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Review and Interview: Passage to Freedom Illustrated by Dom Lee

This was originally posted at Into the Wardrobe on May 7, 2009.

In 1985, Chiune Sugihara received the "Righteous Among Nations" Award from Yad Vashem, the famous Holocaust memorial in Israel. Chiune Sugihara was the first and only Asian to be given this award.

In 1940, Sugihara was representing Japan as a diplomat in Lithuania. Polish Jews sought visas from Sugihara. They wanted to travel through the Soviet Union to Japan in order to escape the Nazis. The Japanese government did not allow Sugihara to issue the visas, but he gave them anyway, because he knew that if he didn't many people would die. In this way, Sugihara saved the lives of thousands of Jews.

This amazing story is told through the eyes of Sugihara's then five-year-old son, Hiroki, in Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story written by Ken Mochizuki and illustrated by Dom Lee (Lee & Low Books, 1997).

This picture book for ages six and up is a different, interesting, engrossing, and powerful way for children to learn about the Holocaust. I doubt there are many other (if there are any at all) Holocaust stories told through the point of view of a Japanese boy witnessing great compassion and courage! I also think it is a perfect story of parents who practice what they preach. Hiroki's parents always told him to think about other people before he thought about himself. The Sugihara family did just that when they risked their safety to help Jews escape the Nazis.

If you are wondering, yes, I was choking up while reading Passage to Freedom.

Dom Lee's illustrations for Passage to Freedom were unbelievable. When I found out that he created the illustrations by etching on beeswax applied to paper and then painting on the etchings, my jaw literally dropped. What amazing skills! The illustrations are so realistic that they look like sepia-toned photographs from the 1940s:

Dom Lee was born in Seoul, Korea. He has a BFA in Painting from the College of Fine Arts at Seoul National University and an MFA in Illustration as Visual Essay from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He now lives in Georgia, USA.

Today, I have the great honor of hosting Dom at Into the Wardrobe and interviewing him for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Dom on Dom (from his official website):

When I was a kid, my father was an artist and life was not easy for my family. We were constantly moving from one home to another, and because of this, I never really had the chance to make friends. Drawing was my only form of entertainment. I learned from a very early age that even my surroundings could inspire art. Whenever I saw something that I liked, I observed it carefully, returned home, and drew it. When I walk around the city and see tragic scenes, like a homeless person or the broken windows of an abandoned building, I still feel a kind of love and want to share that kind of feeling with the children who will be looking at what I've drawn. I like to tell stories about people through my paintings.

What was it like growing up with an artist father?

My father worked at home, so I was acquainted with the smell of oil paint since I was a child. I played in a toy house constructed from my father's big canvases. When I realized that those canvases were more important than an ordinary plastic or wooden toy house, I knew I would be an artist as well. I occasionally watched my father work and saw many pictures from his art books. I was particularly impressed by Rembrandt's paintings, Greek statues and Michelangelo's masterpiece sculptures. I also loved to see many sculptures of Rodin. Those years of childhood were a great influence on my life. Therefore, I was naturally interested in art.

You started drawing at an early age. What were you like as a young artist?

Because of seeing many pictures in my father's art books, I was already drawing in a very realistic style. Whenever I see someone or something, I would mentally draw them, or pretend to draw them with my finger. This habit was quite helpful when I really started to draw and paint. Through my school years, art was always my favorite class.

You have held numerous exhibitions in Korea and the United States as a fine artist. What was your road to publication as a children's book illustrator?

When I attended the M .F.A. Illustration of School of Visual Arts in New York in 1991, there was a group exhibition held as a degree show at the Art Directors' Club of New York City. Arther Levine, who was an editor from Putnam, saw my work, and he introduced me to Philip Lee, the publisher of Lee & Low Books. Philip was looking for an illustrator for Baseball Saved Us. Like Ken Mochizuki, I never thought I would be a children's book illustrator before. That book changed the course of my life.

(Some illustrations from Baseball Saved Us, including a couple of rough sketches:)

What motivates you to illustrate for children?

