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Illustrator Kim Hwan-Young




Illustrator Kim Hwan-Young has captured readers' hearts with his beautiful work in children's tales like Paper Rice (naznsan), The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (Sakyejul) and The Children Who Swallowed the Sun (Changbi), as well as picture books including The Butterfly Catching Father (Gilbut Children), Corn (Sakyejul) and Bbaeddaegi (Changbi). His illustrations are known for their powerful brush strokes that can seem crude and rough at times, while his India-ink painting style conveys Korean emotions. Kim often opens up his atelier to readers, which is nestled inside a small countryside village in Boryeong, South Chungcheong Province. After leaving the city for the countryside, Kim created a studio for himself, and he has never stopped working since. In fact, he has been creating more artwork, as the artist has said his work required him to have a sincerity that could only be gained from living outside the city. The books Kim has illustrated have a quaint, countryside beauty to them, and living outside the city has only made Kim's work more plentiful and polished.
Recently, Kim released his first book as both author and illustrator called It's Warm (Naznsan). At the time of this interview, his house was surrounded by greenery, and the illustrator himself said he was solely focused on his work as he co-exists with nature. Kim said he has had a keen interest in coming-of-age stories and It's Warm tells the story of how a child meets the world and what imprint the passage of time leaves on the child. Kim's It's Warm has an encouraging message for children, telling them whatever they choose to carry in their hearts or on their bodies should be things they want to keep for the rest of their lives.



Kim Hwan-Young_1


Kim Hwan-Young_2


Q. Hello. It is wonderful to meet you through our webzine, K-Book Trends. Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?


A. Hello, I am Kim Hwan-Young, currently making picture books in a small city called Boryeong in South Chuncheong Province.


Q. Was there a specific reason you decided to move to the countryside?


A. I think it was the influence of fairy tale books that led me to leave the city. In fairy tale books, oftentimes you find yourself needing to draw scenes from the countryside, but I grew up in Seoul, and there were many aspects I simply wasn't aware of because I lacked that experience. Especially in the case of fairy tales written by Kwon Jung-saeng, there were many things I couldn't express because I hadn't grown up in the countryside. These things all led me here, and I think I am now 50 percent country folk.


It's Warm

It's Warm


Q. Through your existing work like The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, Paper Rice, Bbaeddaegi and Corn as well as your most recent It's Warm, you've already reached so many readers. You've left a mark on readers who enjoy your work with broad, crude brushstrokes and Korean style of illustrating. What is most important to you when you illustrate books?


A. That would be the reality of things. This refers to my current style of living, as well. Many readers refer to The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly as my most representative work and this I started illustrating in the city. I completed it in the countryside. I did my best when I was in Seoul, but I realized there were limits. To create paintings of rural scenery, I even resorted to carving my own brushes out of bamboo.
After I moved to the countryside, the space around me as well as my living style changed and my experiences changed. As I started raising chickens, I learned things I didn't know before and small things, like blades of grass or flowers, started coming into my view. There was a huge disparity between what I had been painting in the city and what I was now personally experiencing. For example, just looking at the dirt and feeling it with your hands as you farm your crops are two very different things. I tried to express this in my work. Whether it's dirt or grass, touching it is quite different from looking at pictures of it, and I tried to convey that realness onto paper. My everyday experiences are linked to my work, and as an example in Corn, the tree you see in the first scene is an actual tree that stands at the entrance of my village. Like that tree, things that are now linked to me in my life are expressed through my work. As my work reflects my life, I expect my illustrations will continue changing.


<The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly>, <Paper Rice>

The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, Paper Rice


Q. Your most recent publication It's Warm was written and illustrated by you. What was the message you wished to convey in the book, and what do you think is the most important part of the book?


A. As an illustrator, you receive a story from someone else, and you start painting. But from some 20 years ago, I accepted almost no stories written by someone else because I wanted to write about my life down in the countryside.
Through the years I realized there was a gap between my life and the stories I had to illustrate. For instance, I really wanted to do a great job illustrating Bbaeddaegi because it was a story about war for children and that in itself was stressful. I also felt apologetic towards the children who would eventually have to read it. Also, the illustrations were slow in coming as I knew very well the weight of life Kwon Jung-saeng, the author, had to endure. At the same time, I was also working on a peace picture book project with artists from China and Japan. I was the Korean representative, so this required much responsibility and a sense of duty. After working on these projects, I wanted to create a picture book that had a happy story. So, I began working on one, but I realized I was working from a want of happiness which I was deprived of in my childhood, not because I had been working on serious stories. My memories were asking for happy stories from me, in both indirect and direct fashion. After this epiphany, I really threw myself into working on this happy project, which has now led me to this current stage in my life. This project was a process during which I healed and mended myself, and over that time, I felt a need to tell my story to readers. All these experiences I wanted to tell in It's Warm.


