2008 Changemakers: Talking Suitcases tell unique life stories

Susan Armington and Meeock Park

Susan Armington and Meeock Park. Photo by Amber Proaccini.
Susan Armington and Meeock Park. Photo by Amber Proaccini.

Susan Armington’s father was a reserved man, and when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, she realized that if she wanted to know him better, it was then or never. Armington began to have deep conversations with him, using her ability as an artist to memorialize his stories; she then placed the artwork in a suitcase. “It transformed our relationship,” she said.

But what Armington gained was something even more profound: She learned, firsthand, how art can be used to tell stories that sometimes can’t be told in words. Armington began to work with groups as diverse as young children, religious communities and high school students, facilitating the creation of storytelling dioramas that fit into suitcases.

And then she collaborated with Meeock Park, who works with immigrant Korean seniors at the Korean Service Center, an organization serving Korean senior citizens who live in public housing in Minneapolis’ Cedar Riverside neighborhood. The result was a handful of stories, not in suitcases, but inside boxes of various sizes, created by Korean women in their 60s, 70s, and 80s. Park translated for the women both language-wise and in terms of explaining Korean culture. “Meeock’s participation was absolutely critical,” Armington said.

Armington explained that a Talking Suitcase is broadly defined as some sort of container for a diorama of handmade artworks. Those created by the women of the Korean Service Center reflect each woman’s life. “These are thoughtful, courageous, and sensitive women. As they worked, more and more memories came alive.”

The stories are unique to the women who created them, yet rooted in the universal experience of being a woman. Eighty-two-year-old Sun Yi Pak’s diorama depicts her as a 25-year-old woman fleeing North Korea with her husband and niece and carrying her firstborn baby on her back. Park said that Pak is a woman of amazing talent who learned to draw at the age of 70, through a combination of classes and being self-taught.

Park refers to 76-year-old Suk Hui Kim as an optimist who has coped with whatever life has thrown at her. Kim’s diorama depicts her traditional Korean wedding. Kim’s husband, Park said, was a gentle man who wasn’t a financial success. At a time when few Korean women worked, Kim sold insurance. When one of their daughters died shortly after childbirth, Kim fought depression, fear and anxiety.

There are other stories: There’s the woman whose diorama depicts the sewing machine that has been a lifeline for her. There’s the diorama featuring a plane-the one its creator took back to Korea after learning her treasured son had been killed in a car accident. “In such a short time, they told such profound stories,” Armington said. “Talking Suitcases opened the door … and they were ready.”

In 2009 Armington will continue a new Talking Suitcases project with Hmong and Vietnamese elders. And look for a large exhibit in November 2009 at the University of Minnesota’s Nash Gallery.

To learn more about artist Susan Armington, go to: www.susanarmington.com