Last year, my husband discovered another great example of community-building on the other side of the globe. We flew to South Korea — the country our 20-year-old daughter has chosen to call home after a 10-month stay there as a Watsonville Rotary-sponsored exchange student in 2011-12. We visited several cities, but our favorite was Busan, a modern metropolis of 3.6 million at the southernmost tip of the Korean peninsula.
In addition to experiencing the beautiful beaches, glamorous department stores, fascinating fish markets, cat cafes and sweet-potato pizza, we visited Gamcheon Culture Village — a residential community of colorful, box-shaped homes terraced on a steep hillside overlooking the southern coastline. In contrast to Busan’s glittering high-rises, Gamcheon Culture Village has retained its traditional look and identity, housing many of Busan’s less-affluent since the early 20th century. What makes it a tourist destination is the art-themed makeover it received in 2009-10, when South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism invited artists and art students to add murals, sculpture and art installations to the village.
Most impressive to me was the fact that much of the artwork was created collaboratively by artists and village residents. One of the best products of this teamwork were the painted wooden fish, posted along the narrow pathways to guide tourists through the hillside labyrinth of art and homes. These same small fish were also arranged on a tall retaining wall in the shape of a very large fish, creating a colorful backdrop for tourist selfies.
In the history museum, a photograph showed the villagers seated at long tables, painting the fish together — an opportunity to meet neighbors and form new alliances as their village was in transition. (The village makeover also included establishing a community center, residents association, maintenance group, public relations office, village businesses, and music and arts workshops — making the tourist invasion a little more welcome.)
Before our trip to South Korea, one of the community builders in my own hometown came to my arts group and proposed that we create an art installation for Aromas’ Town Square Park. We scratched our heads and worried about vandalism.
After my trip to South Korea, I showed photos of Gamcheon Culture Village and proposed that Aromas, as a community, could create a large fish mosaic of our own. With the guidance and commitment of a few dedicated volunteers, and the participation of about 200 community members and their friends, we were able to paint 350 fish over a five-month period and finally install the big fish in the park last month.
And so, like Gamcheon, my village sat together — young and old, elbow to elbow — to paint fish and get to know each other a little bit better. The finished product has also drawn us together, as we congregate at the park to find our individual fish and admire the others — all swimming along together.
Just last weekend, I was thrilled when our spring talent show, Aromas Live, used an image of the Big Fish on the program cover and recognized its completion. Perhaps the Big Fish will serve as a symbol of a small town devoted to creating a sense of community. Perhaps, as we drive by the park on our way home, we will now turn our heads and smile at the colorful reminder of how fortunate we are to live in a place where we feel like we truly belong.
To see an archive of Tina Baine columns, go to tinabaine.blogspot.com.