Most of us carry a storehouse of knowledge of our families. We know all kinds of stories and facts about our grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts. In our relatively stable part of the world most of us have access to photographic images, documents and heirlooms that serve as a material anchor to all that family lore.
In less stable times and places, however, it is too often the plight of refugees to have to abandon hearth and home and to lose contact with the people and the material objects of the family.
So it was with the mother of Tacoma artist Lorraine Toler. Okchun Kim, Toler’s mother, was forced to flee North Korea during the time of the Japanese occupation of the peninsula in the 1940’s. Kim found herself alone and separated from her family in the city of Seoul at the tender age of 12. Though Kim tried throughout her life to find missing members of her family, she was never able to do so.
Toler thus grew up without knowing or seeing a picture of any member of her mother’s family - a large, farm family consisting of 10 siblings along with numerous aunts, uncles and cousins. Toler’s inheritance from her mother’s side of the family consisted of the ephemeral memories of the little girl that her mother was before she lost contact with her family.
As a painter, Toler has embarked upon the project of employing her brushes and her paints to flesh out and explore the family lore imparted to her by her mother. Using large canvases and acrylics, Toler has generated a series of works that function as a repository for her family stories and thus stand in for the missing photographs and other materials that other families possess.
Toler works in a wispy style that recalls the expressionism of Edward Munch. Her colors are loose and fluid. A painting entitled “Hang on Sister” depicts a boy and a girl holding hands in the midst of an indistinct landscape. The dark form of a helicopter hangs in the distance - a specter of war. This painting refers to Toler’s mother who fled the North with a 10-year-old brother from whom she was later separated.
Another piece, “Not Received,” shows the large face of a weeping woman who’s holding an envelope. Enlarged prints of Korean stamps are also fixed to the canvas. “Not Received” is about Toler’s mother’s attempts to relocate members of Kim’s family, especially her lost little brother. Despite hiring professional investigators, her attempts proved fruitless and her letters always came back unopened.
In “Imo & Eggi,” a scene of a Korean woman with a baby on her back, Toler depicts an aunt that her mother would speak fondly of. The aunt was a hard worker on the family farm and, as the mother of 11 children, always had a baby on her back.
To view Toler’s paintings, visit the Tacoma Art Place at 1116 S. 11th St. (just off Martin Luther King Jr. Way). Tacoma Art Place is open Wednesday through Friday 1-8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. The show runs through Oct. 10. For more information, call (253) 238-1006.