Postcards from Korea
Memories and sharing in the age of social media
Postcards as the Medium
In the first month of my 5-month trip in Korea, I made a concerted effort to update my Facebook and Instagram daily with details of my new experiences. This obsession with social media existed partially as a preexisting habit of mine to keep a personal record of the beauty I encountered and partially as a desire to share my experiences. Whenever I looked back through my feed at what I accomplished and saw how many of my friends and strangers interacted with the post through “likes” or the occasional comment, I felt happy yet empty. People interacted with my experiences but only for a glance. Did I effectively accomplish what I set out to do using social media or could I reach my goals using a more pointed method?
Before the pervasiveness of social media, I would send store-bought postcards to friends whenever I traveled. On one side of these postcards was a photograph of a landmark and on the other, I would reflect on my experiences through words and sketches. Unlike social media, it felt so intimate and visceral to both send and to receive one. Postcards were received only by the person they were intended for, and in the process of creating one, it felt as if I were having a conversation with a friend. These 4"x6" cards were also unique, physical objects that could be held and reread and so their contents became much more memorable than a post on Facebook.
Whenever I received one, I felt as though I were living vicariously through the friend that had sent the card. Many of the friends I had sent cards to felt the same way. They would display my postcards on their fridges and cork boards and dream of adventures they would have in the future.
The postcard’s effectiveness in preserving and sharing memories, I believe, was not only because it was so personal but also because it was created patiently with one’s hands instead of on a touch screen.
Drawing as the Method
Drawing has a special place in my heart.
As a child, I drew magical girls and princesses and then cut them out so I could tell stories with them. As I grew older, the paper dolls were replaced with landscapes and abstract shapes.
Drawing even bled into the less art-oriented parts of my life. My notes for math and sciences were always more illustration than text. Drawing was my way of synthesizing difficult concepts into bite-sized analogies.
Pen and paper weren’t my only tools; I was also an avid user of the camera — starting with my own Hello Kitty SLR at the age of six. I took photos of absolutely everything in order to preserve the few months I had in a year with my parents.
Drawing and photography are both great tools to capture moments, but the two are different in that photography makes one absent-minded.
A photo can reproduce a moment as it happened in time, but that doesn’t mean the person taking it will remember it well. The act of taking a photo is about preserving that moment for the future, and so it robs the photographer from producing his or her own memories about it.
Drawing, even quick sketches, forces one to look closely at the scene to identify what is most important and then to translate it onto paper in an way that is understandable. The time that is spent observing is also time spent slowly, concentrated on one’s current physical and mental condition. Drawing enhances one’s vision of the moment and embeds the memory more deeply than a passive experience. I have found that I not only remember most clearly the scenes I have drawn, those memories often become the most precious for both me and the person receiving it.
Take the drawing below as an example. It was drawn on a foggy afternoon on a ranch I lived on for two weeks in South Korea. Even though I had to lead the filly into the field everyday after breakfast, I remember that day especially because of the time I took to draw the scene.
While the first washes dried, the fog seemed to be retreating back into the mountains as the sun crawled slowly to its apex. I also remember the sunlight scorching the left side of my face while a pleasant breeze ran through the maple trees. Perhaps because it was getting colder, the only sounds I could hear were of the distant humming of cars as they sporadically passed on the highway.
Drawing as Emotional Expression
Drawings, I believe, are not only avenues to retain and to share memories but are also capable of conveying feelings to the viewer without additional text like one would need when posting a photo. When I’m rushed or upset, the elements in the drawing look discordant, but when I’m relaxed and happy, the colours and objects flow together to form a story. Whether the viewer can consciously pick up on these cues is question to be answered, but when I look back on the postcards I have created, I am reminded of my own state of mind at that point in time.
When I had time to finish my drawings in the field, the line work tended to be more thought out and had more variations in the weight. I was able to think clearly about the hierarchy of the drawing and what I wanted to focus on rather than just trying to make a carbon copy of reality.
When I was not rushed, the colour scheme tended to stay true to 3–4 colours instead of a mass array that would have been more reflective of reality.
Although having the luxury to draw outdoors was relaxing, I also tended to produce better work when I worked partially or fully from photos (especially as the winter months neared), because it meant working somewhere warm.
However, being relaxed didn’t always produce the best results. It also gave me a chance to experiment to sometimes mixed results. In an attempt to emulate Chinese ink landscapes (top left), the resulting postcard became difficult to read. In another, where I tried to represent all the plants at the edge of a canal (bottom left), the mix of colours became convoluted and difficult to follow.
Painting wasn’t always a relaxing, joyous event.
