Kuhn Hong started sketching on the backs of scrap paper his mother brought home after teaching school. He continued his love of art throughout high school, and then attended medical school because ‘no one can make money as an artist’. Art came back into his life as he traveled internationally as a visiting doctor.
How did you get started making art? Why do you do it?
It was spontaneous and did not necessarily follow any particular path. When I meet someone or visit some place fascinating, I draw sketches and work on the subject later. I enjoy every moment of the process. I don’t have to sell it or be recognized. Just because I like to paint would be enough reason to pursue my art.
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Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?
When I see current events like the COVID-19 pandemic, Ukraine refugees, and migrants from the Mexican border, I jump into the subjects and collect images from the Internet to start the project. Otherwise, more traditional topics such as portraits and still life might be my subject. I enjoy Plein Air paintings as well.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
I like to present humbly without specifically getting attention from the viewers.
Being a missionary doctor in foreign countries allows me to depict exotic landscapes and beautiful people in distinct different outfits.
What motivates you artistically?
I like to paint or draw the subjects to relay their lives in their own homes and villages. It is not surprising to find them happy in spite of the fact they do not have the material belongings we have. Their life is tough from a third party perspective but they do not complain. I don’t claim it applies to everybody but most of them conduct their lives in harmony with their surroundings.
Does your work have stories to tell?
I love to paint a scene with people in it rather than just a plain beautiful landscape. Therefore, most of my paintings tell the story of their lives and the landscape becomes the backdrop for the story of the person who may look small in proportion.
How do you balance your medical profession and making art?
When I used to practice full-time as a physician, I only painted during the weekends and rarely in the evening hours.
This was also true when I served in Ethiopia for five years. I had duty at the hospital caring for patients, taught the medical students, prepared sermons for the next outreach, made travel plans, etc. However, after coming back from Africa, I can spend as much time as I would like to on art, only pausing to do some volunteer work.
Recently, I visited Ghana for short-term volunteer work, and there I was able to sketch the people and scenery during my break time in the hospital or after coming back to my lodging. I was not able to bring many of my painting tools and could not produce large paintings while there.
How do you manage your creative time? Do you schedule start and stop times? Or work only when inspired?
Even though I do not have to go to my office, I still have commitments at home with my wife. So, I have to make plans each week and each day.
If I know that I have a ‘free day”, I want to push myself to be more productive. I want to participate in group activities like joining Duneland Plein Air Painters on Thursday and Chicagoland Plein Air Painters on Saturday. Therefore, I may go out to paint at least two days a week continuously.
Do you plan your work out ahead of time, or do you just dive in with your materials and start playing?
I like to plan my work ahead of time when I am not physically painting. Riding the South Shore Lines train is the perfect time to plan before arriving at my studio in Michigan City. Once, I arrive there, I can dive in as quickly as possible. That may not always be possible, then I prepare in another way before I take my brushes.
Describe your creative space.
When we came back from Ethiopia after selling our big house in the suburbs, we moved into a one-bedroom condo in downtown Chicago. I tried to paint in the dining area but splashing paint and making a mess stopped me from continuing. I looked for a proper space near our apartment, but it was too expensive and they had a long waiting list.
I was lucky Kei Constantinov, a fellow artist, invited me to the Saint Mary’s Studio in Michigan City. We use a former classroom converted into an artist’s dream studio. One side has large windows and the remaining three walls are open to hang paintings in progress. I really love it and enjoy the facility. My fellow artists welcomed me and made me feel at home, we do activities together as well. Tony, the staff person of the St. Mary’s Parish helps us if we need any help. I am so thankful to share this facility.
When you travel, do you create while on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
I draw in a sketchbook with an ordinary ink pen. I cannot do watercolors since I cannot bring all the tools needed for that. I tried a few times in the plane during long hours of flight, but riding in an economy seat is challenging as well.
How often do you start a new project? Do you work actively on more than one project at a time?
I always like to start new projects. But that does not happen that often as I would like. I engage in more than one piece at a time and always look for a new challenging project. Sometimes, I try and give up after some trials.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
Although I do not watch TV regularly, I watch some developing news and then think about the possibility of taking on a challenge based on the new happenings around the world. For sure, when we were locked down due to COVID pandemic, I had no other alternatives except to rely on TV and the Internet for sources of inspiration.
