By STEVEN NALLEY
The American South is not as conservative as South Korea.
Seoin Jeong, who came to Starkville High School from South Korea in April 2011, said she has never taken a picture of herself quite like the one she referenced for her self-portrait. Titled “Looking Back,” the self-portrait shows Jeong looking over her shoulder in a tank top.
“The thing is, Korea’s really overprotective,” Jeong said. “People will stare if you wear tank tops in the summer. It’s that overprotective.”
The issue goes deeper than the outfit; Jeong said it took time to get used to striking a pose at all.
“It was a cultural difference,” Jeong said. “Americans don’t look at it (as) that bad. (With) Koreans, since I’m one of them, I could already imagine all the negative things.”
Jeong became the overall winner in the Congressional Art Competition for Mississippi’s third congressional district, earning the right to have “Looking Back” hang in the U.S. Capitol for the next year.
Jeong said the achievement and the training it took to reach it will help her pursue her dream of studying fashion at New York City’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Her teacher, SHS’s Andrew Lark, said he agreed.
“In the real fashion world, to make it, your garment has got to look like it’s on a body, (like) it’s 3-D and it’s really moving,” Lark said. “This is a prestigious competition the congressmen have every year. We set aside time to talk about it. I pour out a positive attitude that ‘You can win; it’s possible to win, but what will you do that another kid will not do?’”
Jeong said she has dreamed of becoming a fashion designer since sixth grade, and while there were a few years when she was unsure about pursuing the dream seriously, she has never looked back since the day her parents surprised her with an opportunity to finish high school and pursue post-secondary studies in the U.S. Lark said she misses her family and friends in Korea, but the art program has kept her too busy to dwell on loneliness.
“I looked forward to coming back (to America,)” Jeong said. “I used to live here during elementary school; I lived in Alabama. When I was a baby I lived in California, and my dad knew the family that I’m living with from when I was a baby, and they kept their contact. Last year, my dad e-mailed them and asked, ‘Can she come over and stay?’ and they said ‘Sure, we’d love to have her.’ (This family) has lived here (in Starkville) for 10 years.”
Jeong said she had to begin with the basics in the final four weeks of her sophomore year in 2011. She said Lark’s first assignment was for her to draw a circle.
“Because I wasn’t in this environment, I didn’t know the standard circle had to be this exact, computerized, literal perfect circle,” Jeong said. “It took me three days to draw circles. It took two weeks to draw squares, triangles, lines, really basic things. I had some struggles.”
Lark said Jeong had a long way to go starting out, but her work ethic and passion made up for it. Jeong takes criticism well, he said, and while she has a strong will, she recognizes the importance of following his instructions.
“When I’m critiquing her ... she won’t make the same mistakes,” Lark said. “She’ll grow. She won’t like it when I’m doing it, but she realizes it’s for her growth.
“She doesn’t like to lose,” Lark added. “She doesn’t like to be outdone.”
Keats Haupt, another student in Lark’s class, said she considers Jeong one of the class’s best students. None of the students like to be outdone, she said, but the class, including Jeong, remains a close-knit group.
“We’re all helping each other build, and then we go into a competition and we realize we’re all competing against each other,” Haupt said. “Seoin is a sweetheart. She doesn’t just want to be the only winner, I think. She wants everyone to win.”
Ultimately, Jeong said her biggest challenge was neither Lark nor any other student — it was herself. Right behind the cultural challenge of photographing herself came the even greater challenge of drawing herself, she said.
“When I was first drawing it, I had to start over about three or four times,” Jeong said. “I couldn’t even figure out the structure of my own face.”
Lark said every student finds his or her own-self portrait challenging, because the pressure for students to make themselves look good is high. That pressure, he said, becomes the foundation for every portrait students draw for the rest of their lives.
“It’s like the first birth,” Lark said. “Once you get them to do the first one, they can draw anybody in here. Their biggest fear is themselves. Ask her. She was doing anything I told her until I gave her that self-portrait, and I knew I had to get her past herself, because everything else was going to be easy for her.”
In the end, Jeong said she is grateful to Lark for helping her overcome her limitations. His goal for her this year is for her to finish 100 drawings, she said, and she is getting close.
“In all my life, I’ve never seen a character like Mr. Lark at all,” Jeong said. “I’m glad I met him.”