Mountains & Trees
An exhibition by Ung Lim Lee
I started drawing Asian art on materials other than hanji (Korean handmade paper), using tools other than brushes like pens, and making oil painting effects with permanent markers.
I am especially impressed by the unexplored beauty of Mount Kumgang. The pine trees there are mysterious living things that grow anywhere. They look like they are close to death but manage to survive. Their strong will to live reminds me of the temperaments of Koreans.
With this new interest in pine trees, I started observing and drawing many different trees. Ultimately, I visited Korea to see Mount Kumgang for myself. They say that mountains and trees coexist. We associate trees and mountains together. A mountain without trees is not a mountain; it becomes a desert. Korea’s Mount Kumgang boasts its beauty, covered with oddly shaped rocks that are for some unknown reason, layered with dense pine forests.
If one were to view me like a desert, as human waste without any respect as a human being, then the past 90 years of my life would be without accomplishments and deemed futile and lonesome, like a useless desert. In this sense, I respect these pine trees in Mount Kumgang with awe. These trees touch my heart because they withstand endless rainstorms, dig into unyielding rocks, and find a way to root themselves in their respective places while surviving hardships. Just like Koreans.
The trees are now fully grown and provide shade to others. I make a promise to myself that I, too, will someday become a shade to society with my talents. I commit myself to providing shade for people burdened with life, so they can stop for a breath, recharge, and recover with a dose of my art. Korean pine trees are special. The barks cover the trees like iron armor; they resemble the strong determination of Koreans who have overcome so many adversities. I respect Korean pine trees.
There are many things to learn from trees. Once they root, they grow there until they die, whether it’s a good environment or not. They don’t fight over territory even if branches from neighboring trees invade their space. They don’t complain if parts of their foliage are shaded from exposure to the sun. They are always in one place. When tree roots grow, they may encounter tough boulders along the way but with persistence and tenacity they can break even the toughest rocks. They slowly crack through and find their way.
There is a Korean proverb that says seeing the flowers of a pine tree brings good fortune. It is because pine trees blossom every 100 years. They are admirable to be able to boast their majestic selves so boldly every 100 years. This is my hope, to be like a pine tree.
About Ung Lim Lee
“My Life Starts at 90”
There is a proverb: Even if the world comes to an end tomorrow, I will plant an apple
Now that I am over 90, I reminisce about what I have done over the years. It’s fortunate that I found the courage to plant an apple tree even if it’s later in life. I was born on November 26th, 1932 in a small village called Sariwon in Pongsan County, Hwanghae Province to a wealthy family. Korea was under Japanese colonial rule, but my childhood naivety prevented me from fully understanding the sorrow of not having a motherland. By the time I graduated primary school, I lost my left arm from a train accident. I was the only son who had now lost his arm, but I was fortunate enough to continue living my life as a student without worrying about my future.
Despite all the unfortunate events, I was lucky to have inherited a special gift from my parents: drawing. I enrolled in an art school at the age of 18 but had to discontinue after one year as we had to seek refuge from the Korean War. In the midst of all that was happening, my father passed away and I had to take more responsibility for the livelihood of myself, my mother, and two sisters. We took refuge in Daegu and I was admitted to another art school, but I wasn’t able to showcase my art work. Finding employment with a background in European painting in the middle of war was futile. It was as if I was reaching into the sky to catch a star.
I had a talent for art but finding a job in Korea with a disability was a great challenge. Luckily, the older one of my younger sisters (currently lives in Connecticut) invited me to the U.S. and that’s how my life in America began. Coming to America was a miracle of all miracles. It was nearly impossible to get visas, let alone a visitor visa, following the Korean War.
I interviewed with the U.S. ambassador for my visa. The ambassador looked at me suspiciously, as I was an unemployed person with a disability. He probably thought a person like me wouldn’t comply with the 6 month visit restriction. He also probably doubted that I would be able to find employment in America. So the ambassador tested me by asking that I draw his portrait in 5 minutes. I sketched the ambassador as fast as I could. He must have been pleased with the result as I received my visa. This was the first miracle gifted to me by God. And that’s how my life in America began on Feb, 22nd, 1964.
My education in art school did not pave a smooth path for me in America. Being on a visitor visa meant I couldn’t legally work. However, I was able to find a job running errands for an advertisement company that paid $1.25 an hour under the table. I was still grateful for the small things life gifted me.
My background in European art did not have much value in making a living, so I started learning advertising art from the ground up. I was bewildered at first because advertising art was such a diverse and extensive field. It took me a while to build a career as I started by running small errands. But the one thing I knew was how to draw.
So I started drawing products and slowly advanced my career into becoming a lay-out artist who can communicate with the potential customer through advertisement layouts that catch their attention and increase the advertising effectiveness by 100%.
During this time, I was living with my younger sister and her family. I was heartsick for my wife and son back home in Korea and quickly realized that they understood my different abilities and could help me. But it was impossible to invite my family to America with a visitor visa. After thoughtful consideration, I decided to write a petition letter directly to the immigration officer in Connecticut.
I had to write the petition letter in English, but my English back then wasn’t fluent. So I wrote the letter in Korean first to see if the content would move the commissioner. It was a heartfelt letter even to me, so I translated it into English. I had a Korean-English dictionary and English-Korean dictionary side by side and searched for example sentences that fit what I intended to say. I spent night after night for a total of 3 months translating and finally completed the letter.
I took the letter to an American man who married a Korean woman and asked for his help in polishing the petition. He read the letter and said it might be more effective sending it the way I had written it. So I sent the letter and 2 weeks later I received notification from the immigration officer that he would help my case. The immigration officer who handled my case in 1965 was Mr. Smith. This was the second miracle of my Life.
Time managed to pass during these difficult times and at the end of 1965, I was able to reunite with my family. Back then, I was struggling financially due to the low income I was earning. I looked for part-time subcontracting jobs. One day, I came upon a job posting for a part time artist in the local newspaper job column. The job was drawing airplane engines. The man who was seeking assistance was a freelance artist who built his own design table in the basement of their house. The equipment wasn’t that upscale, but it was definitely something I’ve never seen before. I never got the job since my English wasn’t fluent enough to understand the drawing. But I aspired to have a house and work environment like this one. And that became the third miracle: I bought that exact house 2 years later.
Years went by and I completely settled in America and here I am today. I am 90! I think I finally understand the meaning of life now that I am over 90. After I retired, I regained interest in art (painting). I started painting in both European and Asian art styles and was able to successfully integrate the two styles.