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February 07, 2013

Korean American Deli Owner Is A Calligrapher

by June Soh

Kwon Myoung-Won from Korea works hard, like many immigrants, running a small business for long hours every day. But he never lost his passion for the calligraphy he began doing as a boy. Although few may know about this art, some of his works are displayed in museums and galleries across the U.S. and around the world. Kwon’s works at a convenience store in the Washington suburbs, where his art flourishes.

Kwon Myoung-Won tends to customers at the counter while his wife So-Young makes the sandwiches. They've been working together for 20 years in this store that sells beer and wine along with specialty sandwiches.   

“The store hours are from six thirty in the morning to ten at night. But I arrive at six, so I work 16 hours a day,” Kwon said.

The store, near Washington DC, does not exhibit art. But long rolls of rice paper are stored under a shelf for merchandise.  When the store is not busy, usually in the late afternoon, it's time for calligraphy.  Kwon is writing the word “door,” in Korean, over and over.  

"Door implies opening. And getting through all the passages in life is also opening a door.  But we cannot do that without efforts. We have to work hard to open the doors to achieve our dream," Kwon said.  

Most of Kwon’s calligraphies contain small Korean letters. He says that's a byproduct of circumstance.

“While running the store for long hours, I wanted to utilize the time because I barely had time at home.  But when customers came in, I had to stop writing. Then the tip of the brush got dry and the mood changed.  So I decided that I could work better with small letters,” Kwon said.

One of Kwon's works is the silhouette of a figure skater. It's formed from thousands of tiny letters. The skater is Olympic gold medalist Kim Yu-Na from South Korea. The letters are her nickname, “flower.”   

“I started calligraphy when I was seven. My older brothers who went to a village school wrote letters with a brush.  I was fascinated watching them write words with a thin brush.  So I started practicing myself,” Kwon said.

Some of Kwon’s works are displayed in the Library of Congress in Washington.  Paul Taylor heads the Asian Program at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History in Washington. Kwon's calligraphy is on permanent display there, as well.  

“The most important element of Kwon Myoung-Won’s calligraphy we are emphasizing here is his use of classical form in a dynamic, modern, new kind of tradition that he carries forward as a member of the Korean diaspora based here not in Korea,” Taylor said.

For this piece, Kwon was inspired by President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.  

He's donating it to Lincoln's presidential library near Chicago.

Kwon has performed traditional Korean calligraphy at the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival in Washington.  And he demonstrates his art at a local university.

“Diverse culture coexists in this country.  So I try to help other people recognize the beauty of the Korean language and the art of Korean calligraphy. That is my dream,” Kwon said.

Kwon Myoung-Won says he's doing his best to make that dream come true.