South Korean art students add some local color to school walls at Camp Humphreys

South Korean art students aimed to create “a powerful image of Korea” on the murals at Humphreys West Elementary School in Camp Humphreys, South Korea. (David Choi/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — Students at Humphreys West Elementary School discovered a splash of color and a piece of Korean culture when they arrived Monday for the first day of the new school year.

Over the summer, a team of South Korean art students from Chung-Ang University in Seoul turned two blank walls at the school into murals highlighting aspects of their country’s culture.

Humphreys West Principal Edgar Romero conceived the project after arriving in November at the school at the largest U.S. military base overseas. Romero said he found the school lacking in artwork and wanted students to be enriched by South Korean culture.

“There are things that kids should be exposed to and should be able to talk about” in their culture classes at school, Romero told Stars and Stripes on Monday. He said many children on the base are multiracial Korean Americans.

“I needed to bring that little bit of Korea into the building so that the host nation teachers could bring and really immerse the kids,” she said of the Korean staff who teach the country’s culture.

Art students in South Korea aimed to create

South Korean art students aimed to create “a powerful image of Korea” on the murals at Humphreys West Elementary School in Camp Humphreys, South Korea. (David Choi/Stars and Stripes)

Formerly the vice principal of Osan High School in nearby Osan Air Force Base, Romero said he has lived in South Korea for 17 years. Exposing military families to South Korean culture has been a challenge, he said, especially when off-base travel was restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Parents need to make a greater effort to reach a folk village or to really expose them to folk art in Korea,” Romero said.

Most military families spend only two or three years in South Korea, too short a time to acclimate to the host country’s culture.

Romero pitched the idea for the mural to the school’s parent-teacher student organization, which put roughly $2,000 toward the project.

The five students in charge of the project worked in 12-hour shifts over 11 days to complete the two murals, which are on opposite ends of a wall inside the school. The artists painted in an ancient Korean style and included images of mountains, fruits, insects and wildlife. One of the murals was finished in May and the other was finished in early August.

Seo Jae Hyun, a third-year student studying Korean painting, said the group wanted to create “a powerful image of Korea.”

“The artwork we did was a little difficult,” he told Stars and Stripes by phone Friday. “When we started the work we were very worried because the teachers could be disappointed, or we could hurt our pride if we did it wrong. We are painters, so we couldn’t ignore it.”

This was the first time the group had painted on a US military base, Seo said. He described the experience as “totally different”.

“I felt like I had gone on a trip abroad,” Seo said. “And I had butterflies in my stomach.”

School officials are discussing plans to allow Humphreys West students and other grassroots organizations to paint more murals at the school, Romero said.

The murals are popular with students at Humphreys West, said Jeannette Rho, the school’s educational technologist.

“They loved seeing him,” she said Thursday. “It was just bringing color, not just tradition, but color, to our elementary school.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.

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