When the weather was too cold and retarding the drying time of the paint, I would quickly become frustrated at how long I had to wait to apply the next layer. The frustration would manifest itself physically. In my impatient state, I would add the next layer of pigment before the previous layer had dried properly, causing the colours to improperly. In the drawing above, I lifted and reapplied layers to create a drawing that had no “light” to it because in the process of lifting, not all of the pigment was erased.
In other cards, I reapplied and lifted so many layers of watercolour, the paper, a measly 140lb, started to fray like wet, 1-ply toilet paper.
Less than ideal time constraints also affected my work. In the middle of hikes or during a busy work day when I could not leisurely paint, my pen work reflected my sense of urgency. Line work, which usually gave structure to my drawings, gave way to improperly layered elements and a lack of supporting details crucial to understanding the scene. In my rush, I often neglected to deeply observe the scene before starting the drawing.
The scene above depicted a garden with a marble statue of a naked woman wearing a motorbike helmet, surrounded by roses and other vegetation. Although clear in my mind, the friend who received the card was thoroughly confused as the elements were drawn without a strong framework.
This kind of shoddy line work appeared when I only had time to do a quick preliminary sketch in the field as well. In an attempt to fill out the details that I had missed in the first sketch, I often added too much and destroyed the realism of the scene. In the temple scene to the left, the lanterns were depicted as twice the size that they are in real life, skewing the size of the elements around them.
When the weather was pleasantly mild and I wasn’t rushed, layers dried properly to produce a clear hierarchy of objects and colours. While I waited for the previous layers to dry, I was able to put greater thought into which colours to use and to mix. Instead of choosing realistic colours, I chose colours best suited to express my impression of the moment.
Take for instance the scene above, depicting a pair of pine trees I encountered as I finished up my hike in Seoraksan National Park. The setting sun made the trees glow in a calming way, and I was able to depict that sense of serenity by a careful layering of gold and orange undertones paired with three types of greens.
When I was feeling sad, particularly about the awful winter rains in Gangwon-do, my first washes tended to be cooler as if to match my mood. Although the scene above used bright yellows, the grey and blue wash below set a tone that even yellow could not persuade.
The power of the first wash reminded me of how my close friends could tell that I was in a bad mood by the tone of my voice even as I was recalling a joyful event or laughing along with their jokes. My attitude pervaded the conversation in the same way the first wash set the entire tone of the drawing.
Landscapes as the Subject
For these postcards, I chose the rural Korean landscape as my subject because not only was it a direct reflection of how much time I spent outdoors but also because of how leisurely and quietly I could reflect while I painted. With the lush pine forests and craggy mountains of South Korea as my subject, I was able to portray my feelings and memories as they occurred at the moment. Even though I was rushed or impatient at times, the act of drawing the landscape felt like a meditation.
A total of 20 scenes, collected from the countryside and national parks in Gyeonggi-do and Gangwon-do from late September to early November 2014, were sent to 5 different countries and 4 US states.
This batch of postcards were sent from my neighbourhood post office in Mullae-dong in late November. The woman working at the counter seemed to have no idea what postcards were and had to consult her superior about how much to charge per card. She seemed young — maybe in her late 20s or early 30s — which made me wonder if her confusion had to do with the fact that she had never received or sent a postcard before or if the act of sending a postcard was rare in Korean culture.
As for the postcards I sent out, less than half of the people I sent them to messaged me to let me know that their card had been received. Others like Cory posted receiving his card on Instagram before telling me privately. Even though this project started off as a response to the impersonal nature and ineffectiveness of social media, it ended up where it started. Hell, even I’ve posted about it a few time on my own Instagram, and now I have written about it on Medium.
The fact that this project returned back to the realm of the internet has reminded me just how ingrained social media is in our relationships with people and how much we rely on it to “preserve” our memories despite its faults. Furthermore, it is not enough that we share our experiences with a select few; it is our prerogative to share it with the world. Perhaps this is a sign of our generation’s obsession with ourselves or perhaps social media is the natural successor to the letters, telegrams, photos, Polaroids, and postcards of generations past.
Now almost a year from when these drawings were completed, it has been interesting to look through the postcards again, reliving the memories and emotions each card depicts. The ability to share my adventures, first as a postcard with close friends and second on social media with strangers, has allowed me to also connect my adventures with my audience emotionally and experientially.
Even though I have found my drawings to be a more meaningful way to preserve and to distribute my experiences, sharing on social media has also become a vital part of my travel experience. Social media has connected me with many people and experiences I would not have encountered through analog means alone, and I do see my social media accounts as extension and as an alternate version of my physical self.
Before this project, I would have lamented the death of the postcard, but now that I have had time to reflect, I have not only gained a newfound appreciation for the intimate act of sharing privately, I have also a newfound respect for social media’s ability to connect us with strangers and even stranger ideas.