Home Arts Thomas Kong, who turned a Chicago convenience store into an artistic environment, has died

Thomas Kong, who turned a Chicago convenience store into an artistic environment, has died

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Thomas Kong, an artist who made whimsical and cheerful collages skillfully composed of food wrappers, plastic bags and other scrap materials, often from the convenience store he operated in Chicago for 17 years, died on May 1. He was 73 years old.

The cause was complications from pneumonia, according to curator SY Lim, who has worked closely with Kong in recent years. Kong was diagnosed with leukemia a few weeks ago and was undergoing chemotherapy.

For nearly a decade, Kong quietly made art behind the counter of his store in the Rogers Park neighborhood, cutting up objects including cigarette packs and snack boxes and gluing them onto plastic containers. cardboard or polystyrene. He often added a piece of paper printed with the words “Be happy”. The store, Kim’s Corner Food, also became something of a gallery, as Kong’s designs gradually covered every inch of the room, lining the shelves and dotting the refrigerator doors and coffee station. An ATM stands next to a wall lined with an alluring mishmash: creatively trimmed Kit Kat wrapper, pristine layered wrapper with excised provenance, cut-out letters that spell “Cash station here.”

The interior of Kim’s Corner Food in Chicago, featuring artwork by Thomas Kong Dan Miller

Kong’s collages quickly caught the attention of other local artists, including neighbor Dan Miller, who in 2015 worked with Kong to open a community art space in the storeroom. The back room hosted exhibitions by other artists whose practices intersected with Kong’s, and it housed Kong’s rapidly growing archive, which visitors could peruse. By the time Back Room closed in March 2019, Kong and his store had become staples in Chicago’s rich community of artist-run spaces.

“His art had an element of surprise and humor, which is an integral part of the Chicago vibe on the art scene,” says Allison Peters Quinn, director of the Hyde Park Art Center. “Artists heard about the store from other artists and made the pilgrimage to Rogers Park to see its installations. I think the artists really respected the way he integrated his professional life and his creative life – his art was done alongside the storage aisles.

Kong also increasingly exhibited his work in galleries during his later years, although he never received a major institutional solo exhibition during his lifetime. In 2020, his collages were featured in Artists run Chicago 2.0, a major exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center that celebrated Chicago’s independent art scene. In December 2022, the Design Museum of Chicago hosted a solo exhibition of his work in a pop-up exhibition space.

Works by Thomas Kong Featured in Pop-Up Exhibit Organized by the Chicago Design Museum SYLim

Lim, the executive director of Chicago’s 062 gallery, is responsible for much of this effort to bring Kong’s works to a wider audience. After meeting in 2017, the two developed a strong friendship, in part because of their shared Korean heritage (“I asked him if I should call him grandpa in Korean,” Lim says. said, ‘Absolutely not. I don’t want to be called grandfather. I want to be your friend.'”) Lim encouraged Kong to exhibit more widely, including at 062, and began to find more platforms to sell his art.

“I really thought people should see his work and what he actually did, especially as a minority,” Lim says. “He was really special. The way he sees all these things – everything in the store, everything he can find on the street – is basically made of materials. The whole world was filled with materials of art.

Born Tae Kwon Kong on January 16, 1950, in what was then Hwanghae Province in North Korea, Kong came to art in his 60s. His parents were land-owning farmers when North Korean communists kidnapped and murdered his father, he said Borderless magazine in 2021. When he was six months old, he, his mother and five sisters escaped on a rowboat to Deokjeokdo Island in Incheon, South Korea. Kong went to Sogang University in Seoul to study English Literature and after graduation he worked for a Korean airline which gave him the opportunity to travel to places like Singapore, Taiwan and Bangkok. .

It was in Chicago that Kong settled permanently, in 1977, after marrying Sandy Kong, who survives him. Her younger sister had moved there three years before pursuing a nursing career and asked her to join her on a family visa. “The economy in Korea was very bad at the time, and America was very dream-worthy for me,” he said. Borderless magazine. Kong remembers facing language barriers, but soon found work at a gas station. He spent the following decades operating businesses often run by other immigrants of his generation who settled in the United States: shoe repairs in Hammond, Indiana, then Skokie, Illinois, then liquor shops, then dry cleaners. In 2006, he returned to Chicago and took over a store run by a Korean named Kim.

As Kong remembered, he started making collages around 2014, almost on a whim. He was cleaning the store shelves and had an idea to spruce them up. He cut up the packages and covered the surfaces with the paper before placing the goods on them. “I thought it was decoration, interior design. It looked good,” he said. Borderless magazine. “Then I had the idea of ​​cutting out different paper shapes and using different colors, and I started putting them on the windows, the walls, the outside, and the store looked like a little better. Customers said it looked good. They said it was beautiful, a little unusual.

Kong continued to make collages while tending to the cash register, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, almost until the end. Cutting and arranging materials was a way to pass the time, but it also filled him with a sense of completion, he said. He even spent many hours at Kim’s house during the height of the pandemic, filling the room with new work. Lim, who supported him by bringing him groceries and ordering him food, estimates that the amount of work in the store doubled during this time because the owner was so prolific.

Thomas Kong artwork inside Kim’s Corner Food Dan Miller

Today, the community of artists in Chicago, which counts Kong among its own, faces the challenge of how to preserve his work, which is closely tied to his profession and place of work. “How not to lose the story of Thomas? How not to lose the authenticity of what he was able to create? said Peters Quinn. “I hope people will support efforts to preserve history like this that unfolds quietly every day – that if we didn’t have it, our lives would be so much more uninteresting.” To start, Lim and Kong’s son, Marshall Kong, organized a GoFundMe campaign to help cover the operating costs of Kim’s Corner Food through the end of June so that it remains accessible to the public. Lim also hired the photographer Guanyu Xu to document the boutique and architectural designer Andrea Hunt to 3D scan its interior. Lim hopes to eventually publish a book about Kong’s life and work and find an institution to take care of his archives. She also wants to fulfill Kong’s wish to exhibit her work in her home country, South Korea.

For many artists who have passed through Kim’s Corner Food, Kong’s legacy lies in something ambitious: the consistency of his pursuits and his ability to seemingly always love to create. Max Guy, who exhibited in the Back Room in 2016, describes Kong as “the tree that gives” – an artist who inspired other artists to be “as ingenious, as prolific and as free as I have seen him .

“Even in Chicago, where it’s very easy to get work done, people are still so overwhelmed when they do it,” Guy says. “He reminded me of how you could work without the burden while embracing all the values ​​of a Chicago artist. At its best — and very often was at its best — it was studio practice without the burden.

Kong may not have originally envisioned his collage art, but he “fully embraced being an artist” in his later years, Lim says. “Many of our friends were inspired by him and his work ethic – a very humble Korean, working every day… and still smoking so much in the store. He was an artist of artists.

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