Q. While you were working on your latest book, what did you feel was the difference between illustrating for someone else and writing and illustrating at the same time?


A. When you write your own story, there can be difficulties, but eventually, you're dipping into your own experiences. I also contemplated deeply on the message that my writing had. I wrote the story, but I also tried to look at it from a stranger's point of view. I kept asking myself questions about the story, going in and out of the story as the writer and a reader. In this process, I think I went to the far reaches of my consciousness then, like I was reaching for an unconscious state. In the case of It's Warm, the initial sketches for my illustrations were deeply affected by two broad elements, or memories that I have. One would be when I first saw a chicken trapped inside a wire cage at a market in Gapyeong and the other was when I saw a child whose birth name was 'potato'. When recalling memories, one may remember fleeting emotions from their experiences. I continuously tried to confirm whether the message I was telling was accurate, and in that process, you reach an emotional peak, and I tried to stay in that mindset for as long as I could. When you're illustrating someone else's work, this doesn't occur easily, but I think it was possible because it was my story. When looking back on my previous experiences, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly had good results because I felt one with the story. It's somewhat a physical reaction, and I think it happens more often when I write my own stories.



I won't stop reinterpreting It's Warm, which I wrote and illustrated.
An author can't help but endlessly observe what they're made up of inside.



Q. Your affection for It's Warm is probably quite substantial because it was the first book where you also wrote the story in addition to illustrating it. Were there any differences from your previous work?


A. In 2010, I published a collection of some 50 nursery rhymes. This was the very first time I had to express something in words and not through visual art. My art had been shown in competitions and exhibitions, but one day I stumbled upon poetry, and I started writing poems. When I created my collection of poems, the biggest hardship I had was working with words. The pressure was also on because these weren't spoken words that disappear once you say them, but written words that remain on record.
I overcame this internal hurdle and came to really express myself with It's Warm. I felt it was time for me to organize the content of my life. It was time for me to tell others what I had seen during my life and how I had viewed them. It's Warm stems from that thought process and is a story of life and growth. You see the wide and spacious bosom of a chicken in the story. A child named 'Potato' plays in that bosom and comes to take part in hatching an egg. The creature that comes out of the egg grows with the child and naturally grows apart from its mother, and I wanted to cheer the child on in that process. I wanted to help that child remember the time it had with the chicken, create a permanent visual scene for that warm and plentiful time so that the child wouldn't forget it even as an adult.
I won't stop reinterpreting It's Warm because it was the first story I wrote and illustrated and I have much affection for it. An author can't help but endlessly observe what they're made up of inside. From this aspect, I think the book is good material for me to self-reflect.


Q. When you're selecting stories to illustrate, what are your most important criteria? We'd like to know if you have specific standards unique to yourself.


A. I try to look for sincerity from the story and how polished it is. The biggest element for me, I think, would be sincerity. If you can't agree with the author's view of the world or values, then you can't illustrate their stories. I started illustrating for story-writers 30 years ago, and I've published over 100 books since. Even when I illustrated books to put food in my mouth, I needed to find an understanding of the story content. When that understanding is lacking, it's hard to express stories in art form. Even when you agree with the content and have an understanding, the illustrations might not happen. Personally, I believe I have limitations when it comes to quiet stories. My illustrations go best with stories that are active.



In the past, I tried to hide this strength in my art
but now I take pride in the uniqueness the bold colors, and crude lines hold.




Q. Many associate your work with traditional Korean art, saying your illustrations have many overlapping elements. Could you list the pros and cons of that when it comes to exporting your work overseas?


