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  • Writer's pictureKaren Lembo

I Dreamed I Saw You in Gwangju (2023)

Updated: Mar 1

I never imagined I would visit a land so distant as Korea. I was raised in a typical suburban environment in upstate New York, on hamburgers, pasta and meatballs, and PB&J sandwiches. But that all changed when my daughter met and fell in love with a Korean student from Gwangju.

Over the past decade, this mysterious land has become home for our daughter, beginning as a Fulbright-sponsored English teacher in Gwangju while her husband finished college and his mandatory military service. We celebrated their marriage on our first visit there in 2017.

They returned to the States for 2 years that unexpectedly coincided with the pandemic as well as the birth of our first grandchild. Eventually it became clear that the best place for them, at least in this season of life, was Gwangju, and they returned and settled there when Joy was just 6 months old. And just like that, being a mom and grandmom became exponentially more challenging.

While visiting them this past October, I snapped some reference photos at a park just outside of their city. On this trip, I also discovered Hanji paper, which I snatched up in big sheets and transferred home, not knowing exactly what I would do with it, or even what it was! I just knew it was beautiful and, like the park we visited, it was inspiring.

For more than a year now, I have been layering acrylic paintings over collaged papers, including tissue, journal pages, and sewing patterns, and I decided the Hanji paper would make a beautiful addition. I have been working to capture the surrealistic blend of reality, memories and dreams through the combination of real and implied texture, realism and abstraction, and the subtleties that pop out from beneath the surface.

This was a perfect vehicle for communicating the surreal nature of my daughter's relocation to Korea, and the mixed emotions and heart-confusion it has brought me. For example, her in-laws, so sweet, generous and funny, are so like us in many ways, and yet we cannot speak directly to one another. The delicious food has become increasingly familiar, yet is so incredibly foreign to my Western NY palate.

And the memories, summed up by this particularly beautiful day in Gwangju, linger and are treasured, but cannot fully be grasped...time has moved on, and for now, I must be content to see you in my dreams.

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