▲ The artist, with examples of his work. Photos by Susan Shain
Full disclosure: Stephen Krohn is The Weekly’s editorial illustrator.
For the complete interview, please go to our Web site — Ed.
The first time I met Stephen Krohn was at a weekend English camp. Being an early Saturday morning, I was as close to being in a zombie state as it gets. Stephen, however, was running around like a kid on Christmas Day, warmly welcoming both the teachers and students. I asked my friend, “Who is that guy?!” In the times I’ve seen Stephen since, he hasn’t changed. Dying to know the secret to his energy and positivity, and wanting to learn more about his beautiful watercolor children’s book “Jeju From A to Z,” I sat down with him last month.
Where are you from and where did you go to college?
I grew up in Tucson, Arizona. That’s my home, so I’m a desert rat. I went to the University of Arizona. My major was fine arts — painting and drawing.
Did you grow up painting and drawing?
I started painting when I was in fifth grade, but I had been drawing all my life. I grew up in a Lutheran household, and there were lots of potluck dinners. They would always spread out a big piece of white paper on the table, and I would draw on it. My parents said that people would be watching me draw instead of listening to the guest speaker ... I wish my parents had’ve kept those papers!
Is your family artistic?
My sister and I grew up painting together, but she’s not as into it now. I would say my parents are more crafty. My mom was always doing arts and crafts. Growing up she was in charge of an after school daycare, so we were always doing crafts. And my dad enjoyed doing leatherwork.
What did you do after college?
I mean, I had no clue. Now art is seeming more like a possible career, now that I’m doing more things with it, but after college I just wanted to travel. So my goal was to get a degree and join the Peace Corps. So I joined the Peace Corps and was able to travel to Bangladesh. I spent two years there working as an English teacher. Mostly my job was teaching teachers how to teach English.
Is that where you and your wife met? Bangladesh?
Yes, we met in the Peace Corps. She was about four hours away from the capital, and I was about eight hours away. So, we were about a day’s travel away from each other. We would meet in the capital maybe once or twice a month.
How long have you been in Jeju?
We’ve been here for three years and are starting our fourth now.
Do you enjoy teaching?
I love it. It allows me to be creative and have fun with kids. I love working with the little kids. I’ve tried working with older kids, but the high school students don’t see me as an authority figure. I’ve been working as an EPIK (English Program in Korea) elementary school teacher the whole time.
I saw the draft of your illustrated children’s book at the “I Love Jeju” Art Fest. It was beautiful. Tell me about it.
It’s called “Jeju From A to Z.” The idea came to me when I was at the [Jeju] National Museum. We came upon one exhibit that talked about how the Dutch stumbled upon Jeju while trading with Japan. And they had a name for Jeju — Quelpart. My wife saw the name and said “If we ever have a dog, that’d be a great name!” And I got to thinking “Well, if you have the letter ‘Q,’ then it’s so easy to make an ABC book.” I figured once I got the ‘Q,’ all the other letters would fall into place.
So, your book catalogs the alphabet, with each letter standing for a Jeju item?
Yes, it lists things that are unique to Jeju. Some things I think are very well known, like “H for Hallasan” and “G for Grandfather stone.” But then I have things that aren’t very well known, like ‘X’ for “eXiled Chusa.” Chusa was a member of the king’s court a long time ago. He got into some trouble with the queen, so the king decided to exile him to Jeju. So, he lived on Jeju for seven years. While he was here, he had a lot of free time and developed into a very well known calligrapher.
What was your process in writing and illustrating the book?
First, I had to figure out what every letter was going to be. I had to play with things, like haenyeo could be ‘H’ or I could use ‘W’ for women divers. That must have taken two to three months, just figuring out what the letters would be and getting organized. Then, I spent a month or two sketching out each page. Once I had the sketches worked out, I started the watercolor. I wanted to not complete them all the way, because then I wouldn’t get to the last one and have the style completely changed. So, I tried to work on two, three, or four at the same time and tried to see where the style was going. I added colored pencil at the very end. It was a way to keep them all unified. In total, it took about 10 months.
What do you hope to see happen with it?
I hope to get it published. I’m trying to contact Korean publishers right now. I’m asking a [fellow] teacher to help me work on that.
What’s your ideal vision for the book? Where would you like to see it being sold?
I see it at so many places. Mostly tourist sites. Where people would see it as a gift or souvenir, because it’s unique. But, I want this in schools, too. There’s so much children don’t know about Jeju sometimes. I want them to feel proud of Jeju. I want them to see Jeju not as just their home or their village, but as this bigger entity. And practicing English while they’re at it!
What’s your favorite place on Jeju?
I have two. One is Olle course 14-1. It’s over on the very east side of the island, where course 13 ends and 14 begins. Most of the Olle courses are coastal, and this one is all forest. We didn’t see really anybody all day. It was great to get away from the crowds The other place is Gidang. It’s an art museum in Seogwipo. This one artist has got these cute narratives; they’re big, beautiful paintings with a horse, a man, and a tree. They’re all about Jeju, and the colors are so vibrant and expressive.
What about Jeju inspires you?
The nature, definitely. And the weather. The weather is so different from day to day. We share different climate zones. Some of the year, it’s a temperate area with the pines. And then sometimes, you have a tropical feel, and that changes the light. It’s like this morning, waking up and seeing Hallasan covered in snow, was really cool. I love the purples and pinks when you wake up.
What are your likes/dislikes about Korea?
I like that, as a foreigner, you’re allowed to be a crazy person sometimes. When you go down the street carrying a giant piece of wood or something, people look at you like “Oh, it’s just because you’re a foreigner.” Dislikes? Sometimes there’s too many people to maneuver through. Sometimes you just need some personal space.
What are your plans for the future?
My wife and I aren’t completely sure. We’ve talked about going back to the US or staying another year. Korea’s treated us so well. It’s such a good opportunity to stay here, but we do miss home, too. It’d be interesting to go back and use these experiences at home.
What are the most important things to you?
I have too many passions. I love nature, art, traveling, and I also love birdwatching. I’ve seen over 100 birds just in Korea. On my bird list are 333 birds — that’s what I’ve seen in my lifetime.
Wow, how’d you get into bird watching?
From boy scouts. I actually started boy scouts really late — I only had three years to complete my Eagle Scout. I think a lot of my love for the outdoors comes from boy scouts. Also, I think my need to understand places comes from there, too. Having an orientation and knowing exactly where everything is — that’s important to me. When Korean teachers talk to me sometimes they’re like, “You know more about Jeju than I do!”
I know that your name is spelled “Stephen,” but you pronounce it like “Stefan.” That hasn’t always been the case, right?
No, it hasn’t. Pretty much everyone I knew before Bangladesh calls me Stephen [like Steven]. When I joined the Peace Corps, that’s when I decided to “re-pronounce” my name. I like the way it sounds better. It was kind of funny — the first time I called home, I couldn’t tell my parents, “Hi, this is Stephen [pronounced Stefan].” I had to say, “Hi, this is Steve.” I had Peace Corps volunteers all around me, and they freaked out, like,“You’re not Steve! You’re Stephen [pronounced Stefan].”
You seem to have boundless energy and positivity. Every time I see you, you are smiling. What’s your secret?
You just have to be open minded all the time. And you have to embrace the negative energy and the chaos. In Buddhism, the theory is that if you don’t have pain and suffering, that means you’re dead. So, you have to embrace the bad things along with the good things.
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