A space of her own: Atherton artist finds an apt metaphor for life in rock
by Renee Batti
What better place can there be for an epiphany than a hill town in Italy?
Atherton artist Mirang Wonne remembers vividly the day she had such a time-stopping, life-changing experience in a small chapel in Tuscany.
It was the 1970s, and Ms. Wonne was an art student in Paris in need of a holiday. With a deep interest in Renaissance art nudging her southeast into Italy, Ms. Wonne found herself in the town of Monterchi, midway between Arezzo and Sansepolcro, to visit a tiny chapel that houses the fresco Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca.
While the fresco was of great interest, it was not, by itself, what gripped the young woman struggling to find her artistic voice. It was the space -- cool, dark, made misty by diffused light coming in from small windows near the ceiling.
"It was so beautiful -- everything: the air, the light. The whole thing was magnificent," Ms. Wonne recalls wistfully.
In that cool, magical space, the young student found her way to artistic expression.
"I sat there for a long time," Ms. Wonne says. "I thought: If I could make some space like this some time in my life, I would be so happy as an artist."
Since then, Ms. Wonne has focused on creating "spaces" in which she hopes others can experience their own epiphanies -- or at least pleasure. And the image she has embraced to give voice to her art is neither lofty nor inaccessible. It is the rock.
"The rock is a metaphor for my concept of life," she says. But to understand that metaphor, one must realize that Ms. Wonne's "rocks" have been created of paint, paper, metal and acid, and willfully shaped. These are rocks that don't conform to the rules of nature: Whereas nature's rocks are solid, heavy, Ms. Wonne's rocks are light, sometimes only two-dimensional -- created to convey the malleability and wonder of life.
The artist as a young woman
A native of Korea, Ms. Wonne studied art first in her native country, then in Paris. She received a doctorate in aesthetics from the Sorbonne before moving to New York, where she worked as a designer for an upholstery factory.
Her life changed again when she met Won Choe, who lived on the West coast. When they married, she relocated again, and has lived in Atherton since 1984.
Although Ms. Wonne continued creating art through those years and early in her marriage, the arrival of children -- Scott and Julia Choe, now students at Hillview Middle School -- curtailed that activity. It was a period that had many bright spots. But with her artistic voice silenced, she also was frustrated and, at times, miserable, she says.
When she went back to work full time in the mid-1990s, first in a Redwood City studio then in her current studio in San Francisco's Hunter's Point, she struggled to rediscover her artistic voice.
Rocks continued to grip her imagination -- giving her a metaphor that helped her sort through the feelings of powerlessness and frustration that followed her from her "dormant period" into her period of renewal.
Even as she returned to art, "I felt like a rock thrown into the air," she recalls, the past anguish resonant in her voice a half-dozen years later.
"We think we are something stronger than we are. Instead, we are each one small thing -- like individual rocks that can be picked up and thrown."
The path to regaining a sense of control over her life led to taking control of the image she found to be the most engaging symbol of life. She freed herself to strip rocks of their weight, their solidity. By doing this, she began to free herself of conditions imposed by other forces in life, she explains.
Her transformation of rock into things that contradict its natural qualities -- solidity, weight -- suggests the changeable, malleable quality of life and humankind. "If we stay with what we are given, we have solid rock," she says. "If we form ourselves in our own directions, we change.
"The reason I am doing this is (to express that) life is not in one permanent form. It is temporal."
In a powerful triptych called "Rebirth -- Freedom I," Ms. Wonne depicts rocks floating against a black space, with one rock in the lower right corner split and on fire. The blazing rock represents her inner strength and will to transform herself, she says.
Out of harshness, beauty
Ms. Wonne creates her rocks from a range of media, including acrylic on canvas, mulberry paper collage, and wire mesh on rock-shaped forms. Some of her most stunning work is on copper screen -- which she loves for its silky, warm qualities -- on which she paints rock-like surfaces with acid.
That process, too, has symbolic resonance for her.
"Acid is very harsh and toxic," she notes. But when she dabs and splashes it on her copper screens, "the end result is very beautiful."
"Through inner strength and will, you can modify, make things beautiful."
She says she uses about 20 acids, each producing different colors or color shadings. The results are affected by temperature, humidity, and the amount of time the copper is exposed to the acid before the chemical change is halted. Those sometimes hard-to-control elements are pleasing to the artist, who says, "I love to work with (acid) -- it's always surprising."
Her studies in Korea and Paris didn't prepare her for working with metals and acid, but that hasn't stopped her from researching the chemistry and other aspects of the process. "School doesn't teach you every technique," she says.
"As an artist, you really have to find your own way. Creativity comes that way."