CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea – Students at Humphreys West Elementary School found a slice of color and Korean culture as the first day of the new school year arrived Monday.
Over the summer, a team of South Korean art students from Chung-Ang University in Seoul turned two empty walls inside the school into murals highlighting aspects of their country’s culture.
Humphreys West Principal Edgar Romero envisioned the project in November when he arrived at the school on the largest U.S. military base overseas. Romero found the school lacked artwork and said students wanted to enrich themselves with South Korean culture.
“There are things that kids should be exposed to and be able to talk about” in their culture classes at school, Romero told Stars and Stripes on Monday. He said many of the children on the base are multiracial Korean Americans.
“I needed to bring that little bit of Korea back into the building so that the host-nation teachers could really bring in and immerse the kids,” he said of the Korean staff who teach the country’s culture.
Earlier, Romero, the assistant principal of Osan Middle High School at the nearby Osan Air Base, said he had lived in South Korea for 17 years. Exposing military families to South Korean culture has been challenging, he said, especially since off-base travel was restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Parents should really make a big effort to get to the folk village or expose them to Korean folk art,” Romero said.
Most military families spend only two to three years in South Korea, too short a time to acclimate to the host nation’s culture.
Romero presented the mural idea to the school’s Parent Teacher Student Organization, which allocated nearly $2,000 for the project.
The five students commissioned for the project worked 12-hour shifts over 11 days to complete two murals on opposite sides of a wall inside the school. Artists painted in the ancient Korean style and included images of mountains, fruits, insects, and wildlife. One mural was completed in May and the other in August.
Seo Jae Hyun, a third-year student studying Korean painting, said the group wanted to create a “powerful image of Korea.”
“The artwork we did was a little difficult,” he told Stars & Stripes by phone Friday. “When we started the work, we were very worried because the teachers might be disappointed, or if we did a bad job of it, our pride might be hurt. We are painters, so we can’t ignore it.”
It was the first time the group had painted on a U.S. military base, Seo said. He described the experience as “totally different”.
“I felt like I was on a foreign trip,” Seo said. “And, I had butterflies in my stomach.”
School officials are discussing plans to allow Humphreys West students and other organizations on the base to paint more murals at the school, Romero said.
The murals are popular with students at Humphreys West, said Janet Rowe, the school’s education technician.
“They loved watching it,” she said Thursday. “It was bringing color, not just tradition, to our elementary school.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Yoo Kyong Chang contributed to this report.