Do you want a receipt? Artist Dong Kyu Kim always said yes

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Monmouth Museum
Artist and fashion designer Dong Kyu Kim has collected thousands of receipts for more than ten years, transforming the delicate paper into one-of-a-kind masterpieces.

MIDDLETOWN – Thousands of receipts adorned the walls, framed to signify their purpose.

Other receipts took shape, a life of their own, evolving to form familiar sights that remind Dong Kyu Kim of his Korean heritage.

The receipts, dozens boasting scorches from an iron that was applied to the delicate paper to help keep its shape, offer a unique sense of transparency into Kim’s life as an American immigrant.

The self-proclaimed “Sewing Man” moved to America from South Korea in 2007 and has been collecting receipts for more than 10 years. A descendent of poverty in his home country, Kim has given his paper receipts – symbols of purchases he has made in America – a second life.

Kim’s art exhibition, “United Stitches,” is being showcased at the Monmouth Museum. The exhibit began on Sept. 21 and will run through Oct. 21. 

The New Jersey Emerging Arts Series consists of six annual solo exhibitions that highlight the work of New Jersey artists. The artists chosen to participate in the series represent the diversity of talent that is seen throughout the state, according to the museum.

Kim said his 16-piece exhibition represents his quest for “self-revolution.”

“I am from a very poor family in a small farmland in Korea,” Kim said. “My father died when I was 10 years old. I am the youngest of seven children, so my mother struggled financially to support all of us. I wanted to study abroad, but it was never possible. I really admired the people who can afford to study and live abroad. I dreamed to be a very famous and successful fashion designer in America.”

Kim, who has sought to achieve the American dream since childhood, moved to the United States to pursue a career in fashion and began collecting the receipts from purchases he has made since 2007.

“I liked clothes,” Kim said. “One’s attire was an excellent tool to disguise poverty. Wearing lavish clothes not only made me into a different person, but others treated me differently, as well. I started observing people on TV closely and began memorizing the different name brands they had on … I put all my effort into running far away from this poverty.”

Kim said he did not have any plans to make use of his old receipts, but said he saved the paper as reminders of the things he has done and the items he has purchased since moving to America. Kim said the United States offers cultural experiences South Korea does not. Kim said he cherishes the experiences he has had in America.

“Why had I collected those receipts? Why couldn’t I have thrown them away? Perhaps they symbolized experiences that I had not wished to part with,” Kim said. “Experiences of living in America, working in New York. They were mementos of experiences I wanted to revisit.”

Kim said his collection is inspired by the traditional Korean patchwork JoGakBo. Each piece in Kim’s collection boasts a unique arrangement of paper receipts that have been acquired from high-end retailers, prescriptions for medications, grocery stores, restaurants and personal bank statements, among other purchases.

Each paper receipt is fastened to a Swiffer cleaning pad and sewn together by colored thread. The receipts are strategically arranged in each work, framed and displayed.

“(JoGakBo) is made of scraps from HanBok (Korean attire) making and is a one-of-a-kind wrapping cloth that is unique in Korean culture. Just as JoGakBo grants life to what may have been insignificant discarded scraps, creating artwork by quilting together, stitch by stitch, by hand, once useless receipts from past 10 years of life, inherits the idea of unifying daily lifestyle with art.

“Furthermore, contemplating upon how to move forward with bridging together the Korean traditional culture with modern culture, how to fuse together the different culture of East and West as a foreigner, and how to incorporate daily life and art within our lives is how this train of artwork came about. My technique is very simple, it is just running stitch by hand.”

As a child, Kim said he would often observe his mother sewing garments that had been torn and needed to be fixed. Kim said he began to take an interest in sewing, although it was observed as a largely female duty in South Korea. 

“I was in first or second grade, walking home through a snow-filled country road; my mother was waiting for me at home,” Kim said. “I put down my backpack and watched as my mother was darning the holes in our old socks. She hand-stitched strand by strand.

“I don’t recall whether I was sitting or laying on the bedroom floor, nor do I remember if I was doing my homework or having a conversation with my mother, but I do recollect her warmth. An afternoon filled with warmth and no worries, next to my mother, watching her sewing away, is my very first memory of a hand stitch.”

One of Kim’s works, “American Stitch,” was created to resemble an American flag that has been vertically situated so the stars reside in the upper right hand corner of the piece. Receipts are woven together to form a patch-like appearance while red thread has been vertically situated on the outside of the piece.

“One of my favorite movies of all time is ‘Billy Elliot,'” Kim said. “The storyline of growing up in the ’80’s in poverty under a single parent and the natural-born talent leading Billy to be a professional ballet dancer resembles my childhood so much that it brings tears to my eyes. 

“Like Billy’s natural talent, some talents are just innate. When I was a preschooler in the late 1970’s, I was often left alone in the house. My parents were always busy with farm work and when my older brother and sister, who mostly watched after me, went off to school, I would draw in books left around the house. Because of our poor living situation, there weren’t any art supplies, such as sketch books and crayons. I just drew on the extra white space on any books I found in the house with a pen or a pencil.

“Luckily, just like Billy, I was able to meet art instructors who saw my natural talent. And as Billy was able to receive personal tutoring from Mrs. Wilkinson, I was offered an opportunity to experience a heightened art education.”

Kim said he is guided by self-meditation and his art is symbolic of his quest toward understanding his own self. 

“My art piece is a result of manual labor of endless hand stitching,” Kim said. “Each stitch is different. Each receipt holds a different story and no two are alike. In other words, no machinery can replicate any of these artworks. Through a process of hand work, with hopes to deliver the message of individuality and exceptionality of manual human labor, I am trying to show that art is not distant from our lives and that it can be implemented in our everyday lives.”

Included in Kim’s collection are two pieces of traditional Korean clothing made entirely out of receipts. One of the paper garments, HanBok, is comprised of 307 receipts that have been acquired from purchases made from 2014 to 2016.

“The process of developing my artwork is the comforting hand, that everything will be okay, the hand-me-down clothes, the unsuccessful future, being jobless, not attending a well-known college; all is an act of comfort, a very personal and emotional process of unwinding my resentful heart,” Kim said.