For a lot of us, Ecuadorian-born Gaby Berglund Cardenas is the perfect example of a successful woman: she is well educated, speaks several languages and has a background in project management in Europe, all prior to receiving her Master’s of Fine Arts here in Korea and becoming a professional artist with sought-after paintings.
She also manages to keep a balance between her artistic career and her family life while making time for her own interests, such as reading, photography, freelance writing, making great food and, for the last year, studying Buddhist philosophy.
According to Cardenas, she feels happiest and most accomplished for having a loving and creative family and for making art her biggest passion and her present occupation. Instead of trying to live up to someone else’s expectations, she feels it is important for her to continuously evolve, finding meaning in her work as a means of freedom of expression and as a means to make a difference and influence and inspire others including her husband and children.
I met Cardenas three years ago, when she had just arrived in Korea. It was her strong will and a desire for self-realization as an artist – which, it turned out, she carried from childhood – that impressed me the most. Today, after more than a dozen exhibitions in Korea and abroad (recently in New Caledonia and Japan), two upcoming solo exhibitions in 2012, as well as her participation in the Busan Biennale this autumn, Cardenas “the artist” has truly arrived.
I sat down and talked with her about her success in achieving her dreams, her goals as an accomplished artist and, of course, about art.
As children, many of us dream about becoming musicians, dancers, but time passes and, for different reasons, we give up our dreams. What was the biggest challenge on your path to becoming an artist and choosing art as a profession later in life?
I guess what helped me to not give up was self-determination and survival. Even before moving to Korea, I decided to make a change of career and I knew that the bonus would be that I would be happier and able to share that feeling with my family. I wanted my kids to learn by example about how important it is to follow our own paths, that it it is not only about having a dream, but making a plan and taking the needed steps to make it happen. I wish to encourage them and others to explore and find out what they really want to be in life and to be risk-takers in unconventional ways.
In Sweden I was working as a project manager as well as taking art classes privately. When the opportunity came to move to Korea, I took my portfolio and enrolled in graduate school at Kyungsung University with the help of a wonderful Korean friend, and last year I got my Master’s degree in Fine Arts with oil painting as my major.
That must have been a challenge.
I would say that despite language and cultural barriers, I felt welcome by the Korean friendliness. However, I did face some challenges. When one thinks of art school, one imagines a place of open-mindedness, right? However, that wasn’t always the case. My classmates and I encountered prejudice and sexism regarding subject choices, nudity in art, abstract art, and the list can go on.
Fortunately, the university’s art department was forced to undergo internal changes during the second year and I was able to connect with a couple of great teachers who made a lasting impression on me.
What about cultural expectations of you as a woman?
Well, some expected me to just be a housewife in Korea, others focused more on my feminine attributes than my work, others referred to my art as a hobby and I am sure that some expected me to volunteer more for my kids’ school. How I handled these challenges was by trying to show professionalism when dealing with customers and galleries and by focusing on growing as an artist and as a woman instead of on the negative or prejudice.
Another challenge was, of course, finding balance in my own life. Isn’t that a challenge for all of us? It took me a great deal of organization and sacrifice to balance it all out. Juggling the routine of daily studio work, finding mental space to create and evolve, doing public relations, building relationships with galleries while trying to be mindful when I am with my family and staying connected with our family in Ecuador and Sweden. This is where my daily meditation practice helps a lot.
How do you fit your social life into all of that?
Unfortunately, my social life has come last the past few years, but I am still blessed for having a few good friends who will always be there and I can count on a lot of support and love of our family outside Korea.
I don’t know if you experienced this while you were President of BIWA (Busan International Women’s Association), but women in general often lack a mentor of the same gender. Most of my mentors when I worked in the business area were male. This was positive since it has helped me to be more oriented to facts than to emotions when doing business, but being in a foreign country made it more difficult. However I have been blessed in meeting a few great Korean women and men who have been supportive and inspiring. I feel that all of this has made me more confident and support my professional and personal growth as well as my growth as an artist.
