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[ZOOM KOREA] Adding color to the teachings of Buddha

May 16,2018
Artist Park Hye-sang draws an illustration of the “Diamond Sutra” in her workplace in Deogyang in Goyang, Gyeonggi. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Artist Park Hye-sang, right, helps her husband Seo Chil-gyo with his work. [PARK SANG-MOON]
From left: Calmness, Everyone is Buddha, Mendicancy, Prayer, Buddha
Trying to understand Buddhist scripture after reading it for the first time is not an easy thing, especially for those who do not practice the religion. But even devoted Buddhists sometimes find themselves struggling to decipher the meaning of the Buddha’s doctrine. It’s an extremely challenging process to undergo by oneself. Thankfully, artist Park Hye-sang makes this easier through colorful paintings that illustrate important elements of Buddhism.

As a child, Park often went to the temple with her mother, who was a devoted Buddhist. Naturally, she was openly exposed to an environment where she could easily learn and engage with Buddhism. She also loved drawing and dreamed of one day becoming an artist. Her passion for art grew after she started studying sculpture at Hongik University in 1993. It was there where she developed her interest in Buddhist art, such as the altar portrait of Buddha and dancheong, Korean traditional decorative coloring on wooden buildings and artifacts. After graduating from Hongik University, she was initially concerned about her future before realizing that she could further study altar portraiture and dancheong in the Buddhist art department at Dongguk University. She enrolled in the program there as a junior to continue her studies.

Because she was behind her peers in the department, Park found it difficult to absorb everything she learned in class. For that first year, she spent most of her life on campus, sleeping in her personal sleeping bag overnight, trying to make up for lost time. Throughout this uncomfortable time, she continued drawing the altar portrait of Buddha and dancheong, since she was still passionate about Buddhist art. Her efforts later paid off when she completed an altar portrait of Buddha that she was extremely satisfied with. To study and explore more in the field, Park enrolled in graduate school.

However, her academic studies in Buddhist art didn’t last long after she got married and had kids. In 2003, she drew the Bodhisattva of Wisdom when she was carrying her child. This was her last piece before devoting her time to her family as a housewife for the next 10 years.

Park’s husband, Seo Chil-gyo, is a well-known sculptor. The two first met as undergraduates at Hongik University and later fell in love. Seo’s bestknown piece is of the Avalokitesvara, also known as the bodhisattva that embodies the compassion of all Buddhas, which is located in the Gwaneum-jeon (Hall of Avalokitesvara) in Jogye Temple in central Seoul. The artwork contains 100 statues of Avalokitesvara in total. Along with 33 Avalokitesvaras from the past, present and future on the second floor of Centennial Hall, the largest Avalokitesvara is placed in the center.

While Seo was constructing his artwork for the Gwaneum-jeon in Jogye Temple, Park helped her husband with coloring the bronze statues. She made sure to highlight the statue’s important features and make the color seem smooth and natural. Park remains in charge of this coloring process today.

While helping her husband, she received an offer from Monk Won Bin to draw some illustrations for a book that he had written on the topic of Amitayurdhyana-Sutra, one of the three texts that form the basis of Pure Land Buddhism. Since it was such a long time that she had worked on a personal project, she was excited about the opportunity. She worked on her drawings for two to three months and in the spring of 2015, she finally produced 16 illustrations for the book.

When the monk received her work, he was astonished at the quality and praised her talent. He suggested that instead of using the illustrations for his book, she should publish the works herself. Park took the suggestion to heart and used it as an opportunity to return to her passion and become a full-time artist once again.

After her book was published, her next project was to make paintings of the “Diamond Sutra,” a sacred text that gives insight into truths taught by the Buddha. In the beginning scene of the text, Shakyamuni Buddha and his disciples go out to a field. Park depicted this very beautiful scene through a picture that she had visualized in her mind instead of referring to the text. The piece of art left a striking impression to many people for its aesthetic beauty and uniqueness.

Through her artwork, Park intends to spread the word of Buddha and his mercy. People tend to characterize Buddhism as a quiet and difficult religion to understand. Park wants to get rid of this stereotype and spread Buddhist culture through her colorful paintings.

Park and Seo both believe that Buddhist art should break away from the convention of only targeting Buddhist monks. Their goal is to get both Buddhist followers and those outside of the religion to enjoy their artwork. Through diverse works of art, such as portraits hung on the wall or mini-portraits hung on the car, both artists are doing their best to spread the influence of their beloved culture.

Park will be continuing to produce more paintings describing Buddhist scriptures in easy ways. Her next work will most likely be about the Sudhana, the main character in one of the 80 books of the “Flower Garland Sutra,” which describes the cosmos of infinite realms upon realms.

It is clear that she is passionate about her job, as she tries to make her illustrations more relatable and easier to understand. With Park’s colorful portraits, people can easily relate to Buddha’s teaching because they can now understand the context.

BY PARK SANG-MOON [parksangmoon.joongang.co.kr]
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