When the story makes a deep impression on my mind, I want to share the story with others. To me, sympathy is the most important attribute of the illustrator. When I interpret the author's words into works of art, I do not merely represent a tale. I try to see the world through the eyes of the characters in the book and show the reader what they see. In this way, I hope to inspire children not only to have a good imagination, but a sense of reality as well.

Why is encaustic beeswax painting your chosen medium?

For painting, I was never satisfied with general media such as water color, oil paint or acrylic. Something always felt missing. Because I like both painting and sculpting, I always looked for a technique which could bridge both worlds. I melt encaustic beeswax onto paper and then scratch out images like etching. What results is a kind of relief sculpture on the paper, and working like this is a kind of sculpting. When I first begin working, I am much more comfortable with a surface that is already filled with melted dark wax, more than a bare white canvas or paper. I can see the image from the wax surface the way a sculptor may see from a chunk of stone.

What do you think of traditional art versus digital art?

Digital art is very convenient and easy to handle in many ways. With the development of computer art technique, digital art is beginning to dominate the art world. But I think the mass-produced and flat nature of digital art will never surpass the delicacy of an original painting or sculpture. It's like the difference between the experiencing live music versus recorded music.

Who are your favorite children's book illustrators? Why are they your favorites?

I like Ted Lewin's realistic watercolor pictures. They are honest and straightforward. I also like Chris van Alsberg's innovative use of perspective. The angles he uses are always fresh and effective. I heard that in order to capture these perspective, he made model sculpture for all the main characters of his books.

What are the challenges and rewards of being an Asian American children's book illustrator?

Because I am a Asian American, I often get jobs illustrating Asian American stories. I am particularly happy to illustrate stories if they are about a Korean-American, like Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds: The Sammy Lee Story. In the interests of authenticity, publishers tend to believe Asian American illustrators do a better job for Asian American stories than non-Asian Americans. In many ways, it's true and unavoidable. But sometimes I feel like I'm limited to a stereotype. I wish I could illustrate more stories beyond Asian American subjects.

(A couple of illustrations from Sixteen Years in Sixteen Seconds, including their rough sketches:)

Do you celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month? How will you celebrate it this year?

No, not really.

What did you think of Passage to Freedom when you first read it? What did you like best about the story?

Back then, I didn't know much about the Holocaust. I just knew that six million Jewish people were killed by the Nazis in World War II. Through researching the historical background of the story, I learned a lot about the Holocaust, and I was glad that I could contribute to commemorating this important history with my art. I was impressed by the extraordinary bravery of Mr. Sugihara and the strong support from his family for his decision.

What exactly was your process for creating the illustrations in Passage to Freedom? And how much research did you do? Did you use models/source pictures or did you draw from your memory/imagination?

I visited the Holocaust Museum at Washington D.C., and was strongly impacted by what I saw. The movie Schindler's List gave me great inspiration as well. Because the story is nonfiction, I used images from photos as references for the characters in the book. My editor sent me the book Visas for Life written by Yukiko Sugihara, Mr. Sugihara's wife. There are about forty black and white family photographs in the book. After the the war, when the Sugihara family was imprisoned in Russia, all of their belongings, including their family photos, were confiscated. Those forty photos in the book Visas for Life were the only photos which survived. So I managed using those forty photos and other reference photographs from my background research. For authenticity, I insisted that I was going to make my illustrations monotone, to honor the black and white photos that I referenced. First the editor was reluctant with this idea, but finally she agreed. When the book was finished, everyone was glad that we did so.

What are you working on now?

Now I'm working on a picture book from the Korean publisher Bori Book. The story is about a very old tree. In rural Korea, most towns only have one, or a small group of really old trees. When a town was established, people would planted a tree, or a group of trees. If that tree survived as the town developed over many generations, people started to worship the tree. They would call the tree 'Dangsan naamoo' and believed it had very strong spirit. Dangsan is a kind of title of great prestige. Naamoo means tree. The Dangsan naamoo in my story is about 500 years old. The author found that tree in the deep forest outskirts of a deserted town, where he is trying to reestablish a new farming community. Now I'm almost done the sketches. The book will be published this autumn.

Dom, thank you so much for your beautiful answers to my questions. Thank you so much for sharing with Into the Wardrobe readers! Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. :o)



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