BERRIEN SPRINGS — A young woman holding a sign that says “I’m not worthless, just homeless.”
A disabled boy pumping water, his only means of earning a living.
A street preacher. A prime minister.
Portraits rendered with a deep sense of dignity and compassion.
“All faces are the image of God,” said Harry Ahn, an award-winning and internationally recognized artist who opened his new gallery and studio Sunday at 107 W. Ferry St. in Berrien Springs.
It is the culmination of a lifelong career of painting and teaching.
“It’s my dream,” Ahn said of the upstairs gallery space that displays about one-third of his portraits and still-lifes, and the ground floor studio where he will continue to instruct students and create his own works.
He said it took about three years to convert the former beauty parlor and barber shop into an art space.
At the opening, Jeffrey Antisdel, managing director of the Buchanan Museum of Fine Arts, called Ahn’s oeuvre “treasures” that are part of the tradition that extends from Rembrandt. A large painting of John Singer Sargent speaks to Ahn’s respect for the great masters.
Antisdel kept many of Ahn’s paintings in storage until they were ready for display. A retrospective in 2010 drew record crowds.
Ahn’s image of the boy pumping water “was burned into my brain,” said Antisdel. “That’s the definition of great art.”
Ahn’s affinity for people who are struggling came from his own experiences as a refugee in Korea. He was born in 1939 in what is now North Korea and was a young teen when the Korean War forced his family off their land, leaving them destitute and homeless. He found a safe haven at a Seventh-day Adventist school in Seoul, South Korea, which nurtured his artistic talent.
He immigrated to Canada in 1967, working as an illustrator, and came to Berrien Springs in 1990, where was he was an art professor at Andrews University. He has won more than 80 regional, national and international competition awards. Ahn’s “Portrait of Richard Hunt” won the William F. Draper Grand Prize at The Portrait Society of America’s The Art of the Portrait Conference in Washington, D.C. He also has received the Michelangelo Buonarroti 500 Celebration International Award in 2008, and the Leonardo da Vinci International Award in 2009.
His oil painting, “Leisure Time,” of a young woman outside a London museum feeding pigeons, received best of show honors in 2018 at the 16th annual “Michiana Annual Arts Competition” at the Box Factory for the Arts.
Ahn was commissioned by Andrews University to paint a portrait of their former president, Neils-Erik Andreasen.
He finds his models during his world travels, as well as close to home.
Ahn spotted Kevin Agy in the lobby of the Howard Performing Arts Center at Andrews.
“I saw Harry walking by with a camera,” Agy recalled of the encounter that led to his own portrait. “Then I saw this guy shoving people out of the way to get to me.”
Ahn was drawn to Agy’s leather hat and full-length duster coat – which he wore to the opening – and no doubt to his craggy face.
Many of the faces in Ahn’s gallery speak to a lifetime of experience and exude the wisdom of Old Testament patriarchs.
He encountered the subject of “The Street Preacher” sleeping on a bench. The man was a second-generation knife craftsman, but he had fallen on hard times. He found God and began sharing his beliefs with passersby, earning his sobriquet.
Several of his portraits are of children, showing both joy and wariness in their eyes.
The gallery is festooned with artifacts from Ahn’s many travels. In the downstairs studio, visitors can see works in progress, as well as sketches and studies that illustrate the creative process, which for Ahn is obviously far from over.
The gallery is a plus for downtown Berrien Springs, said Antisdel, who oversees the largest public museum in Southwest Michigan.
“Art is a draw anywhere you go,” he said.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak