Can a human life be a work of art?
I never considered the question until I began my conversation with Stephanie Kong, the Programs Director of WonderRoot in Atlanta.
Sitting across from her at lunch, she was certainly intriguing.
Her movements were quick and darting, and her shoulders and fingers punctuated her words as she spoke. Her hands moved excitedly while she talked, all the while her elbows stayed right at her sides, so that she was extremely animated without imposing into the space around her. Her wide eyes are both earnest and observant, and her high cheekbones frame a particularly inviting smile that made it easy to talk to her. Her mannerism is spirited of sorts, as one might get the sense that she’d rather be quietly thrifting-—in fact, she excitedly told me she’d be visiting the Goodwill down the street after we were finished-—but that she was also open to the challenge of being scrutinized and interviewed by an essential stranger.
When she reached for the tortilla chips that sat between us on the table, I saw that her long, thin fingers were stained with colors. She’d been painting, she told me, and she opened her phone to show me a picture of the piece she was working on. I nodded knowingly, not wanting to let on that I might perhaps be severely uncultured when it comes to paintings. But from what I could tell, she was extremely good, and I expected that the work I was scrutinizing on her screen must have been her hundredth or thousandth piece of work.
It was actually her first ever.
Born in California, she moved cross-country at a year old to Georgia where she grew up in Roswell, about a forty-minute drive north of Atlanta. There, she grew up with her mother and her older sister, Caroline, and experienced what could be called the burden of peculiarity. Ethnically, she looked nothing like her classmates; economically, her single mother provided a lower middle class lifestyle, accented by how her classmates around her seemed much more comfortable. In a particularly Caucasian suburban neighborhood, she found that she could make friends, but that they were rather difficult to relate to.
Her school had an initiation program where students—-mostly African-American—-traveled all the way from College Park to attend her better resourced school, and this was one of the first times she found her peers to be relatable, minorities of relatively different economic status. But, alas, when the school bell rang at the end of the day, they would get on their buses and travel the hour back to the city. There would be no opportunities to befriend them outside of the school walls.
Later, however, when she grew older and entered high school, Stephanie suddenly found herself surrounded by Korean-Americans. Initially, she was excited, and she fully expected to be able to assimilate and find a place in the community, but she was distraught to learn that it was a similar experience to her elementary and middle school struggles. She strangely found herself at the margins once again, quietly questioning the tacit rules and social cues that dictated the Korean-American community, and she mentioned to me that she found the definitive gender roles particularly disconcerting.
The Korean culture is derived from a Neo-Confucian set of ideals, one where it’s innate within the community that each individual submits in hierarchical fashion to the male—-sister to brother, wife to husband, children to father, all ultimately submitting to the king. Though most Korean and Korean-American households do not outright practice Confucianism, the culture is still very much a consequence of it.
Coming from a home where her single mother raised both her and her sister, it’s not difficult to see why she found major issues with this concept.
In fact, as her story unraveled, I began to realize that the extent of her journey began long before she had even been born, starting with her mother’s immigration to America. Her identity was shaped by the choices that her mother had made, but this did not mean that she was defined by them; Stephanie made sure of that (She told me of a day in high school when she had decided with gravity that she would no longer be calling her sister 언니--pronounced "unnie," the Korean word for older sister by a younger sister--but would rather be calling her Caroline because that is her name, her identity).
But her identity is something she is still continuing to forge, much as this generation of Korean-Americans is trying to do today.
Stephanie's identity as a Korean-American was most punctuated when she lived in Seoul, South Korea for two years from 2009 to 2011. It was a way of going back to her roots, meeting relatives and exploring a culture she had been born into but had hardly known firsthand.
Up until this experience, she told me that she had kept a set of behaviors that were reserved solely for Korean contexts—-e.g. bowing, honorific language, etc.-—and a separate set for when she was in American settings. Being Korean-American, however, she was used to using her American set of behaviors much more often.
Now that she was in Korea, however, the frequency reversed, and she was finding herself using her Korean set of behaviors much more heavily than her American one. What had been a minor infraction on her philosophy of life in America now became something of a major problem in her day-to-day experience in Korea. In short, she was expected to be something she was not, but this expectation was ingrained into the very culture of who she was and, to her surprise, who she was not.
Almost on a daily basis, she was questioned about her American accent. Taxi drivers wondered why she didn’t just use Korean instead of English—-she certainly looked Korean, so why not act it? Strangers on the subway critiqued her behavior. She felt herself scrutinized not by her actions but for her personhood, and she told me that it had taken a major toll on her. She loved the city, she said, but she couldn’t love the experience of living in it simply because of who she was and because she was unwilling to compromise it.
To be fair, she continued, there were many strangers who went far out of their way to serve her, and this was how she came to understand the concept of Jung, an indefinable aspect of Korean culture that brings people together under common suffering or experience, and she felt that she was a part of this Jung simply because she was Korean.
On the flip side, however, there is the concept of Han, a deep seeded feeling of pain, longstanding suffering, and undeserved injury that was inflicted and instilled over time, most often directed at outsiders and colonizers. For many Koreans who remember the violence of the nation’s past, it was Japan, China, and North Korea that had brought bloodshed, but more recently, America was the country that forced its Western ideals and changed the culture of Korea, and for someone who was Korean-American like Stephanie, she could very well have represented the influence of Western culture on the Korean people. So she endured, and she lived in a way that she could only describe as “performative,” a set of behaviors she couldn’t truly believe in but was necessary for her daily life in Korea.
Stephanie’s life story culminates in the way she has decided to spend her life. Korea, for example, was possible through her occupation as a teacher. Lately, many Asian Americans have found the opportunity to live in Southeast Asia by traveling as English teachers, as there is a high demand to learn the language in order to excel in school and compete in the world market.
Stephanie, however, took a route much less comfortable, and after our conversation, I felt that it couldn’t have been any other way for her. She applied to and was employed by what is known as a “Future School” which aims to educate at risk students, students who could not fare well in their respective schools due to misconduct.
One of her first impressions of the school was when she was being driven by the campus in the car, and she was told by a native Korean teacher that they had just built a new wing to the building. When Stephanie asked about it, she was horrified—-if not a bit amused—-to find out that the wing had to be rebuilt because a student had burned it down the year before.
She told me with an excited giggle that she’d had to break up fights with her small frame. She told me about how impressed she had been the day she found a Nietzsche book--a rather thick edition-—and in it, the pages had been carved out to fit a cigarette pack and lighter to be shared among the students. Rather than telling these anecdotes with strain or relief, she did it with an obvious dose of exhilaration. It seemed that she loved making a difference in the lives of those who undoubtedly needed it, and it seemed to invigorate her.
This became apparent when she ccame back to the United States. As soon as she returned, she got to work right away to make a difference in the city she grew up.
She was a co-founder of Turning Sun School where she worked and strategized pedagogical developments for young children. She told me of initiatives that worked to break down learned biases and truly allow a child to decide his or her identity by their interests, not by archaic and formulated tendencies.
One such example that struck me was when she told me of a story of a two-year-old boy who opted to play with toy cars every day during free time. When the faculty assessed that, while nice, this type of play didn’t necessarily teach anything, they cautiously practiced a toy ban and gave blocks and other such materials instead. Amazingly enough, it was at this point that the same child stretched his cognitive imagination and quite literally built a toy car himself, laying down tracks with the blocks to push his invention around.
After four years of strategizing and running back and forth between their two locations, however, Stephanie felt as if she was stretching herself quite thin at Turning Sun. Even as she was telling me how tiring the experience had been, however, I got the sense that she had been undoubtedly fulfilled in her role, making real and lasting impacts on children of the next generation. She hoped, she said, to find a much more relaxing job after her last two roles, something that could give her more free time and allow her to kick back a bit.
Instead, she became the Programs Director of WonderRoot.
WonderRoot, according to Stephanie, is an arts organization in Atlanta whose mission is to unite artists and communities to inspire possible change through partnering with civic organizations and community organizations to identify community needs and provide art space strategies, solutions, and programs to help address those needs.
One such project is the En Route Project that partners with MARTA, Fulton County Arts and Culture, and The TransFormation Alliance that aims to call attention to the needs of a community through art. It’s a way of speaking to the community at large and addressing the particular struggles of a specific area, but it also aspires to explore the possible solutions to meet those needs.
WonderRoot also takes the initiative to develop the artistic community of Atlanta economically. They recognize that art is an integral part of culture in any city, and for a city like Atlanta that hopes to grow as it attracts many young and ambitious professionals, they must offer a thriving arts culture that enriches the lives of the upcoming generation that is making the choices to lead this city.
Another way they develop the arts economically is through what is known as an Arts CSA, much like a Food CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). The gist is that they contract six artists to create 30 pieces of art, and supportive patrons receive a season of curated work from these artists.
The last example that Stephanie gave had her a bit on the edge of her seat out of what I believe was crystal conviction. She explained to me the concept of an equitable ecosystem, and from what I’ve gathered of her character throughout our conversation, I believe that this is what truly attracted her to take the position at WonderRoot. She told me in analogies and a voice that kept rising about the power of the arts, about the expression of the self, and how WonderRoot can charitably allow the playing field to be leveled in such a way that those in communities lacking in resources can quite literally paint their struggle.
And that brings me back to what I believe is the crux of my conversation with Stephanie. By speaking with her, I began to wonder about how perhaps a human life can be a work of art after all--without ever meaning to--one that speaks about a generation’s plight, about the complexities of social standards, and about the subtleties that define our existence on a day-to-day basis.
Can a human life be a work of art?
Can it reflect the struggles of many, the intricacies of weaving cultures, the needs of the marginalized? Can it offer insights into global issues, explore the beauties and limits of human relationships, or bring to light the sufferings of an entire race? Can it resolve conflicts, offer solutions, move hearts? Can a single human life do that?
Speaking with Stephanie was quite an experience because the way she told her story showed me glaring connections from her past to her present, all the while hinting at her future. Her constant struggle between desiring a place to fit in and questioning the places where she was left her quite lonely at times.
She's a person who walks a fine line. For example, her experiences in South Korea were all the more frustrating because she chose to dress androgynously, and she wondered if she was crossing more than one boundary in this way. She longed for a place to call her own, and going to the country of her mother seemed a sure way to find it, but it left her feeling ever more out of place.
But her life’s experiences equipped her with a conviction. It provided her a capacity to be compassionate, and her life thus far in adulthood has been to meet the needs of others to not just fit in, but to carve out their own place in the world.
Early in the conversation, she told me laughing that she didn’t want to become an adult, that it was daunting and tedious. She said she didn’t want to have to deal with taxes, mortgages, and all the things that seemed to define adulthood. But she also told me with a small sigh that it couldn’t be helped. Speaking to Stephanie, I think the threshold that separated childhood from adulthood for her was the moment when she no longer contemplated her own struggles within a vacuum, and rather when her struggle began to fuel her desire to help humanity heal itself--not sweepingly on a global scale, but generously on a personal one. Her life, in a way, became the medium on which she wrote her story of walking on the dividing lines and providing a space for those who found commonality in marginality.
So can a human life be a work of art? In short, I will carefully say that not all can. I can’t quite define what would constitute a life to be one, but I think there requires a certain degree of a beautiful struggle, just as artists suffer and toil in part to bring their visions to life.
And I think Stephanie does just that.
All photos were taken on WonderRoot property and were permitted to be purposed for this article. They are the creative property of www.uni-ko.co