Friday, May 1, 2015

Big Fish
Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan, South Korea inspires community art in Aromas, California
Originally published May 1, 2015 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel

Round my hometown
Ooh the people I've met
Are the wonders of my world       

The “Big Fish” was created by over 200 residents and friends of Aromas in the fall and winter
 of 2014-15. and installed in the Aromas Town Square Park on April 12, 2015.
There are many people I regard as unsung heroes in my home town. As hard-working members of unglamorous boards and committees, or just self-appointed organizers, they work tirelessly, with little or no compensation, to bring our community closer together. They create social gatherings, concerts, workshops, classes, festivals, talent nights, fund-raising events and food distribution centers. They plan soccer fields and buy Christmas gifts for those in need. They give us tasks to do, and forgive us when we let them down. They make us feel like we truly belong.

So what is this “sense of community” they are chasing and why is it so important? A recent article by Virginia Sole-Smith in Real Simple magazine makes the case that face-to-face connections are rapidly declining in favor of social networking and isolation. And the daily cycle of home-to-work-to-couch-to-bed keeps us unconnected, distrustful and even, unhealthy.

Sole-Smith shares some disheartening statistics:
  • The last quarter of the 20th century saw a drop of a 33 percent in the number of people who regularly invite friends over and a 58 percent drop in the number who join community clubs and actually attend meetings.
  • In the 1960s, half of Americans said they trusted other people, even strangers; less than a third say so today.
  • 25 percent of us lack a single close confidant (defined as someone with whom you can discuss “important matters”), while 50 percent of us are just one friend away from social isolation—and social isolation is a strong predictor of premature death.
Nested high in the hills of Busan, my family enjoys a delicious
 breakfast with a great view of the colorful homes and maze of
 alleyways in Gamcheon Culture Village. While the villagers had for
 decades painted their own homes in pastel hues, artists added
 dozens of colorful touches throughout the town, attaching
 nicknames such as “Korea’s Santorini” and “Lego Village.”
Most of our group-living now happens online, but Facebook can’t substitute for the safety and security that comes from living in a community where your neighbors watch out for you and know your kids’ names. Likewise, shopping online and in big-box stores has contributed to a loss of community interdependence. Big corporations like Amazon and Wal-Mart have replaced the merchants and crafts people who we might have gotten to know in local shops, and limited opportunities for running into friends and neighbors.

One family profiled by Sole-Smith, however, took a dramatic leap of faith and used Facebook to broaden their face-to-face associations. Feeling like they never saw their friends and neighbors between the demands of work and home, the family posted an open invitation on Facebook for Friday night spaghetti and meatball dinners at their home. Anyone was welcome at their table, and they kept the meal prep and housekeeping to a minimum. The priority was spending more time with their village. (Now the idea has gone global, and stories of its success are posted on, whose motto is “Building community, one dinner at a time.”) I’m truly astounded by the willingness and trust it takes to make this kind of continuing commitment in the name of community.

The big fish in Gamcheon Culture Village in Busan, South Korea, was created collaboratively by artists
 and many of its 10,000 residents as part of an art-themed make-over of the suburb in 2009-10 by the
 the South Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism.  The 2009-10 project—originally named "Dreaming
 of Machu Picchu in Busan”—resulted in an adventure of discovery for visitors willing to wander
through the hillside labyrinth in search of art. Installations include trompe-l’oeil cut-outs, sculpture, mosaics,
 murals, and even rooms remodeled around a singular art concept, such as “peace” or “darkness.”
Last year, my husband discovered another great example of community-building on the other side of the globe. We flew to South Korea—the country our 20-year-old daughter has chosen to call home after a ten-month stay there as a Watsonville Rotary-sponsored exchange student in 2011-12. We visited several cities, but our favorite was Busan—a modern metropolis of 3.6 million at the southern-most tip of the Korean peninsula.

Gamcheon Culture Village after the Korean War.   
Gamcheon Culture Village today.

In addition to experiencing the beautiful beaches, glamorous department stores, fascinating fish markets, cat cafes, and sweet potato pizza, we also visited Gamcheon Culture Village – a residential community of colorful, box-shaped homes terraced on a steep hillside overlooking the southern coastline. In contrast to Busan’s glittering high-rises, Gamcheon Culture Village has retained its traditional look and identity, housing many of Busan’s less-affluent since the early 20th century. What makes it a tourist destination is the art-themed make-over it received in 2009-10, when the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in South Korea invited artists and art students to add murals, sculpture and art installations to the village.

Most impressive to me was the fact that much of the artwork was created collaboratively by artists and village residents. One of the best products of this teamwork was the painted wooden fish, posted along the narrow pathways to guide tourists through the hillside labyrinth of art and homes. These same small fish were also arranged on a tall retaining wall in the shape of a very large fish, creating a colorful backdrop for tourist selfies.

Aromas School fifth graders painted fish for the project.
In the history museum, a photograph showed the villagers seated at long tables, painting the fish together—an opportunity to meet neighbors and form new alliances as their village was in transition. (The village make-over also included establishing a community center, residents’ association, maintenance group, public relations office, village businesses, and music and arts workshops—making the tourist invasion a little more welcome.)

Before our trip to South Korea, one of the community-builders in my own hometown came to my arts group and proposed that we create an art installation for Aromas’s Town Square Park. We scratched our heads and worried about vandalism.

After my trip to South Korea, I showed photos of Gamcheon Culture Village and proposed that Aromas, as a community, could create a large fish mosaic of our own. With the guidance and commitment of a few dedicated volunteers, and the participation of about 200 community members and their friends, we were able to paint 350 fish over a five-month period and finally install the big fish in the park last month.

The Aromas community had several opportunities to paint
 fish at various Grange events such as the pancake breakfasts
and holiday arts festival.
And so, like Gamcheon, my village sat together—young and old, elbow to elbow—to paint fish and get to know each other a little bit better. The finished product has also drawn us together, as we congregate at the park to find our individual fish and admire the others—all swimming along together.

Just last weekend, I was thrilled when our spring talent show, Aromas Live, used an image of the Big Fish on the program cover and recognized its completion. Perhaps the Big Fish will serve as a symbol of a small town devoted to creating a sense of community. Perhaps, as we drive by the park on our way home, we will now turn our heads and smile at the colorful reminder of how fortunate we are to live in a place where we feel like we truly belong.

Wet fish dry in the sun—a contribution to the Aromas Big Fish
 from an intercession arts class at our local Anzar High School.