Cindy Hong is an art teacher at Sugar Hill Elementary. She moved from Korea as a child and spent most of her life in Gwinnett County. She later attended the University of Georgia, where she chose to double major in two separate art fields — Art Education and Drawing and Painting.
In 2015, Cindy witnessed something that would define her purpose as an artist. It was her sophomore year in college, and she was visiting family in Seoul when she met some of the country’s last surviving “Comfort Women.”
“Every Wednesday in front of Japanese Embassy in Seoul, these grandmothers would protest, asking the Japanese government to apologize and admit their fault. Many of the women were ill and couldn’t move easily, but they would come every Wednesday, and young adults would join them. That’s how I learned about the Comfort Women,” said Cindy.
In WWII, approximately 200,000 young women were trafficked and enslaved. Known as “Comfort Women”, many of these girls either were kidnapped from their families or willing left under the pretense of a well-paid job, only to be enslaved as sex workers for the Japanese Imperial Army. Many of these women died at the hands of their captors, while others have since deceased from old age and other causes. But 21 of these women are alive today and have shared their stories in hopes that it will never be forgotten.
Reading about the torture these women faced, Cindy’s discomfort escalated. Eventually, she decided to channel that emotion for her senior exit show and tell the story visually.
But recreating the Comfort Women’s tale was no easy task.
“It was like, this is real, and I wanted to share their story instead of just showing off my skill,” Cindy said. Above all, she didn’t want to only portray the pain and these women suffered or define them as victims.
It was a stop and go process, but Cindy finally found a way to do the Comfort Women justice. To show their triumph in the face of torture as well as their resilience and hope, she decided to name her exhibit “Freedom Fighters”.
To Cindy, “The name ‘Freedom Fighters’ is including us in the story because they are a fighter, and we are not just going to stay silent about it. It’s sort of a label for them and us.”
As she came to that realization, Cindy decided to simplify the story and ‘bring out the women themselves’. “So, I started drawing and researching the women who passed away, and I wrote down what they said word-for-word.”
Her “Presence” series demonstrates that process. The large framed pieces depict only a chair, drawn in graphite and overlaid by Korean calligraphy. “In Korea, every region has its own dialect. Each of the women's stories show their uniqueness through their own dialects. Each piece in this series has different stories of different women. Thus, the chairs all have unique style depicting that these women are not to be generalized but known and shown uniquely.”
As a rule, Cindy’s style is abstract, although surreal is the best word to describe a piece she called “Butterfly”.
“The butterfly flies passed through the rigid grid, which symbolizes the kind of captivity they were under,” Cindy said of the 3D painting, which stands out as the most vibrant in the exhibit. Blended in red and yellow, it signifies the Freedom Fighter’s hope and courage. The butterfly is an icon of The Comfort Women as is the image of an empty chair.
In the city of Brookhaven, the chair icon has been memorialized by “The Young Girl’s Statue for Peace Memorial” which was dedicated by the Atlanta Comfort Women Memorial Task Force (ACWTF) and local representatives at Blackburn Park on June 28, 2018. Depicting two chairs, one empty, one occupied by a young girl, the statue pays homage to the women who passed as well as the survivors.
On June 28, 2019, Cindy’s Freedom Fighter exhibit was displayed at an event held at the Korean American Association of Greater Atlanta in celebration of the statue’s second anniversary.
Showcased beside her work were paintings and drawings made by the last surviving Comfort Women who were able to tell their story through a visual medium during their art therapy session. That evening, those stories were brought to life through “A Stolen Girl’s Story: Opera” where performers put on a dramatic representation of the lives memorialized by the statue.
The “Freedom Fighters” exhibit was also displayed at the City of Sugar Hill earlier that same month. While her senior exit show included only six pieces, Cindy was able to add to the original exhibit, creating enough art to fill an entire room at City Hall.
Describing the exhibit, Cindy wrote, “This series portrays a broken yet triumphant story of Comfort Women and the people who fight for freedom every day.”
The UGA grad doesn’t have as much time to create, now that she’s a teacher, but she finds joy in exposing her students to art and helping them express what they feel looking at it.
She’ll never forget the day she realized why she wanted to teach. It was during a mission trip to Honduras where Cindy visited a house where a woman lived alone with her twin daughters, both of whom were deaf.
“They were kind of outcasts and lived on top of a mountain,” Cindy said of the family. “I could sense a deep depression to be so outcasted, and perhaps because they were raised in so much darkness, the mom said the girls never laughed and almost never smiled. But while we were there, I started drawing in the sand, and I drew a picture of the girl’s house on the mountain, and I drew Jesus carrying his cross walking towards the top to their house and I told them that he loved them. They were smiling and laughing out loud, so their mom ran out to see what was going on. And she hugged me saying thank you because she had never heard them laugh like that before.”
It was then that Cindy realized she wanted to teach and create and bring joy by shedding light on people and stories that would otherwise be forgotten.
“I think for me as an artist and as someone who loves kids, I realized what my purpose is as an artist,” Cindy said of her visit with the twins. “My art can create joy, and I realized it’s important for me to create and not just hold onto it. I chose to be a voice for the voiceless, and as I continue to create, I want to share their stories. The stories of the voiceless.”
When she’s not teaching elementary school, Cindy accepts commission work and creates as often as possible. More of her work can be seen online at cindyhongart.com and on Instagram: @Cindy.Hong.Art.