The man and his mountain, Jeju, South Korea
An Hye-Kyeung (left) translates the words of her father, An Heung-Chean | Credit: Jim Saunders
Mountain climber, artist An Heung-Chean’s passion is on display at a new Jeju-si gallery
Story by Marcie Miller | Photos by Jim Saunders
An Heung-Chean has painted, drawn and sketched the love of his life thousands of times. He has captured her with the morning dawn creeping across her face; with the golden rays of evening caressing her slopes, with clouds spilling over her face like a shy bride’s veil. And always, to him she is beautiful.
She is Mt. Halla, and it’s safe to say, no one on earth loves her more than this man. And he has the paintings to prove it.
He recently spoke about the mountain in the custom-built Jeju-si gallery and studio that now houses his collected works. The gallery opened in November, and is a must-see for anyone interested in Hallasan.
An speaks of the mountain with reverence.
“It’s like painting a loved one,” he said, with his daughter An Hye-Kyeung translating. “Mt. Halla has been the author of my life. It has made me what I am.”
Climbing Hallasan was life-changing event
An, now 80 and in frail health, first climbed the mountain in 1943 as a teen. The nimble youngster hiked from Jeju-si to Mt. Halla and back in one day. At that time there were no trails, no boardwalks nor handrails, and certainly no noodle shack.
There was just the mountain, and its irresistible siren’s call.
“I think it’s the most beautiful and most generous mountain in the world,” An said. “I often call it ‘Mother.’”
An didn’t get another chance to climb Hallasan again until November, 1957. That trip took three days, and he and partner Kim Jeong-Cheol used pickaxes to blaze a trail and tied ribbons to mark the route for the return trip.
When the climbers got to the top it was socked in; zero visibility. But then the fog rolled away, revealing the lake in the center of the crater, full of water sparkling in the sun. They could see for miles in every direction, and they were alone.
“It felt like watching the creation of the world,” he said.
Drawing the mountain keeps it with him
An returned to the mountain the next day and more than a thousand times since. But he didn’t start painting it until 20 years later, when he had a brush with death resulting in emergency surgery. That experience made him realize that he wanted to leave a legacy behind, a record of his relationship with Hallasan. And he wanted to keep his beloved close.
“Drawing is like always being with the mountain,” he said. Indeed, An is surrounded by the mountain in his gallery, with images of Hallasan adorning every wall and stacked several deep leaning against the walls.
His daughter, who owns and manages Art Space C in Sin-Jeju, said her father had no formal art training. He just draws from his heart.
Gallery doubles as Jeju mountaineering museum
The An Heung-Chean Gallery | Credit: Jim Saunders
The gallery also has an unusual installation, An’s entire collection of mountaineering equipment, from day packs to a set up tent, occupies the center of the space. Hiking boots line one wall and display cases hold an assortment of gadgets and gear.
An notes there is only one thing missing: the boots he wore on that first successful ascent.
An’s artwork is beautiful, worthy of any gallery. He will reluctantly sell a painting or drawing, but they don’t come cheap. After all, how much would you take to part with a piece of your heart?
Where and when
The An Heung-Chean Gallery and working studio is located at 22 Yeon Mun 4 Ro, near the Marina Hotel in Sin-Jeju. From the hotel head east three blocks (toward City Hall) to Yeon Mun 4 Ro (there is a blue street sign), and turn right. The gallery is on the corner, two blocks up on the right. It’s a two-story light yellow building, with a curved outer wall.
Due to An’s health issues, please call his daughter, An Hye-Kyeung, to arrange a gallery visit at 722 4782 or 016 690 0040.