Behind the counter at a small Gaithersburg convenience store stocked with wine and potato chips, a man paints careful strokes across a sheet of rice paper.
Although he and his wife have owned and worked in the store for 20 years, Myoung-won Kwon of Silver Spring said few know about his Korean calligraphy.
Kwon's art has appeared in Smithsonian festivals and exhibits, a U.S. Senate building and galleries around the world. But the people outside his family who know his art best are a few shopkeepers in South Korea, where he gets his brushes, ink and paper, he said.
“At the store, they know me already,” Kwon said. “Almost 50 years, I've been writing.”
Kwon's art displays intense attention to detail and a steady hand.
One of Kwon's works is a 6-foot-long sheet of rice paper with the silhouette of a figure skater formed out of thousands of tiny, uniform letters. The skater is Yu-na Kim, an Olympic gold medalist from South Korea. The letters spell “flower,” her nickname, Kwon said.
Another piece, about 10 feet long, is a monochromatic view of the Empire State Building. Different shades of gray add depth to the building's shape, made up of small Korean letters. A brochure, archived among dozens of newspaper clippings in Kwon's store, indicates the piece was part of an Asian culture festival in Virginia.
The piece took almost three months to complete, he said.
In a typical day, Kwon said he gets a few hours of painting done in the evenings, when the store is not as busy. Shady Grove Beer and Wine Deli, at 15904 Shady Grove Road, shows no traces of his art. The windows are filled with neon signs, while the inside of the store is a scene of controlled chaos: cigarette cartons, tightly stocked refrigerators and a dozen kinds of chewing gum.
A customer walks in, and Kwon's wife, So-young, plucks a teal box of cigarettes from above the counter. Behind her, long rolls of rice paper sit discreetly under a shelf of merchandise.
Kwon and his wife met in Seoul, when he moved from Wonju, South Korea, to the capital city for school.
“He's a country boy. I'm a city girl,” she said.
Kwon said he started painting at the age of 8. When his older brothers came home from school, he would watch them write characters and learn their meanings.
He realized the language was “strong,” he said. Kwon practiced the characters and earned praise from parents and teachers, encouraging him to take pride in his work, he said.
“[Calligraphy] makes my mind controlled and clear,” Kwon said. He often finds inspiration in the Bible and anything else he reads, including books and newspapers.
For a piece displayed at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., Kwon took inspiration from an essay known to both Korean and American grade school students: the Gettysburg Address. The address is written in stylized Korean characters. Kwon said he hopes to have the piece shown at an Illinois museum next year.
His next exhibit will be in the State Capitol in Richmond, Va., by invitation of Del. Mark Keam (D-Dist. 35) of Vienna, Kwon said. Calls to Keam's office were not immediately returned.
Keam, who was the first Korean American and the first Asian-born immigrant to serve in the Virginia House of Delegates, also is hosting his second art contest this year, but Kwon said his piece will be displayed separately.
Kwon's mission is to teach others about Korean culture. In his store, his son, Joseph, translated it from his father's Korean into English.
“America, or the United States, is the land of opportunity. So he's saying that he takes a chance to do his best and help other people have knowledge of our language,” he said.
Joseph Kwon said his father wants people to recognize Koreans and Korean culture just as easily as Chinese or Japanese culture.
“Especially the Korean alphabet,” Myoung-Won Kwon said. Few recognize Korean calligraphy, though many are familiar with Chinese calligraphy, he said.
The alphabet, called Hangul, has a birthday: Oct. 9. Kwon plans to attend a special dinner at the Korean embassy in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the national holiday.