In response to demand from local artists for exhibition space and to promote and celebrate our talented local artists, the London Arts Council and the City of London Culture Services have collaborated with RBC Place London to pilot The Gallery program at RBC Place London as part of our London Arts Live (LAL) program offerings.
The purpose of The Gallery is to promote the work of artists and creators residing in London and surrounding First Nations to display original artworks for exhibition, with sales opportunities, on highly prominent and specially designated wall space within this municipally owned building.
For the second exhibition of the pilot stage, The Gallery featured artworks created by Byungjin Choi, a local visual artist, artist educator, and LAL artist. Choi is a highly experienced Korean visual artist who specializes in various forms of traditional Korean painting. Choi brings traditional beauty into modern contexts through ongoing exploration of non-traditional materials and artistic practices. Since his immigration to Canada in 2016, he has continued his artistic practices by creating new bodies of artwork and teaching young artists at his studio.
Choi joined the London Arts Live Program this year and showcased his artwork through multiple live painting sessions. Choi hopes to continue his artistic journey in Canada by sharing his artwork and contributing to the diversity of London’s arts scene.
An Interview with Byungjin Choi
Maehwa (매화), Plum Blossom by Choi, Byungjin (최병진)
(on exhibition November 2023 – February 2024)
Q: Tell us the story behind the Maehwa exhibition. How did it start? What was it inspired by?
A: Sagunja (Four Gracious Plants) are the foundational painting themes for people who practice traditional Korean visual art, so I never thought I would go back to that style, but I’ve been exploring a lot to develop my own defined style. When I first came to London, I was struggling a bit. So, I stopped practicing my own artwork and instead was teaching students. When this opportunity presented itself, I was thinking about so many different plants and flowers that I wanted to exhibit but none were speaking to me, so I stopped painting them. After contemplating what I would like to paint, I returned to Sagunja and to Maehwa specifically as it symbolizes that experience of perseverance.
Q: What inspires you as an artist?
A: My inspiration usually comes from nature, and I especially love trees. I see a lot of reflection of human life through trees and other types of plants. For about 10 years, I was really focusing on drawing small evergreen trees and was thinking about my son a lot during this time. I was reflecting on my relationship with my son as I was drawing the trees and see my connection with him reflected in the process. I would like to explore more of the nature in London and try to go further with this.
Q: That’s really sweet. Did you have a specific person in mind when you were painting Maehwa? A: I was reflecting on my life a lot through the Maehwa. The challenges that I’d been going through were like a harsh winter and at this point in my life, I feel that I am emerging from that harsh winter, hopeful and starting to bloom, just as the plum blossom emerges at the end of the harsh winter months as the first sign of Spring. Q: What does your creative process look like? A: The reason I like Four Gracious Plants (Sagunja) is because the purpose of this style of painting is not about achievement of realism but about self-expression and self-exploration through the Plants. My Maehwa is not an identical depiction of Maehwa, but a visual depiction of my interpretation of what Maehwa represents – the virtue of perseverance. During my first year of university, I really tried to practice and develop my own style, not by looking at the Maehwa tree, but by studying the Ginko trees as they demonstrated visual characteristics that Maehwa represented to me. So, I practiced the shapes of the Ginko trees through their shadows. My depictions of the Maehwa tree are more focused on what the tree symbolizes and represents to me versus a hyper-realistic rendition of it. People often refer to Sagunja paintings as Eastern Abstract or Expressionism Art. I made all of the frames and glue myself. Since I was working with very thin rice paper, I had to follow vigorous processes to complete the frame. To achieve perfect consistency for the glue, I boiled the correct amount of flour in the water and stirred it consistently by using a wooden stick on medium heat until it was ready. Since the thin rice paper cannot be glued right on to the wooden panel, I glued the rice paper to the backing paper by making sure no bubbles formed or tears were made, and then the glued paper was once again glued to the wooden panel. Q: Wow, that sounds like a very involved process, and every step is personalized. A: Yes, every step is part of the art piece. It’s a really fun process.
Q: Why does creativity matter to you? A: André Malraux (1901-1976), a French novelist, art theorist, and minister of cultural affairs, said “Every work of art is created to satisfy a need, a need that is passionate enough to give it birth.” I take this to mean that the reason why people create is to express themselves, and this really resonates with me. There are many ways to express yourself, and for me visual art resonates strongly. Specifically, this style of traditional Korean painting – the entire process, every step involved - really appeals to, and speaks to me. Q: What gaps currently exist when it comes to supporting the Arts? What kind of support is needed?
A: When I applied for permanent residence status in Canada, I applied, and was accepted to, the category of “Visual Artist.” But I wasn’t able to do any artistic work for three years, because my life settlement took way longer than what I had anticipated. When I was teaching students, I really felt the need to continue as a practicing visual artist myself.
Looking back, even though I was accepted in a specialized category, I never received resources about continuing my creative work here. I’m sure this would be the experience of other immigrants as well. If the Executive Director of the London Arts Council hadn’t reached out to me after seeing my work at a festival and provided information about the London Arts Council, I wouldn’t have known where to start to continue my artistic practice in Canada.
Q: That’s too bad that there weren’t resources offered to you. It’s a barrier that we need to
work on addressing. What do you envision now for your future in the Arts here in London?
A: The London artistic scene is still new to me. I still feel very much like a newbie. But I will continue to learn more and integrate myself more, and my goal is to exhibit once a year at different galleries within the city and hopefully exhibit somewhere else one day as well – in Toronto, or New York is another goal of mine.
Q: Those are great goals! What made you most excited about putting yourself out there to work with the London Arts Council and RBC Place London for this exhibition?
A: This exhibition is a big turning point for me - for my artistic life and journey, and my personal growth as well. As mentioned before, this was a very healing process for me because I didn’t feel like I had to focus on being any other way than who I am and what kind of artist I truly am. And this process really helped me to reflect on that. As a newcomer artist, I believe that this exhibition opportunity will open up new doors for me.
Q: That's fantastic! We hope to see lots more of your artwork around the city. Where else can we find your artwork?
A: Currently, I don’t share too much of my work on social media but I plan to work on that in the future and will share that with you once I do.
Q: Sounds goods. Thank you for talking with us today. Your artwork is so beautiful, and it makes it even more special to know the story and process behind it.
A: Thank you very much.
View the Maehwa (매화), Plum Blossom Exhibition at RBC Place London on the following dates: Thursday December 14th (11am-7pm)
Thursday, January 11, 18, 25 (11am-2pm)
Thursday, February 1 (11am-2pm)
**enter via the main doors on York St.**
The objectives of the Gallery program are: to create a beautiful, unique, and cultured atmosphere; provide compelling experiences for local, national, and international visitors; educate the public by presenting a series of diverse artworks created by local professional artists; and provide professional opportunities for local artists, including increased promotion, sales, and career enhancement.
For more information about this project or inquiries regarding purchasing artworks, please contact the London Arts Council at firstname.lastname@example.org