Excerpts from an interview with Thomas Kong
by Dan Miller
Chicago, IL, January 2015
DAN MILLER I don’t want to ask you your life story; I want to talk about art in particular. So my first question is: why did you start making collages?
THOMAS KONG There’s no why; it's just like this. The first time I was motivated by the store; the store decorations, you know. So, first of all the shelves of the store, all the shelves, the shelves were kinda empty-like or dirty-like, so I just thought about laying something on the shelves, you know, like the bottom of the shelves, so the merchandise looks nice.
DM So initially it was decoration?
TK Yeah, initially, yes. The reason is, that’s the reason. If this is the answer to the question, ‘why?’, that’s the answer.
DM And why did you progress from there?
TK And then I started like—I can do it, you know—I thought, I can do it, I can do something, something nice, so it draws some people, some peoples’ eye. So I can talk to people about the art, you know, yeah. So I started making, and then, when I cut it, cut everything, anything from the packaging, anything from the pictures, it’s kinda, you know, I feel like I’m proud of it, you know, proud of it, I can make this one, I can make this one, and when I look at it afterwards, it looks good, not bad, huh? It looks good, right?
TK I was kinda getting more interested in doing it, you know, so, it keeps me going too. And then, plus, the store is kinda small, so I have a little time, you know, time to kill, time to kill. So I kept doing it. If I have nothing to do, some bad things, bad ideas, come in, so I try to chase ‘em out, you know?
DM To chase out the bad ideas?
DM What kind of bad ideas?
TK All kinds! Some worries, some fears about aging, you know, something like that. That’s no good, I thought. That reminds me, in the Bible God says, “keep praying, keep praying”. That means, when you have time to worry about something in the world, pray. That means you can’t do that, you can’t pray all the time, 24 hours, but when you have time to worry about things, keep praying. So that’s why. Something like that. When I do this, this is praying, too. That keeps me going, that’s the main thing.
DM Did you ever go to university?
TK Yeah, in Korea, Sogang University…
DM What did you study?
TK I studied English literature. Shakespeare, Fitzgerald.
DM Who was your favorite in English literature?
TK Shakespeare, I liked Shakespeare. But that’s a long time ago now.
And then I went to Korean Airlines after school, for three years, so I travelled all over the European countries and Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and France and England, Span, Italy. I travelled a lot too, you know, when I was in the airline business. We actually inaugurated the Seoul and Paris line, you know. Seoul and Paris, the first inauguration, when I was in 1975 or something. I was with Korean Airlines starting in 1972, so after 2-3 years we inaugurated the Paris and Seoul direct line. We had only the Southeast Asia line and Los Angeles from Honolulu, just two routes, but now Korean Airlines is giant. We had one 747, now they have more than a hundred.
DM Are you still in touch with people from that time?
TK No. That was about, nearly forty years ago. They all left, you know. All the people I worked with at the same time, my friends, at the same time we had about 600 people tested, so we passed, and they put us all in different departments, you know. I was in the marketing department.
DM So when you think about your past, do you think it has an influence on the artworks that you’re making now?
TK Not really, not from the past, but since I started this, every day I look at everything in the world, the ground, the air, whenever I see it, I just look very closely, I started looking closely; I pay more attention to everything, and then make shapes. Even footprints in the snow, or leaves on the ground, even puddles make different shapes, so I started looking at everything in the world for my images, you know. Images for making something like that. So I started picking up the leaves and started picking up some kinds of colors, too. I started looking at color, too, to match with this and with that. So in everything, I use my attention to make something.
DM I’ve noticed that you have a very natural talent for color and shape and composition…
TK So I kinda gained some knowledge about art. I didn’t know anything about art, but I used to make some paper, like, paper, what do you call it, this one?
DM Like, origami, like Japanese folding…?
TK Folding, yeah, make some shapes and…
DM When did you do this?
TK From my childhood, you know. I liked that stuff, you know. Paper folding. [Begins folding paper]
DM Did you have any family or friends who made art?
TK I had a couple of friends from my childhood who are good at painting, a couple of them. I know one guy, he does good paintings too, but…
DM So you did paper folding, and did you make other things when you were a child?
DM I’m wondering where this natural talent comes from, or whether you just discovered it when you started this?
TK Oh, you know what? That’s a good question, too. I grew up in a rural area, like hills and fields and seas, you know, all that stuff. So I had more chance than other people to get close to nature, you know. So I kept wondering how they make that stuff? Like, stars, at night. And I started questioning about that too. Now, God made it, I know, God made all these things.
DM And what was your relationship to the city?
TK I went to middle school. In Korea there’s primary school, six years, middle school, three years, high school, three years, so I went to middle school. I lived in the rural area until I was twelve years old, until I had just finished elementary, and then I went to the city, middle school, and high school, and then went to the university in Seoul. Then high school, middle school in Incheon, Korea, the smaller city than Seoul. So I just keep telling my son, to have a house in a rural area, near Cincinnati or whatever, to raise your children to learn about nature.
DM So you think that your understanding of nature informs the way that you make your collages?
TK Maybe, that might be. I don’t know exactly. The thing is I started with nature, you know.