A. I don't intentionally lean on Korean tradition when illustrating stories. I try to stick to drawing what I feel, and the things I've experienced and seen are reflected in my work. I am Korean, and the aspects of my life lived as a Korean person are probably why the Korean psyche can naturally be spotted in my work. It's not like I consciously remind myself how to illustrate in a certain style.
From the same plane, I don't have a specific strategy regarding overseas readers. I try to stay true to the emotions I have when illustrating. In Korean art, both uniqueness and universality exist. In this global day and age, art that embodies Korean emotions can divide people who like it and who don't whether that be at home or overseas.
In my case, I use bold colors and broad strokes and these make my art look more Korean. In the past, I tried to hide this strength in my art, but now I take pride in the uniqueness the bold colors and crude lines hold.


<The Tiger and Persimmon>

The Tiger and Persimmon


In the case of The Tiger and Persimmon (Kookmin Books), we received a lot of feedback from foreign readers. I think it was more so because the illustrations were made with carved wooden prints. It wasn't a deliberate decision to have the illustrations look like traditional Korean art - the illustrations came about after deep thinking on what they should look like. I actually think one should avoid the term 'Korean' when describing art because traditional art exists elsewhere too, and there are many elements that overlap between cultures. At times I ask myself whether the term 'Orientalism' that is used by the West to describe Asia is all-positive.


Q. Your work was selected to represent Korea at the Biennial of Illustration Bratislava and also included in an artist reference book created by the Korean Board on Books for Young People (KBBY). Like these examples, your work is continuously being introduced to readers outside South KoreA.  How do you feel about the opportunities being given to you to reach foreign readers? We're also curious to learn if you have a sense of duty as an artist who is helping Korean children's books become known elsewhere.


A. The history of Korean picture books now spans roughly 30 years. In my case, I have worked as an artist and a poet. I've launched a magazine on nursery rhymes, and I've also worked with various formats like animations or comics. I feel a slight bit of pressure introducing myself to foreign readers as a picture book illustrator because I've dabbled in many other things. The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly was released in 30 different countries and for nearly all of the exported publications, the illustrations accompanied the story. It was surprising to me that all of these countries decided to accept the illustrations despite some cultural disparities. Often you will see stories exported, but illustrations rarely get the same treatment when it comes to children's books. It was a relief that there wasn't much pushback against the illustrations when the book was exported to other countries. The chickens, ducks or tree leaves were not detailed nor accurate, but I truly focused on the illustrations, and that is why readers are moved, I believe. When readers in other countries read the book, the book will deliver Korean elements to them, and it is my hope that they will have positive thoughts when they think of KoreA. 


<Corn>, <Bbaeddaegi>

Corn, Bbaeddaegi



We are curious to know what the reader response
will be like for the happy and cozy story in It's Warm,
which takes place against a backdrop of a countryside market in South Korea. 



Q. What do you think are the unique or appealing aspects of your art for readers outside South Korea?


A. That would be the distinctiveness South Korea has in general. Corn and Bbaeddaegi all take place during the Korean War. They're very real stories written for children. I think one of the things all mankind shares is pain. Contemporary Korean history includes the military rule of the Korean peninsula by Japan and the Korean War. The Korean War was a case in which a people were divided into two, aiming guns at each other. The Korean peninsula is still divided today, and that split is the result of that war.
I can't say war and military occupation of a country are 'appealing' aspects for foreigners. In Korea there were and are poor, oppressed people - people in pain. Readers outside Korea may have a difficult time reading these stories, but I feel the stories will help them immensely to understand KoreA.  I'm sure they will feel illustrating modern history that people want to ignore and turn their eyes from is a meaningful task.
Now aside from painful stories from history, It's Warm with its happy and cozy story that takes place in a countryside market in Korea may entice non-Korean readers. This is why I'm curious what the overseas response will be like for the book.


Q. What kind of projects would you like to undertake going forward? Do you have a message you would like to tell children or readers in general with your work? Please tell us about your future plans.


A. I will continue writing and drawing. I would like to open up my life and show the stories I have inside me. It took me a long time to complete something that is wholly mine, but I now want to keep expressing the space I live in and what goes on in my heart. My key themes will be life and peace, but I'm not sure what the format will be. I'm also curious to know what my future path will be like. Even if I tell stories on life and peace, it will eventually be a process in which I search for myself, as I go deep into my future projects. I am planning my second book after It's Warm and this too, carries a world that is whole and warm.





Arranged by KIM Young-Ihm


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