June 25, 2024

A glittering waterfall cascades down the steep side of a dark mountain. Its waters churn in a rocky pool at the base that seems to glow with its own light. Around the pool, bright temples appear to float amid the trees, and a bridge that forms across the river resembles a crystalline rainbow.

The scene above is just a small part of “Geumgangsan, or Bongraesan Mountain Drawing,” a triptych completed by South Korean artist Song Ki-sung in 2016 that depicts Mount Geumgang in North Korea. The artist used mother-of-pearl inlay to create the glimmering temples.

A detail from “Geumgangsan, or Bongraesan Mountain Drawing” by South Korean artist Song Ki-sung, showing mother-of-pearl inlays. The city of Wonju, South Korea, has given the work to the city of Roanoke and the Taubman Museum of Art. Photo by Mike Allen.

On Saturday, the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke held a ceremony presenting a new exhibition, “Celebrating 60 Years of Partnership: Wonju, South Korea, and Roanoke, Virginia, USA,” in which Song Ki-sung’s “Geumgangsan” was the newest artwork on display. The artist has given the piece to the Taubman and the city of Roanoke in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of its sister city relationship with Wonju.

The Taubman event was one of a series honoring the enduring friendship between the two cities. Earlier that Saturday, two mayors stood side by side on the Local Colors Festival stage, commemorating an international friendship.

‘Celebrating 60 Years of Partnership: Wonju, South Korea, and Roanoke, Virginia’

On display through Dec. 29.

Where: Taubman Museum of Art, 110 Salem Avenue S.E., Roanoke

Hours: Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon – 5 p.m. Open until 9 p.m. first Friday of each month.

Admission: free

More information: 540-342-5760;

“We’re very excited to have very special visitors with us from our sister city — Wonju, Korea,” Roanoke Mayor Sherman Lea told the appreciative audience gathered in Elmwood Park.

“We are here to create another 60 years of sisterhood,” said Won Gang Soo, the mayor of Wonju, speaking through his interpreter, Soohyun Paek, to more whoops and applause.

The delegation from Wonju included the mayor’s entourage and two dance teams, the Wonju Traditional Dance Team and the K-pop dance group LEAD. The visit coincided with Roanoke’s Local Colors Festival, an annual event that promotes multicultural understanding and honors the many immigrant populations in the Star City. Furthering the cultural exchange, the dance groups performed on the Elmwood Park stage.

In between afternoon performances at Local Colors, the delegation made a stop at the Taubman Museum to visit the new exhibition — a small display with a significant backstory.

Three artifacts, six decades

This 12th century vase from the era of Korea’s Goryeo Dynasty was the first gift of art from Wonju to Roanoke, presented in 1965. Courtesy Taubman Museum of Art.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower founded Sister Cities International in 1956. The birth of Roanoke Valley Sister Cities arrived in 1964 with the pairing of Roanoke and Wonju, a connection started by a fortuitous meeting in South Korea between New York native Dr. Robert Roth, whose wife, Paulene, had taught at Hollins College, and Korean Dr. Young Kim, who had been a surgeon at what was once Jefferson Memorial Hospital.

In 1965, the city of Wonju gave Roanoke a 12th century vase decorated with porcelain inlays of cranes and clouds. A second art gift in 2008, the enigmatic mixed-media work “The Flow of the Mind’s Eye” by Kim Mahn-geun, symbolizes spiritual togetherness and sharing of ideas. Wonju gave the piece to the Taubman in honor of the museum’s grand opening.

Leap forward to February 2024, when Taubman Executive Director Cindy Petersen and her oldest daughter traveled to Wonju. She visited the art museum there, the Museum SAN, which stands for Space Art Nature. She met with Kim Mahn-geun, an opportunity to learn more about him and “Flow of the Mind’s Eye.”

“The Flow of the Mind’s Eye,” a mixed-media piece by South Korean artist Kim Mahn-geun, was given by Wonju in 2008 in honor of the Taubman Museum of Art’s grand opening. Courtesy of Taubman Museum of Art.

“We hadn’t had a lot of information about him, about the piece,” which is shared in the new exhibition, Petersen said. “He was very excited. His pieces that he continues to work on are very similar in scope and in meaning.”

Ramona Kirsch, director of global learning at Hollins University and chairperson of the Wonju Sister City Committee, connected Petersen with Wonju city officials and with the Museum SAN. During a 2022 visit, Kirsch had begun talks with Won, the mayor, about coming to Roanoke for the 60th anniversary. 

“In today’s world, where we have a lot of strife and a lot of struggle and a lot of misunderstanding, it’s nice to have an international relationship where we’re both committed to finding ways to collaborate and bring joy to people’s lives,” Kirsch said.

The newspaper Wonju Today interviewed Petersen and published a pair of articles about her visit and about the 60th anniversary of the sister cities’ celebration. 

“Wonju is a beautiful and welcoming city with many similarities to Roanoke, including population,” Petersen told Wonju Today. “I hope that our two cities will continue to exchange in various fields such as art, medicine, culture, education, and economy.”

Artist Song Ki-sung, on reading these articles, was inspired to contact Wonju officials about offering her “Geumgangsan, or Bongraesan Mountain Drawing” as a gift to Roanoke and to the Taubman. 

South Korean artist Song Ki-sung visited the Taubman Museum of Art, where her “Geumgangsan, or Bongraesan Mountain Drawing” is now on display. Courtesy of the Taubman.

‘An art of time’

In another striking bit of serendipitous timing, Song visited the Taubman and saw the Wonju exhibition on May 17. She was not in the United States traveling with the delegation from Wonju; she had crossed the Pacific to visit relatives and attend a wedding. 

It’s self-evident from studying “Geumgangsan” that creating it took painstaking dedication. The piece took the artist 10 months to finish, and using a type of lacquer that she discovered she had an allergy to. She took medication to protect against the allergic reaction and completed the piece, Petersen said.

When Won and his entourage arrived at the museum, he took his time studying Song’s work and the pair of previous gifts before addressing those gathered in the museum’s second-floor galleries. “Nice to meet you,” he said in English. Through his interpreter, he elaborated on the time and care it took to make Song’s piece, calling it “an art of time” and emphasizing that it represented “love between the two cities.”

Delegation members and museum-goers descended to the Taubman’s amphitheater, where the dance groups performed. When museum officials asked the delegation to assemble on stage for a group photo, the Wonju representatives insisted on turning the scenario around so that the entire audience was included in the picture.

Before moving on to the next destination on the tour, Won shared thoughts through his interpreter on what he hopes will result from his visit. 

“During the last decade, our exchanges and interactions have been weakened because of the many issues, and so we felt that some kind of restoration of the friendships and interaction is required,” he said. 

He cited ongoing student exchange programs. “One hundred years ago, some Korean students visited and studied in Roanoke, and with the knowledge and experiences they learned from here, they returned to Korea and they started contributing a lot, including to the independence movement, and that helped to develop the modernizations of Korea.”

He saw more opportunities in medical internships. “Our Wonju medical students are studying in the [Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine],” he said. “If we expand or deepen our interests in this area, I think we can find a lot of potentials for collaborations.”

As for continuing artistic exchange, he suggested he’d like to see Wonju honor the man who enabled this sisterhood connection. “I am thinking of right now, as a project, to establish a statue of Dr. Roth.”

The Wonju Traditional Dance Team performs in the Taubman Museum of Art’s theater. Photo by Mike Allen.


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