Photo Essay

The Visions of Ji Won Park

Four years after the attack, she draws and learns to speak.

By Crawford Kilian 29 May 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian was born in New York City in 1941. He was raised in Los Angeles and Mexico City, and was educated at Columbia University (BA '62) and Simon Fraser University (MA '72). He served in the US Army from 1963 to 1965, and moved to Vancouver in 1967. He became a naturalized Canadian in 1973.

Crawford has published 21 books -- both fiction and non-fiction, and has written hundreds of articles. He taught at Vancouver City College in the late 1960s and was a professor at Capilano College from 1968 to 2008. Much of Crawford's writing for The Tyee deals with education issues in British Columbia, but he is also interested in books, online media, and environmental issues.

Reporting Beat: Education, health, and books

Crawford's Connection to BC: Though he was born in New York City, one of Crawford's favourite places is Sointula, a small town off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island.

Twitter: @crof

Website: H5N1

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Saturday was the fourth anniversary of the attack on Ji Won Park. It caused a brief uproar, both here and in Korea, but public attention has gone on to other concerns.

Ji Won, her brother David, and their mother Jackie Lim carry on the long, slow process of bringing her back into the world. They see some progress, even in unlikely ways. On recent visits, my first in many months, I could see it too.

She's looking very well -- a tall, slender young woman with a big smile. Her hands are clenched, but a recent Botox injection has relaxed them a bit.

She's even taking speech therapy. "She can say yes and no," David tells me, though the words are still indistinct. Watching her work with her speech therapist, I marvel at how she must consciously move her tongue to form vowels and consonants, and then words: eye, ear, dinner, light.

You may remember an old movie, The Miracle Worker, about the education of Helen Keller. In one famous scene, the blind, deaf little girl pulls on a pump handle and finds a word in her earliest memories: "Wa-wa." When I watch and hear Ji Won say "Wa-uh," I feel shock and elation in equal measure.

Art of recovery

Last winter Ji Won embarked on another activity: art. This is extraordinary because the attack in Stanley Park left her with cortical blindness; she can see three-dimensional objects, but images in two dimensions are almost impossible for her to understand. This means she can't read, and therefore can't even use a computer to compile text into a readable or speakable expression.

Nevertheless, with the aid of a tutor, Ji Won last winter began to create works that fall somewhere between landscapes and mindscapes. Using coloured marker pens clenched in her left hand, she drew in a style reminiscent of Jackson Pollock: seemingly random curves, straight lines and zigzags that add up to more than they seem.

One in particular, "Landscape of Stanley Park," evokes the place where she was attacked, and where she still goes for walks. Even without knowing that, a viewer would sense the anger and menace the work conveys.

Another, "My body was lifted up by Jesus Christ in dream," portrays a knot of red lines breaking free from a web of black and dark green and rising straight up into a cloud of pale green and orange. And "Sorrows of my immobilized legs" shows a tenuous, almost invisible human outline whose legs are a knotted mass of pain.

Jackie tells me that Ji Won doesn't just draw what she sees. Instead she thinks about it, composing it in her mind before transposing the image to paper. "And when she is done, she is very tired," Jackie adds.

I can believe it. Ji Won is forcing her brain to grow, to re-wire itself, to re-create some of the functions lost in the attack. I would love to know what she sees when she looks at her own art…and if it looks different now from what it did three or four months ago.

Friends and travels

Though the day is built around Ji Won's needs, the family manages to enjoy life. Their Coal Harbour apartment is airy and bright, designed for persons with disabilities. They go for walks around the marina and into Stanley Park. Friends come from Korea for long visits. David takes classes at Capilano College and works in a local restaurant. He hopes to eventually get into a construction job.

The family likes to go on trips, though they can manage only two or three days without the help of Ji Won's attendants. Recently they went to Seattle for a few days of sightseeing and museums; they hope to see more of Canada soon. She's looking forward to riding horseback this summer, and sailing -- and maybe learning to ski in the winter.

I still have hopes that one way or another, Ji Won will come fully back into the world -- by learning to speak again, and through her art. (The art tutor had to leave; the family is looking for a new one.)

For now, she conveys her emotions very well. She follows conversations attentively and responsively. Day by day, she works to regain what she lost on May 27, 2002. Some day she will speak with us again.

Tyee regular contributor Crawford Kilian runs a blog about Ji Won here.  [Tyee]

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