a Time

Living in a foreign country, I was always exploring new places. That month, I had been working on Nanowrimo – National Novel Writing Month – during which people take on the challenge of writing 50,000 words in one month. So I wasn’t doing as much sightseeing last November, but I was discovering cafes like nobody’s business.

That weekend’s new cafe was called Cafe Claire, a large well-lit space in Seomyeon, one of Busan’s popular hubs that has downtown-like feel.

Cafe Claire not only had your standard cafe fare but also made their own baked goods. And better yet, I was surprised to find that they had a third floor called the Somin Art Center. After finishing up my 1,667 words for the day, I made my way upstairs with carefully concealed excitement.


An Accidental Encounter with Mokwon Hur Whie

There was a cute patio outside and steep steps leading up to a barren looking space. A locked door to my right was supposed to be a theater space, and to the left, a gallery! I was there on the last day of this exhibit:


I stepped inside cautiously, where there was an older man and middle aged woman who welcomed me. One serious visitor stood observing a painting.


The walls were surprisingly colorful, some of them with multiple pieces of art stacked above and beside each other – a massive grid of lines and color. Upon examining a few pieces I quickly realized that all of the art here featured scenes of Busan, many of them places I visited regularly.


Bosu Book Alley;  Gukje (International) Market



Jagalchi Fish Market; Songdo Beach


To be honest, this was exactly the type of art that I’d been wanting to do while I was there: artwork capturing and memorializing scenes from my everyday life in Busan, Korea, scenes that to me, as a foreigner who has familial ties to this country, were made all the more exciting.

If I’m completely honest, I did have a moment of creative jealousy. Darn! My idea’s already been done!

But they were done so beautifully. I passed through the space, recalling memories of visiting my grandparents near Gamcheon culture village, delighting in the scenes of Yeongdo, where I commuted to work every day, and smiled at recollections of gathering with friends at Haeundae and Gwangalli beach.

Gamcheon Cultural Village



It turned out the old man manning the gallery was Mokwon Hur Whie himself! We chatted in my limited Korean and his limited English about his work. I only got that it was “Korean painting,” and being woefully ignorant about Korean art, didn’t really know what that entailed.

I received his business card, learning that he had a gallery in Gukje Market. He was selling books of his work, and I bought two, thinking that the scenes here would be as meaningful to my Korean mom as they were to me.

mokwon art book

It was quite the creatively satisfying day. I never did track down his gallery, located somewhere around Gukje Market, but I’m glad I brought of memento of his work home with me.

All of the images of Mokwon’s artwork were taken from his book, with the exception of one I took directly during this exhibit.

You can see more of his work on his Naver or Daum blogs, or even on his Facebook.

Art Abroad 2: Art Block Broken!

So my first year in Korea wasn’t very artistically productive. It was more of an art drought.

But my second year, I resolved, would be different! And generally it was, although my first few months started off not unlike my previous year. I’d recommitted to doing art, but like my first year in Korea, I was at a new school with a new homestay in a new city, and life was distracting.

Mostly, I was concerned about making a good impression on my new coworkers and students. The new city that didn’t cause me any concern though…because I was placed in BUSAN!


This was actually a dream come true. And yes, I know this is supposed to be about art, but you’ll have to bear with me while I rave about Busan first. So…

Dream. Come. True.

I’d wanted to be placed in Busan from the very beginning. Well, that’s not entirely true. At first I arrived in South Korea with no expectations, knowing that I wouldn’t get to choose my placement and it was pointless to set my heart on any particular place. That mindset didn’t last long. My peers had preferences all right, and were determined to get them. The more we talked about their preferences, the more I thought about mine, and the more appealing Busan became to me.

Why Busan?

I chose to teach English in Korea (not Japan or Malaysia or Taiwan) in part to meet my extended family. All of my mom’s family still lives in Korea, but I’d never been able to see them. And most of them lived in Busan, including my grandparents. Why wouldn’t I want to go to Busan? It was also my mom’s hometown and undoubtedly full of memories.

Plus, Busan was pretty popular. It’s the second largest city in Korea,meaning it has nearly all the conveniences of Seoul (Costco, western style restaurants), without the crowds and pollution (I’m biased – can you tell?). Busan is also a coastal city with seven beaches, multiple famous fish markets and general awesomeness.

So this year I was doing a lot of exploring and not a lot of art. But the thing about living in a beautiful place is that you can’t help but get inspired at some point. Remember when I turned down a coworker‘s suggestion to do landscape art? Well, that was before the ocean happened to me.


“I just wanna draw the ocean all day.”

Being from Colorado, I’ve always preferred mountains. This may have been influenced by the fact that I’d only been to the beach once in my life. Busan opened my eyes. Being constantly surrounded by the ocean – really though, my school was on an island – all I wanted to do was sit by the sea. My daily commute took me right along the shore, so I’d rush onto the bus everyday, hoping to get a seat on the right side of the bus, where I’d have a front row view. Sometimes I wished I didn’t have to get off and go to school.

I felt like I could just sit and watch the ocean for hours. I began to think “I just wanna draw the ocean all day.” So much for not doing landscapes.

But it was still hard to find time for art. A new school meant new students, new coworkers and new expectations, both in the office and the classroom. None of it was bad; it just took a lot of energy as I learned what worked and what didn’t. I never felt like going through the effort of pulling out paints and brushes, and then finding a spot where I wouldn’t be disturbed.

No art was created. Yet.


Ta-Da! Technology

I took the bus a lot in Busan which, unlike the subway, involves a lot of wait time. One day, during an especially long wait, I started playing around with a memo app on my phone, just as a way to practice color.

And hey, it was actually kind of fun. Even if my first effort was horrendously ugly.

Lanterns hung for Buddha’s birthday

I did another one of these mini digital paintings of the view from my office, this time not at the mercy of the bus’s arrival. It wasn’t so bad, although when I showed a coworker I made many excuses about how it was rough because I’d been using my finger to draw, but how it still wasn’t too bad right?


(Hint: Showing your artwork to a non-artist is almost always a confidence booster.)

And from that point on, I was addicted. Bam! Code cracked. Art block busted. Doing art was easy and fun again. I didn’t have to gather any supplies – all I needed was my phone, which never left my side anyway.

I feel silly that it took me this long to start making use of technology in my art.


Landscape Takeover

I know what you’re thinking now – or at least, what I was asking myself – didn’t you do any other art? Well yes, yes I did.

Keeping with my anti-landscape theme, I did physical landscape paintings as well. They were really small goodbye gifts to a few people before I left Korea.




And seeing as my family was a big highlight during my time in Korea, they got a few pages in my sketchbook.

Avid Reader, pastel, conte, and pen


Final Project

Of course I once again had to impose some big project on myself before the year ended. In my first year, I gave myself the task of drawing everyone in the Fulbright Korea program plus our directors – 117 faces in all – and finishing it in time to be published in our literary magazine. In my second year, I hoped to exhibit my final project during Fulbright Korea’s Final Dinner – but if you have no idea what this is, I won’t give it away yet! Here’s spoiler though; it involves lots of these: