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Learning to live - and to paint - as a family

Artistically, the Hahns speak with distinct voices. As a family, they are a close-knit whole. This Korean-American family that includes three respected artists and one environmental designer/photographer have supported one another through some difficult times and have ``started life over,'' culturally and economically - twice so far. From within the supportive family circle, the three artists have also begun to find their own places in the outside art world.

``Artistic talent can run in a family,'' says gallery director Joseph Fuchs. ``But to find several members of one family who pursue it to such a degree of achievement is very unusual.''

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Mr. Fuchs, director of this city's Brand Library Art Galleries, is talking about his latest artistic ``finds'' -- three talented members of a first-generation immigrant family, whose works are currently on display in the ``Hahn Family Show.''

The show fits into a developing pattern of recognition for the Hahns.

In addition to participating in a number of group shows in the United States and Korea, Woo Shik Hahn has had a one-man exhibition at the Barbara Walter Gallery in New York City, and another solo show at the prestigious National Cultural Center of Fine Art in Seoul. Jae Hyun Hahn, his daughter, has entered her paintings in several local groups' shows, and his wife, Young Ae Hahn, has been a frequent contributor to exhibitions at Korean and Chinese cultural organizations. Mrs. Hahn is also a visiting guest artist for several high schools and universities in the Los Angeles area, and teaches classes in calligraphy at the family gallery.

As he guides visitors through the gallery's modern new wing, Fuchs gestures with wide sweeps of his arm at the floor-to-ceiling oil paintings that explode in a profusion of pinks, whites, yellows, blues, and reds as sunlight streams through the skylights. Along a spacious corridor that connects an open atrium to the main gallery, several dozen black-on-white Oriental paintings present an equally striking tableau.

``We could have had any one of the Hahns in a separate exhibition,'' Fuchs continues. ``But it's been exciting in our group show to see the thread and harmony of their work, not to mention the obvious dimension of their personal relationships.''

These relationships were hammered out in a life of struggle and achievement.

Before they emigrated to the US 13 years ago, the Hahns were, in many ways, typical of other hard-working professionals in their native South Korea. They lived in a modest bungalow on the campus of Seoul Women's College, a private girls' school on the outskirts of the capital city, where Mrs. Hahn was resident physician. Mr. Hahn taught art at a high school and explored painting, carving, wood-inlay design, and sculpture in his spare time. One son was in college, one in junior high school, and their daughter was beginning to find her niche in the fine arts department of Seoul National University, her father's alma mater and the leading college in the country.

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When Mr. Hahn's brother, a Sacramento businessman, suggested in the early 1970s that the family come to live in the US, the elder Hahns were at first reluctant. Although their children were excellent students with a thorough knowledge of English, Mr. and Mrs. Hahn spoke little of the language and had many reservations about starting a new life in the States.

For one thing, they had already spent many years rebuilding their life in Seoul in the aftermath of the Korean war. After losing their home and all their possessions in the early bombing of 1950, while her husband was at the front lines with the Army, Mrs. Hahn had fled south with her mother, just days ahead of the advancing North Korean Army. She'd stopped briefly en route to give birth to her first son, Tae Hwan, and for the next several years had lived with various friends and relatives.

When the war finally ended three years later, Hahn rejoined his wife -- and saw his son for the first time -- and they spent several more years in the South. In addition to raising three children, Mrs. Hahn opened her own medical clinic and Mr. Hahn started a leather-processing business. Their eventual return to the relative prosperity of Seoul was a long and hard-fought journey.

Twenty years later, the prospect of leaving Korea was difficult -- for nationalistic as well as economic reasons. Like many of their generation, the Hahns are intensely patriotic. Mrs. Hahn's father had been among the few Koreans -- an estimated 5 percent of the population -- who had refused to change their family names during the 35 years of Japanese occupation, and both her mother and Mr. Hahn's father had been imprisoned by the Japanese for their participation in the national independence uprising of 1919. The family's national ties ran deep.

When the Hahns finally decided to emigrate, it was to pursue a longtime dream of being able to devote their full time to art. Mrs. Hahn's parents had forced her as a young girl to study medicine instead of art, and Mr. Hahn's family had similarly tried to dissuade him from becoming an artist in a society that measures success largely in terms of salary. (The fact that theirs was a ``love marriage,'' rather than a traditional union arranged by a professional matchmaker, had raised only slightly more eyebrows than the fact that a woman doctor -- of her generation, no less! - had crossed the social-class barriers to marry a struggling artist.)

In 1973, five months after they arrived in the US, the Hahns put their life savings into launching Hahn's Gallery, a family-run business in the heart of Los Angeles's ``Korea Town.'' There they sold Korean antiques and contemporary artifacts, and there, too, they began to exhibit their own paintings, as well as those of other emerging artists.

``They were very isolated,'' says Jae Hyun of her parents' life at that time. ``They were apart from all their old friends, and to survive they had to have an objective, a goal. That's when they both started painting seriously.''

Mr. and Mrs. Hahn assumed a regimen that continues to this day, rising at 4 or 5 a.m. to study the Bible and do their painting before the gallery opened at 10. Many days Hahn spent between 12 and 14 hours at his canvases, while his wife kept shop and their daughter attended art classes at the University of California at Los Angeles.

``As a doctor in Korea, I had to be responsible for many other people,'' Mrs. Hahn recalls. ``But here, paper and ink became my friends. While I painted plum and chrysanthemum blossoms -- plants that bloom even in cold weather -- I learned much about patience and the virtue of a strong will.''

The early years were lean ones. Their eldest son was busy trying to support his own young family, and the elder Hahns had barely enough income from the gallery to pay the rent and food bills, let alone Jae Hyun's tuition. Mrs. Hahn made all the family's clothes, and even cut her husband's hair. Seok Wahn pumped gas and worked as a box boy at a neighborhood store to help with finances at home, and did almost all of the day-to-day driving, shopping, and translating for his parents.

``Now I can think back on those days and say it was OK,'' says Seok Wahn. ``It was a good experience, not just for the money I brought home, but for what I learned. If someone says to me today, `Well, you have it pretty easy,' I can tell them it hasn't always been like that -- not at all!''

In addition to the economic strains, there were several difficult years in the mid-1970s when the traditionalist father and the somewhat temperamental daughter in search of her own artistic identity rarely spoke. When they did, it was often to criticize each other's work.

``While Jae Hyun was studying at UCLA, there were many troubles in the family,'' says Mrs. Hahn. ``She'd come home and tell her father what she'd learned at school, and why she didn't like his painting. He'd say, `You don't know anything about art,' and he'd get angry and go off by himself.

``Later, though, he'd usually come back and say, `Maybe she's right, maybe I'll try what she suggested.'''

In the past 10 years, says Jae Hyun, both she and her father have matured and they are once again good friends.

``I may have a kind of new American energy, but he has the old Korean wisdom,'' she explains. ``Anyway, we understand each other so well now that we don't have to talk so much about the big concepts, about what we're trying to say with our art. Instead, he helps me by telling me how to approach a painting, how to be more sensitive to it. Sometimes he also tells me what brushes to use!''

Her mother, Jae Hyun adds, is her best critic.

``If she says a painting is good, I stop. But if she says, `I'll have to think about it,' then I go back and do some more work on it.''

Woo Shik Hahn, father and artistic head of the family, works on a big scale, often hanging two or more large canvases together, and uses broad strokes of bold color. His paintings are abstract impressions of nature and geometric shapes, explored in translucent oils.

Jae Hyun uses many of the same vibrant colors -- a result, she says, of sharing a studio with her father. She sometimes borrows from commercial photography for her contemporary images, and often includes abstract figures in far-flung poses in her energetic compositions.

The third artist in the family, matriarch Young Ae Hahn, is a master of Oriental brush painting -- delicate studies of nature executed in black ink on white rice paper. After practicing this exacting discipline for more than 30 years, Mrs. Hahn is now bringing one of the oldest fine arts of the Far East into the 1980s and making it more accessible to Western viewers by painting California palms and redwoods instead of traditional plum blossoms.

The list of behind-the-scenes credits for the family's accomplishments has to include Seok Wahn's name, as well. ``No. 2 son'' is now a successful freelance environmental designer who designs hotels, shopping centers and the like. Seok Wahn will continue to live with his parents until he marries. He not only encourages them at home, but also talks up their talents to any art expert who will listen.

``I'd seen Woo Shik's and Jae Hyun's work, and really wanted to show them in our gallery,'' says the Brand's Joseph Fuchs. ``When I telephoned Seok Wahn to ask if his father and sister could have some paintings ready for an exhibit, he said, `Sure.' He also said that his mother was very talented, and that I ought to consider including her work in the show. When I went to the family's gallery to look at her paintings, I certainly had to agree with him.''

Seok Wahn has driven his parents throughout the American West on sketching and painting excursions to the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Yosemite, and San Francisco, among many places. Four years ago, he accompanied them to the East Coast for his father's New York exhibition, and drove them north on a side trip to Plymouth, Mass. There the family finally saw in person the replica of the Pilgrim ship Mayflower that they had learned about for their US citizenship tests six years earlier.

Says Mr. Hahn of the first steps he took aboard the ship that day, ``I was very thoughtful, very full of thoughts about religious freedom and the new frontier that is America.''

His son adds: ``Coming to this country was the best thing that could have happened to my parents. In Korea, where people are so much influenced by their friends, where it's hard to get any time to yourself because of your obligations to others, they never had a chance to follow the deep desires of their hearts. Here they've finally been able to do that.''

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