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Artist Has Soft Spot for Rocks

by Heather Knight, Chronicle Staff Writer


Ask most any artist what part of nature most inspires him or her, and you're likely to hear about windswept beaches, brilliant golden sunsets, the vast redwood forest. Mirang Wonne has a different take on the great outdoors. She loves rocks. The Atherton artist creates portraits of rocks, giant copper mesh wall-hangings with rocks painted on them and groupings of copper rocks that sit on individual stands on the floor. But her most eye-catching work consists of giant wire-mesh boulders -- we're talking so big they're moved from gallery to gallery in U-Hauls.


"When I say nature, it's not a pretty, superficial meaning, with the flowers and the butterflies and the trees," she said. "It's rather a big view of nature -- the Earth and universe, the moon, the whole thing."


Elegant and well-spoken, Wonne, who declined to disclose her age, grew up in Korea and took many formal art classes. She won a scholarship to the University of the Sorbonne in Paris, where she earned her doctorate in aesthetics.


She followed her first husband to New York and worked as a designer in an upholstery factory. Her marriage dissolved after less than a year, and she became depressed. .


"That was a crucial moment for me as a person and an artist," she said. "That's when I got the idea for a rock -- so small, so miserable. . . . We are not as powerful as we think. The rock image has become like myself. It's small, lonesome, not really grouped together. That's how I felt, and ever since, it's been my motif."


For her first rock-related artwork, she painted a rock in pastels, which she now says "had no real life in it."


After she fell in love with her second husband, Won Choe, moved with him to the Bay Area and had two children, her vision of herself and rocks began to change. As she grew happier, her rocks did too. Now, she experiments with images of floating rocks and fiery rocks, grouped rocks and powerful rocks.


"I slowly became much happier and felt more confident," she said. "My work gets lighter and lighter."


It has also become more dangerous. Inside her Hunters Point studio, she keeps more than 20 kinds of toxic acid. She spontaneously splashes the acids on copper mesh so the material turns an unpredictable shade of green, blue, brown or red. She always keeps water and baking soda around just in case there's an accident.


"It's not too, too dangerous," she said.


Wonne's uncommon view of nature and her nontraditional artwork attracted the eye ofMatias Varela, executive director of the Arts Council of San Mateo County, which coordinated her current show at the Manor House Gallery in Belmont.


"She's very futuristic," Varela said. "She has a lot of vision and a lot of complicated mechanisms that are working. When I see the works, I think, 'Wow, who works in copper?' "


Her family, while supportive, doesn't have her artistic tastes, Wonne said. Her kids, Scott and Julia Choe, who attend Hillview Middle School, have decided they'll never become artists, because there's no payoff. And her husband, who works in a high-tech field, doesn't relate to her art.


"I don't really understand what he's doing, and I don't really think he understands what I'm doing," she said.


For Wonne, the rock motif reminds her of her home in Korea. She grew up in a mountainous region where she camped and hiked with her family and admired Buddha figures carved into mountainsides.


"Being Asian, nature is subconsciously a big part of your spirit," she said. "It's not just a geological element. . . . We didn't grow up with McDonald's or a mechanical anything. We grew up thinking nature is a part of us, not that we just live inside, and nature is out there."

Asian philosophy centers around nature, not for its beauty but for its virtue, she said. Ancient Asian scholars frequently painted bamboo because it never turns brown and orchids because of their subtle fragrance. Likewise, for Wonne, rocks represent solidity and concreteness.


"They're not just a natural phenomenon," she said. "They're something we can talk to and learn from."

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