Home > Journal 7th Issue > Interview With Athena Kim

Our adult hero for this issue is Athena Kim, who is a Korean artist living in America. She has overcome sexual, physical, and mental abuse, transforming her trauma into exhilarating artwork. You can see more of Athena’s work on her website: www.athenakimart.com and on her Instagram account: athena.monologue.

My father was a taxi driver and my mother was a full-time mother of three children. We lived like refugees, in a tiny room without any furniture, under the Korean military government… There was no freedom of speech and human-rights, not to mention no gender equality. My father was very controlling, manipulative, and demanding. My parents often blamed me for the heavy burden of stress, never failed to find excuses to criticize me and put me down. Home was not safe for me.

It felt like I was surviving on a battlefield, not knowing when I would get attacked by bombs and walk on eggshells. I suffered from a lot of physical manifestations of the emotional and mental pain that I was unable to express. All my parents cared about was for me to get perfect grades at school tests and to win awards at competitions. They never bothered to learn how I was doing and what made me happy. I worked very hard to make them happy. When I got perfect grades, they’d leave me alone. If I missed one question, they’d come get back at me with anger and anxiety. That was stressful and horrible beyond my understanding and expression as a child. I had no toys to play with. I was only allowed books. I hid my emotions and thoughts inside my heart, with tremendous fear that I would get judged, criticized, and bothered if anybody found out about them.

I was threatened to be sent to the orphanage when my parents fought. I was too young to think of death but did wish I would not be alive the next day because it seemed too unbearable for me to get through. I was the most accomplished student at my private school. Yet I was too afraid to interact with my classmates. They came from a lot of money and had very different socio-economic backgrounds. Some of them discriminated against me because of my parents’ poverty. They bullied me and cut me off from their cliques even at that young age. That is the norm in Korean culture. Parents bribe teachers with cash in envelopes. My mother expressed that she felt sorry that she couldn’t afford to offer cash to my homeroom teacher. My mother was an emotional roller coaster and I never felt safe around her, but I felt very sorry and sad for her whenever she cried. I felt helpless and powerless but tried to do my best to try to make her feel better by being a good student.

I started painting when I was young. When I painted and played piano, hours would go by. My parents couldn’t afford to support me in pursuing fine arts or classical music. They asked me to focus on academics to get into the top college, Seoul National University, so I could secure a high paying job. I coped with the high levels of stress when I had access to arts but it was soon robbed once I moved to the public middle school from the private elementary school. The arts are not valued in Korean education and society. I was very lonely, deeply scared, highly anxious, exhausted both physically and mentally, and miserable.

I got punished for crying so I learned to hold it in, which made me look like a dark ghost without any facial expression whether it was for joy, sorrow, or anger. I numbed my feelings and dissociated my body from emotions and traumatic experiences, including physical and sexual abuse. I was sexually molested by elementary school classmates at my friend’s birthday party and by male school teachers, neighbors, and my father’s friend’s son, who visited us. I did not tell anyone about this because I did not have anybody trustworthy in my life. I did not have any friends because I did not know how to make them because of my fear and anxiety that I would get hurt.

When adults asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I showed my painting where I was wearing an ivory dress, painting alone on top of a green hill, under a blue sky. It was a peaceful, safe, and beautiful place where I felt connected to nature, in solitude. It still resonates with me now. People often assume that I am a very social person. It’s a survival skill I’ve developed. I’m introverted by nature, feeling safe and recharged when alone. A canvas gives me a limited, structured space that I can call my own and I can let out deep and complex emotions that I am unable to grasp and understand but can express them visually through movements, colors, textures, and shapes. I am fully present and meditative without judgment, criticism, and compassion. It’s just a canvas and me. My painting is the reflection of my inner self and subconscious.

I had always dreamed of coming to America. Korean culture is controlling, chauvinistic, and manipulative, especially under the military government dictatorship. I absorbed English and American culture as a sponge would water. I felt relieved and liberated when I spoke English. It was very rare for a Korean student, especially a girl, to express her opinions, answer questions, and ask questions at school. It seemed American culture was less discriminatory and chauvinistic, with more freedom of speech and human rights. It gave me a ray of hope that there was a different and better world there. I started traveling to the U.S. since college. After my first trip to San Francisco, I made a dozen of trips, staying as long as possible. My boyfriend at the time proposed me so I moved in with him, leaving Korea. Unfortunately, soon after, he started abusing me verbally and psychologically making threats and putting me down with a lot of criticism and anger.

It triggered the trauma caused by the abuse from my parents and ex-boyfriends. I cannot begin to express how hurtful it was. I was hurt in so much pain. I emotionally shut down, which caused dissociation. It took six months for me to put an end to that toxic relationship, which deteriorated my physical and mental health. Because I was in a very vulnerable situation as a foreign woman in America, without a work permit and no income other than savings, I tried hard to save the relationship. I learned that he suffered from mental illness without self-awareness. I needed to rescue myself from the harm. It took some time to remove myself from his apartment with a lot of courage and very little money. I am now working on living in America on my own.

When I was in therapy a few years ago, the visual image of my wounded inner five-year-old self-came to me vividly and I couldn’t get it out of my head. That was the first painting I did with oil pastel. It was so dark and horrific that I couldn’t bear to see it for a while. But I eventually met her again and started building a relationship with her over time, which is still an ongoing process. I started painting psychological self-portraits, which turned into my Athena Monologues series. Nowadays, I create abstract art on large canvas to express the grand inner space I call Blue Space. Blue is my favorite color as it calms me down. I did scuba diving a few times and felt incredibly calm and peaceful as I was going deep into the ocean. My inner space and blue deep ocean. It shows the new way I treat myself with care and compassion and how I liberate myself from dissociation to integration as my healing journey progresses.

I don’t really plan things ahead when I paint. I meditate, sit in front of a big blank canvas, following my intuition to create magic. I like working on canvases, paint, brushes, and palette knives and love the physical aspects of painting despite its challenges. I like a lot of textures to create depth into colors and shapes. I love old-fashioned painting which requires a lot of physical labor, imagination, creativity, and hard work as it gives me a sense of achievement. It’s therapeutic. Sharing is also great joy when people make connections through my art with their own body and emotions. I often listen to violin music especially by J.S. Bach which touches my soul while I am painting.

Trauma doesn’t define who I have become, am, and will become. It has affected me in many directions and levels. I don’t let it dictate the level of my happiness and self-worth any longer. It has been helping me build self-trust and self-esteem in myself. I’ve been meeting myself in a new way with care and compassion. It felt like I was on a roller coaster of trauma with endless horrific experiences that was never going to stop. I felt suicidal, depressed, and hurt beyond my understanding and capacity for a long time. I took accountability to take care of myself and stand up for myself that nobody would do for me. Only I can do it for myself.

It turned out to be more difficult, exhausting, and stressful than I expected. However, I have no regrets. I’m surprised by my strength. Nothing killed me but it made me stronger and even more resilient, persevering, and courageous.