Caitlyn R. Young
Middle & Upper School Visual Arts Teacher at Dwight-Englewood School, New Jersey
(Her Korea Trip was funded by Korean Parents Group at Dwight-Englewood School)
When you are immersed in a country like Korea, one that is literally on the other side of the world, you cannot help but be completely affected by the visual change in the scenery that you are in. The grogginess from the fourteen hour plane ride is soon forgotten as an excitement for the journey in the new surroundings begins. You are immediately aware that the space you are in had been designed and created by people with a different history, and culture and one that reflects a Korean aesthetic. Everywhere you turn, there seems to be something traditionally elegant, intricately detailed and stimulating yet calming to your visual senses.
As we first began to explore Seoul, I was struck by the unique visual contrast between the historic national landmarks and the large sleek contemporary designed buildings. The landscape displays Korea's rich culture with pagodas, royal palaces and traditional homes, which sit almost abruptly alongside the endless skyscrapers and apartment buildings showcasing the newer global power of Korea. The architecture tells the story of the history of the nation, and it gives you a glimpse into where Korea is headed. At a more intimate level, you see gold Buddha sculptures gracefully sitting tall, rows of paper lanterns creating bright, graphic patterns, and lines of wooden roofs curving in and out.
On our third day, in the middle of the large bustling city, we climbed down a narrow staircase into a basement, and found ourselves inside a fully equipped ceramics studio surrounded by elegantly crackled sculptures of animals, figures, and natural formations. Knowing that I taught ceramics at my school in the United States, my home-stay mother arranged for us to have a private art lesson with a ceramics potter. It was comforting to be among the familiar metal carving tools, canvas covered table tops, and the smell of fresh clay. These are the same ingredients from the ceramics studio I teach in everyday at Dwight-Englewood school. Because we all only knew a few words of each other's native language, we communicated visually that day. Our hands both molded the clay on the wheel and gestured to explain. Our faces communicated determination with focused frowns, and satisfaction with flashing smiles.
My many questions for our teacher that day were answered by watching, and then listening to tones in her voice. That day reminded me of the importance of using visual examples in teaching, particularly when a student is speaking a second or third language. Visual examples can sometimes more clearly explain what our words cannot. As I watched the children openly explore ways to sculpt the mud, I thought of the universality of children all over the world enjoying the creativity and playfulness that arises working in clay. Our artist-teacher sent me home with a booklet of her work that that included her history as an exhibiting artist and practicing teacher. The images in her book have become a part of my ceramics curriculum this school year at Dwight-Englewood. I love that I can tell my students of my experience of intimately working alongside a fellow artist, halfway across the globe, in a world very different, yet very much the same.
On our final night with our home-stay family, I had the opportunity to leave a small mark as an artist in Seoul. That evening we loaded a large group of my home-stay family and friends into the cable car up Namsan Mountain. We arrived together on top of Namsan Tower to be greeted with the stunning 360 degree view of the lit up city of Seoul. As you wander and explore this popular destination, you are greeted with thousands of decorated locks linked together on fences, trees, and signs. Notes and names adorn pink rubber hearts, old plastic cell phone cases, and locks of all shapes and sizes. They layer and attach to one another, covering every inch of the fence creating a varied, colorful texture. The fences became a community art installation, created by visitors passionately proclaiming their love as a couple and for their significant others with drawings and notes on their mini canvases.
My white lock with blue love note writing and drawing, hangs there now on top of Seoul Namsan Tower. Following the tradition that the couple's love is locked, and left without a key, the key sits with me now at my home in New Jersey. My wheel thrown pottery piece crafted in Korea is displayed and shared in my classroom. This rich exchange was more than I anticipated, not only in the material terms of leaving something of mine, and taking home the pottery and book given to me by a fellow artist, but in deeper ways. Our distinct cultural experiences and limited verbal communication were bridged by empathetic, visual communication that will continue to enrich me and my students. Kamsahabnida, thank you, to all here and in Korea for the gifts of this wonderful first-hand experience.