Fiber art pieces explore conflict, peace and interconnectedness
By Don Ratzlaff
At first blush, the casual observer might not think the fiber art of Tabor College professor Shin-hee Chin is tailor made for an exhibit on war and peace at the Eisenhower Presidential Museum in Abilene, Kan.
But closer inspection reveals the artist, the former president and the topic are intricately interwoven.
“War and Peace: The Art of Shin-hee Chin,” opened in early August at the Eisenhower Presidential Museum in partnership with the Arts Council of Dickinson County, and will remain open for viewing until Jan. 6. The Tabor College alumni office is organizing a Nov. 14 day trip to visit the exhibit; Chin will make a presentation as part of the tour.
Perhaps the most significant connection between the 34th president and the artist is that Eisenhower is held in high esteem by South Korea, which is Chin’s native land before she immigrated to the United States.
“He was the president—at least in my memory—that I studied a lot from my textbook,” Chin says. “And he’s sort of a father figure to the kids. He was a popular president for Korean kids.”
Acting on a campaign pledge, Eisenhower went to Korea as president-elect on Dec. 2, 1952, to visit with the troops, their commanders and South Korean leaders. He left the country determined to end the hostilities that had been festering since the Northern Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea in 1950.
Seven months into Eisenhower’s first term, an armistice was signed, ending organized combat operations and leaving the Korean peninsula divided at the 38th parallel.
Museum curator William Snyder says over the course of his presidency, the Eisenhowers received numerous gifts from the Korean people, most of which are stored at the museum in Abilene.
“We’re pulling out those diplomatic gifts and doing a small display (as part of the exhibit) and talking about how Eisenhower is viewed as sort of an honored figure in South Korea,” he says.
Eisenhower and Chin share personal stories where war and peace have been strong influences.
Most Americans know Eisenhower as the commander-in-chief of the victorious Allied forces during World War II. But fewer know that during his earliest years in Abilene, his parents worshiped with the River Brethren, a pacifist group with Mennonite roots.
Since 2004, Chin has taught fine arts at Tabor College, an institution owned by the Mennonite Brethren denomination that supports biblical nonresistance in its confession of faith.
Chin, who describes herself as a peacemaker, employs traditional and contemporary fiber art techniques to create moving examples of war and peace. At the heart of her exhibit is a fiber portrait that features the faces of her mother, herself and her daughter. All three are depicted at age 20.
“There’s about 30 years gap between the three women,” Chin says. “Those women’s lives are kind of a backdrop behind the trauma of war. My mom’s generation is World War II and the Korean War, mine is the Vietnam War and Cold War, and my daughter’s are the more recent wars.
“I thought, when we say war and peace we only think of people who send a family member to the war,” she says. “Actually, whether it is big or small, we all feel the impact caused by war. “I started with that image (of the three women), and then thought about victims, or people who sacrificed their lives in the war.”
Exploring the issues
Chin says her exhibit does not present a pacifist perspective, but rather is an exploration of conflict and peacemaking.
“It’s a very sensitive subject matter, even to pacifists during the Korean War,” she says. “If they had followed the pacifist idea, Korea would have ended up (a communist country).
“Actually, it was my struggle to see how could I make it work—not in a political way, but as an artist,” she adds. “I kind of wanted to share the pain and also the courage of the peacemakers. I want to highlight that aspect.”
Chin says Eisenhower represents something of a balance between conflict and peacemaking. The double portrait she created of Eisenhower for the “War & Peace” exhibit aims to communicate that balance.
“I used the words that he said in England, that he is from the very heart of America,” she says. “He had a humble upbringing from Kansas. So I have the horizontal line between the two images. It is kind of juxtapositioned.”
Chin says the hardest part of developing the exhibit was to incorporate Eisenhower into her theme without making a political statement.
“My works seek to valorize the small tasks that together yield a greater sum in positive energy, yet are overlooked or dismissed by history,” she says. “In addition to recognizing the work of the unsung heroes of wartime, my work also seeks to acknowledge the trials endured by victims of war.”
Sharing a parallel
One more connection not realized by many Americans is that the 38th parallel that forms the border between South Korea and North Korea also runs through Kansas.
“The 38th parallel is what divides North and South, but also it’s kind of a canvas line,” Chin says in reference to her work. “Somehow we are all connected, so I wanted to share that interconnectedness.
“The Korean War is a forgotten war to American people,” Chin adds, “but 1.8 million soldiers served in Korea, and 35,000 people died in Korea. So it also made trauma for American families. As a Korean immigrant, I want to appreciate the sacrifice that the American family made for Korea.”
Don Ratzlaff is editor of the Hillsboro Free Press. This article is reprinted with permission.
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