Dong Sun Kim is a stealth artist.
As he guides his brush around a pencil outline of a woman posing against a spectacular, wall-spanning Monterey Bay vista, he reveals that he’s making this work of art as a surprise present for his friend’s wife, the mural’s unwitting centerpiece.
Accordingly, an after-dark expedition to Watsonville, with the mural’s four panels, is in his future.
“We go hiding in the nighttime and put it up, and then in the morning she’ll be” – he gasps, his face adopting a bewildered expression.
He believes she’ll love it as much as his wife loves a 14-foot-tall Big Sur mural he painted on the wall of her Marina beauty salon one night as she slept.
“My paintings, really fast,” Kim says in his broken English. “People like.” It’s true; businesses like River Ranch Fresh Foods in Salinas and Caffe Mia in Marina have commissioned Kim to adorn their buildings with landscapes.
But suddenly his mischievous grin fades, and a furrowed brow appears. “But nobody knows me,” he says, looking sadly around his modest studio on Reindollar Avenue in Marina.
Born in Seoul, South Korea, Kim picked up a paintbrush at an early age. He loved painting trees, koi ponds and other nature, but as he got older he gravitated toward all things American.
“I looked in history books, then watched cowboy movies,” he laughs. “It was my dream to come to the U.S.”
That dream was deferred by a 16-year stint in the Korean military, but Kim continued to paint. He gained recognition through self-promotion, and the government commissioned him to paint a mural in one of its buildings in Seoul.
In 1977, Kim, his wife Chong, and his two children, Hong and Sang, moved to the Monterey Peninsula to live near his brother, who talked a good game about the American arts scene.
“I was thinking this would be like New York or L.A.,” Kim says. “But here, people didn’t like art things. I thought, ‘Why we come here?’”
With limited English and minimal money, Kim decided to focus on supporting his family. He found work as a pastry chef in Carmel and made small oil paintings in his spare time. He submitted a painting to the committee judging art for the 1978 Pebble Beach Councours d’Elegance; it became a poster advertising the event and is featured in coffee table books and glossy histories of the legendary car show.
A Pebble Beach woman taken with the poster tracked down Kim and asked him to paint murals inside of her house. She was Kim’s first American client, and his only regular one for 17 years.
It wasn’t until 1995 that Kim was truly discovered. His path to full-time artistry began in a Moss Landing deli, where Salinas artist and local legend John Cerney tracked him down.
“People had told me, ‘Hey, there’s this guy in town, he’s pretty good, you should check him out,’” says Cerney, who’s garnered national fame for his giant plywood cutouts of people, including the 18-foot-tall farmworkers towering over fields off Highway 68.
“[Kim] was aggressive,” Cerney recalls. “He said, ‘Give me a call, we work together.’ I thought, ‘C’mon, pal.’”
But as he saw more of Kim’s work, Cerney became convinced collaborating would benefit them both. He hired Kim in 1998 to help him paint his plywood people, and gradually taught him how to use a saw and make the cutouts himself. Soon, Kim was painting landscape murals that served as the backdrop for Cerney’s cutouts.
“I was taking on jobs I wouldn’t normally take, because he was such a beautiful landscape artist,” Cerney says.
The pair parted ways in 2006 after Cerney decided he wanted to work on certain projects individually. He feels they left on good terms; Kim won’t speak on the record about his relationship with Cerney. After Cerney’s name enters the conversation, however, Kim starts speaking bitterly about what he feels is his overlooked talent.
“You know that whale mural on Cannery Row?” Kim asks, referring to the faded marine life painting on the Enterprise Cannery building near San Carlos Beach. “Many people ask me, ‘Whose painting is this? It’s ugly!’ Then someone told me the artist’s very famous. Don’t matter famous! Nobody likes it!”
He describes how he would change it if given the chance.
“I would give it color, life,” he says. “Make it beautiful! This is beautiful country, I want to paint it. It don’t matter the price, I want to do it.”
While he may have unfulfilled dreams, his daughter, Sang, sees his story as triumphant.
“He’s so dedicated to his craft,” says Sang, speaking from her home on the Caribbean island of Dominica. “He spent years doing other things to feed his family, but he didn’t give up.”
For more information, call Dong Sun Kim at 883-8353.