Which part of the design process is your favorite? Which part is a challenge for you?
I try to sketch on paper and then create a small work to focus on value study before working on a large canvas. I may have to change the whole process and sometimes give up as well.
What was the biggest challenge that you encountered on your creative journey? What did you learn from it?
I do not want to repeat what I have done even when some people and critics praised the work. I would rather create something new every time when I face a new canvas. I know it is difficult but at least I am trying. I go to the gallery and museum to learn from others including masters in the past.
How do you know when a piece or project is finished and needs no additional work?
It is a very difficult question, and I am still struggling.
Plein Air paintings are rather easy since I have limited time allowed to finish on-site. I could touch up a little bit when I come back to my studio, but most of the time I would rather leave it as I saw and painted at the outdoor setting.
The other projects are different. It is a constant struggle. I have a unique situation in which I can hang my paintings on the wall and observe any corrections or touchups needed when I look at them. But when the exhibition is coming, I may have to stop and sign it although I may not feel complete or quite yet satisfied with the final result.
How have other people supported or inspired you?
My wife is my lifetime companion and a strong supporter of my journey in art. She supports me by packing sandwiches for lunch when I visit the Michigan City studio and understands that I will be gone for a long time. She also gives me some critique and advice although she never had any training in arts. She just learned by watching. we have grown up with my paintings and she gives me tips based on her own opinion, which may not be perfect.
I have a group of artists who work together, from Pallet and Chisel in Chicago, Plein Air Painter groups in Chicago as well as Duneland and colleague artists at the St. Mary’s Studio. Also, many friends in Chicago and Korea support me by purchasing my paintings at the exhibitions.
What is on your “someday” creative wish list?
Someday I would like to challenge huge canvases like Monet did for his waterlily projects. I tried to divide canvases into four pieces for easy transport from Ethiopia to Chicago and then from Chicago to Korea. That worked out for the purposes, but I would like to challenge huge canvases if I have the chance.
Where can people see your work?
You may visit my studio at
St. Mary’s Studio
326 W. 10th Street Suite 13
Michigan City IN 46360
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
When I was a little boy, North Korean Communist army invaded South Korea. We fled for life leaving everything behind. We had no food nor any toys.
My mother worked as a school teacher and brought used papers home after exams. I doodled on the back page for killing time. My parents recognized I was good and encouraged to continue draw and paint. I submitted my drawings to contests and won many prizes.
During my high school days, I joined art club and learned and enjoyed painting. However, my parents would not allow me to pursue career by applying art school since artists and musicians would not make living after the war. I gave up the dream of becoming an artist and went to a medical school instead.
I came to America for better living after graduation of medical school in Korea. I put brushes aside while I was busy practicing medicine and raising children.
When I started to visit third world countries as a short-term medical mission, I brought a small sketchbook with me. I drew few sketches while I was taking some rest in between treating hundreds of patients lining up to be seen by a doctor.
Then I rekindle my passion of arts and continued drawing whenever I visited another country. I gave copies of my sketches to my family members, friends and people who prayed for me and donated money and drugs by pharmaceutical companies.
The copies got around and finally reached the hands of one lady who owns a gallery in Seoul, South Korea. I was invited to have a solo show and I dusted off from my painting tools. I continued to paint to have a successful exhibition and sold a few paintings as well.
In 2013, I decided to retire early and went to Ethiopia to work in a mission hospital and stayed there for 5 years until 2018. I treated patients, taught medical students and Ethiopian medical doctors and at the same time, I painted during the weekends and evening hours in my guest room of the hospital. I was invited to have my solo exhibition in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then Paris, France and Seoul, Korea.
After I came back to Chicago, I continued to paint and was again invited to have solo exhibitions in Korea last year 2022. I had shows in six galleries in four different cities and successfully completed them. I donated the proceeds from the sale of paintings to the Korean Christian Medical Association so doctors from poor countries could attend the International Christian Medical & Dental Association meeting in Korea in 2026.
It is a great privilege to use my talent to help the people in such way. I had numerous solo exhibitions including at the Lubeznik Art Center and Village Gallery in Valparaiso. I was honored to be the Artist-in-Residence at the National Park at the Indiana Dunes this July and enjoyed painting at the dunes and I am looking forward to share the paintings someday.
Interview posted November 2023
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