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By STEVEN NALLEY
The American South is not as conservative as South Korea.
Seoin Jeong, who came to Starkville High School from South Korea in April 2011, said she has never taken a picture of herself quite like the one she referenced for her self-portrait. Titled âLooking Back,â the self-portrait shows Jeong looking over her shoulder in a tank top.
âThe thing is, Koreaâs really overprotective,â Jeong said. âPeople will stare if you wear tank tops in the summer. Itâs that overprotective.â
The issue goes deeper than the outfit; Jeong said it took time to get used to striking a pose at all.
âIt was a cultural difference,â Jeong said. âAmericans donât look at it (as) that bad. (With) Koreans, since Iâm one of them, I could already imagine all the negative things.â
Jeong became the overall winner in the Congressional Art Competition for Mississippiâs third congressional district, earning the right to have âLooking Backâ hang in the U.S. Capitol for the next year.
Jeong said the achievement and the training it took to reach it will help her pursue her dream of studying fashion at New York Cityâs Fashion Institute of Technology. Her teacher, SHSâs Andrew Lark, said he agreed.
âIn the real fashion world, to make it, your garment has got to look like itâs on a body, (like) itâs 3-D and itâs really moving,â Lark said. âThis is a prestigious competition the congressmen have every year. We set aside time to talk about it. I pour out a positive attitude that âYou can win; itâs possible to win, but what will you do that another kid will not do?ââ
Jeong said she has dreamed of becoming a fashion designer since sixth grade, and while there were a few years when she was unsure about pursuing the dream seriously, she has never looked back since the day her parents surprised her with an opportunity to finish high school and pursue post-secondary studies in the U.S. Lark said she misses her family and friends in Korea, but the art program has kept her too busy to dwell on loneliness.
âI looked forward to coming back (to America,)â Jeong said. âI used to live here during elementary school; I lived in Alabama. When I was a baby I lived in California, and my dad knew the family that Iâm living with from when I was a baby, and they kept their contact. Last year, my dad e-mailed them and asked, âCan she come over and stay?â and they said âSure, weâd love to have her.â (This family) has lived here (in Starkville) for 10 years.â
Jeong said she had to begin with the basics in the final four weeks of her sophomore year in 2011. She said Larkâs first assignment was for her to draw a circle.
âBecause I wasnât in this environment, I didnât know the standard circle had to be this exact, computerized, literal perfect circle,â Jeong said. âIt took me three days to draw circles. It took two weeks to draw squares, triangles, lines, really basic things. I had some struggles.â
Lark said Jeong had a long way to go starting out, but her work ethic and passion made up for it. Jeong takes criticism well, he said, and while she has a strong will, she recognizes the importance of following his instructions.
âWhen Iâm critiquing her ... she wonât make the same mistakes,â Lark said. âSheâll grow. She wonât like it when Iâm doing it, but she realizes itâs for her growth.
âShe doesnât like to lose,â Lark added. âShe doesnât like to be outdone.â
Keats Haupt, another student in Larkâs class, said she considers Jeong one of the classâs best students. None of the students like to be outdone, she said, but the class, including Jeong, remains a close-knit group.
âWeâre all helping each other build, and then we go into a competition and we realize weâre all competing against each other,â Haupt said. âSeoin is a sweetheart. She doesnât just want to be the only winner, I think. She wants everyone to win.â
Ultimately, Jeong said her biggest challenge was neither Lark nor any other student â it was herself. Right behind the cultural challenge of photographing herself came the even greater challenge of drawing herself, she said.
âWhen I was first drawing it, I had to start over about three or four times,â Jeong said. âI couldnât even figure out the structure of my own face.â
Lark said every student finds his or her own-self portrait challenging, because the pressure for students to make themselves look good is high. That pressure, he said, becomes the foundation for every portrait students draw for the rest of their lives.
âItâs like the first birth,â Lark said. âOnce you get them to do the first one, they can draw anybody in here. Their biggest fear is themselves. Ask her. She was doing anything I told her until I gave her that self-portrait, and I knew I had to get her past herself, because everything else was going to be easy for her.â
In the end, Jeong said she is grateful to Lark for helping her overcome her limitations. His goal for her this year is for her to finish 100 drawings, she said, and she is getting close.
âIn all my life, Iâve never seen a character like Mr. Lark at all,â Jeong said. âIâm glad I met him.â