What does it mean to you to “grow as an artist”?
For me it means to stay true to myself through the years and to keep my work fresh and honest. I suppose it also means to be less afraid of critics and to do one’s work because one believes in it, and not to imitate somebody else or fit in a certain niche in the market.
I often remind myself of the words of the American artist Mark Tobey: “When an artist starts to repeat himself and ceases to be engaged in the problem of equilibrium, of balance, then he is a career painter. When his problem is always vital and present, then he is an artist.” At some point we must choose if we want to be a career artist or “an artist”.
Today, I feel happy that my work is starting to pay off. I am thankful to Mrs. Kumjoo Kang for inviting me to a solo exhibition at her new Gallery Idm – SPACE starting next week on the 23rd, as well as to be invited to the Busan Biennale in September and to have won a solo show at the Alliance Française de Busan in November this year. The feeling is amazing, but as anything that grows, you never know where it is going to take you.
You lived and studied in Ecuador, the US, Norway, Sweden and Korea. How has Korea influenced your art?
I think every artist is influenced by their environment and background, being aware of it or not. Living in Korea for three years has influenced me for the opportunity to grow personally and professionally. Through not only graduate school, but through a lot of self study, I have developed a critical understanding of my creative work in the context of different arts, humanities and sciences. However, what has influenced me most powerfully is my study Eastern philosophies, especially Buddhism.
Can you talk about that?
Studying Buddhism for the last year has challenged my perspective of life and success. I have learned to enjoy solitude, to be more in touch with nature and enjoy the moment. Today I see solitude and boredom as some of the requisites to get to any great idea, a new series for example, so it has become something to pursue instead of something to avoid.
Also Korea has brought me and, all of us expats, the opportunity to travel in Asia. I have personally become interested in their history and current affairs. It greatly inspired me to create my upcoming series “Tree of Life”!
Another fascinating thing is that I am developing my love for writing. I had the chance to meet and interview Chong An Sunim, who is the first Hungarian to be given the authority of guiding teacher in the history of Korean Buddhism. I am hoping it will be published this autumn by Haps.
The inspiration for your “Tree of Life” series was born after your trip to Vietnam and Cambodia and, according to you, reflects your concern for the destruction of trees and cultural genocide during times of war. How would you define your goals as an artist while working on this series?
I guess as a photographer you also wonder sometimes if there is a meaning in your work. All artists, at some point, need to find meaning in their work. At some point I started to wonder what can one do as an artist when there is so much injustice, violence and inequality out there. I wanted to do art that reflects the social or contemporary issues that concern me and that’s how “Tree of Life” was born. For example, Cambodia is still today victim of illegal deforestation and land-grabbing. One of my pieces is dedicated to Chut Wutty, Cambodia’s foremost forest activist who was cowardly killed at the hands of military police in April this year. Many people don’t know about this problem and I would like to help to raise awareness.
It’s not my intention to be called an “activist” or to be put in a certain box. I didn’t want the series to be horrifying or shocking, either; we get enough of that from images on the news. Instead, I wish that my series reflects certain hope and makes the viewer wonder and wander.
Once you said that making art is like a visual diary. What do you value the most about this diary, the possibility to pour out your experience or to share it with others?
In a diary we write about things that happen to us, but also things that happen to others. There is so much happening out there today. Nowadays people can make of art what they want and in the biggest capitals of the world art has become fashion and financial speculation. I believe that an artist, a singer or a writer cannot change the world but, if we feel a responsibility, we can let the world know that not everyone agrees with the acts of some powerful people. That can make a small difference because art gives us the freedom of expression and also the power to heal ourselves by giving us some mental peace and to try to heal others.
Anna Girsova is former president of the Busan International Women’s Association and editor of BIWA’s Dove publication.
Photos by Anastasia Khan. www.anastasiakhan.com