DM But the materials that you use are very unnatural, apart from the leaves, the materials that you use are very unnatural—
TK Unusual, right?
DM —yeah, like packaging materials, advertising…
TK Yeah, that’s from the deliveries you know, the merchandise deliveries. I just started about four years ago; I think it’s been about four years now.
DM Sometimes, the collages, the forms are very natural, but sometimes you use the advertising material very clearly, like you will cut out the name of the brand and include that.
TK Yeah, such as, from the cigarette company, they gave me this stuff, you know, Newport and all this stuff. I just kinda thought the color is nice, and the material is kind of stable, so I cut it out and started putting it in the collages.
DM Some of my favorite collages of yours are when you use the words like—the words of the brand, like “American Spirit”. And I wonder, when you use the words like that, what's your intention?
TK The “American Spirit” words, the spirit, the spirit is kinda like [points at his chest], something like that, so I started with spirit. And there’s another word, “American”, in there, right? But that’s really American Indian, right? So when you have American Spirit cigarettes, there’s always this guy’s picture on it, an Indian.
DM What do you think about that?
TK It’s okay.
DM And how do you feel about America?
TK You know when I was here for the first time, I was about 27. Just after I quit Korean Airlines. My sister was here first, before me. My sister, who is about six years older than me, she was a nurse here. She invited me, gave me an invitation, an immigration permit. At that time in Korea I was making, money-wise, about $200 a month. That was a high salary, too, at that time in Korea. Less than $200, I would say. But still, I had a dream. We had a hard time, you know, because the war had just ended in 1956, I think, and then nobody had money, there were a lot of hungry people.
I just thought about America, okay, let’s go. So I just asked the company, Korean Airlines, I’m going to America, give me some money, an air ticket. So I took an air ticket from the company, and they gave me about $800, so I came here. But I thought I spoke English pretty good at that time, but I couldn’t understand anything—as soon as I arrived at the airport, I was deaf! Oh my goodness, I thought, I could speak, but I can’t hear first, you know, can’t understand. You know, hearing is first, right? First step, you gotta hear, and then you can speak, right? And, I can’t hear! I can’t understand. So I couldn’t get a good job, okay, so I had a gas station job, pump man. I started pumping gas. The first word I learned was “fillerup”.
DM That’s what my grandmother used to say when I was a kid, when we would drive to the petrol station.
TK [Showing the completed paper sculpture] That’s the first paper folding that I started making in my childhood.
DM So, when was that? How old were you?
TK When I was about ten.
DM So you’ve been making these for more than fifty years?
TK That’s right.
DM So what is it, a boat?
TK A boat. [Motions to hand over the sculpture]
DM Is this for me?
TK Go ahead, that’s what I wanted.
DM So how do you feel about America now?
TK Actually, I feel still comfortable. Because I’ve lived here long enough to make this place my home, my hometown. This is my hometown now. I lived in Korea for 27 years, I’ve lived here about 38 years now, so this is more my hometown now. When I go to Korea, that’s a foreign country now. Sure, comfortable, yeah. Because I met Jesus here when I was about mid-forties, close to fifty. Mid-forties, yeah. I met Jesus here. That’s the main thing.
DM So what are your hopes for your making art in the future? Do you have hopes for who will see the work, or how people will feel about it?
TK For now, some people, not everyone, some people come in and just look at my work, do not buy anything, but they buy something after all, you know. That’s good. But some people look around very close, check everything out, and then they’ve never seen this before, and they’re interested, nice, give me some words, like, “beautiful job”, or whatever. Okay, thats not bad.
DM Is it that you enjoy the opportunity to talk to people, that the artwork is like a way for you to connect with other people?
TK Yeah, that could be one thing. But first of all, like a belief, like faith, that’s personal. Faith is personal. The relationship between me and God. It’s personal. Something like that. So, personally, this is first of all for myself. My satisfaction, okay. Yeah, but you know, still, you can’t live by yourself in the world, right? When people give me praise, applause, about my work, it keeps me going, too you know?
DM Yeah, I understand that very well.
DM I’ll ask you one more question, and then I’ll go — what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
TK Beautiful things, what, the nature, or—
DM In the world— what’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen?
TK Substantially, that we can see, with our eyes?
TK You mean scenery, or artwork, or people who help other people, you know, all that stuff. The most beautiful thing, beautiful thing, beautiful thing. That’s a big question too, you know. Because beautiful means very—you say, ‘beautiful woman’, also, right?
TK That’s beautiful, beautiful: woman, nature, seashore, mountains, pictures, beautiful things. When you say beautiful things, the object could be woman, could be nature, picture, minds, human minds, beautiful minds, beautiful hearts. Beautiful things. Things, right?
TK Oh! The astronaut took a picture of the earth, you know, when he was up there. That’s beautiful. That was beautiful. I didn’t know that the earth is beautiful like that, you know, in the universe like this. All the other stars are just small like, no color, you know, just dark, but when you see the earth from up there, look at that, beautiful! The earth is beautiful! The earth is beautiful. That’s why God loves too, you know. After he made the earth, what did he say? Beautiful! Yeah, that’s right. After he made it.
Dan Miller is an artist living in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.