Nam Soon Kim ASMA   Biography

    As I complete the project of  Admiral Yi Sun-shin, in one step I reminisce about the gloomy past. I didn’t even know how to start telling these colossal stories.

It has taken me nine years to complete 21 oil paintings about  Admiral Yi Sun-shin and his life.  I still cry when I listen to the Korean national song, even though it has been thirty five years since I came to study in America.  later, I settled here after struggling

with my own business.

It is truly the crying that only the emigrants could understand and empathize with.

It is unspeakable how many times I have cried from moment to moment during the  execution of this Yi Sun-shin project. 

I came to the United States of America as a student of the Grace Downs Air Career School at Glen Cove, New York in 1974. Before I came to the America I had been with the Korean Airlines for four years. After graduation of the school I did my own business. I was naturalized in America in 1982 and since then I have lived in New York city until now.


    During the 1960 student demonstration for the democracy in Korea, known as the 4.19 Revolution, I was a chief student leader at Masan girls‘ high school.

When I had passed through the school hallway, the students shouted toward me,

    “When do we do the demonstration in the street outside the school?”

The students were in a state of high excitement after a student from another  school, Kim Joo Yeol was killed during an earlier demonstration. I could have efficiently organized the demonstration.

At that time, being the leader meant  dying during the demonstration, and the first thing I did before going out was to burn my diary. It seemed necessary because a diary was the most secretive thing for a girl just starting puberty.

When I applied to go to university, my father didn’t allow me to major in fine art,

instead giving me the choice of the medicine or pharmacy.

I chose pharmacy because it looked easier than medicine.


    With my early retirement, I decided to become a fine art artist after having studied as an art student with Fashion Institute of Technology  and Parsons Fine Arts, part time after work, and later at The Art students  league of New York, full time.

As young students, beginning in elementary school, we studied Admiral Yi Sun-shin.

We learned about his intelligence and abilities in the face of adversity, his devotion to duty, and his unwavering honor. Whenever we talked about patriotism, we referred to Yi Sun-shin. I had wanted to express his story to the Western world, but it wasn’t until I become an artist that I felt I had found a medium that would show how I felt and could give the respect due to him.

From the beginning of my artist career, I chose  as my subject matter Yi Sun-shin’s contemplative inner life and his monumental  episodes.

Even though I felt that these historical stories, all over four hundred years old, didn’t look attractive and were even objectionable to Western people, I accepted that reality because of the  overwhelming inspiration of the solemn profundity of the subject..

Books related with Imjin War - Battles in Japanese Invasion under Hidejoshi (1592-1598) and many Korean old cultural books, history books, and essays were faithfully relied upon in order to avoid  any apocryphal stories in the works. 

Nanjung Ilgi - the War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-shin; Imjin Changeh - Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s Memorials to the court;  and his poetries were highly referenced. Also referenced were Jing Bi Rok, written by Admiral’s friend and his contemporary prime minister, Sung Ryong Ryu; Imjin Naval Battle, written by Min Woong Lee; Still Twelve War Battleships left with me, written by Jong Dae Kim;  Chosun Dynasty Chronicles; and the Korean Naval Academy Website.

At the beginning stage, Sip Kyung Do -  a series of ten pictures describing specially noteworthy events in the Admiral’s life, having been preserved at the main temple of Hyun Choong Sa - was used primarily as a structure for the project. 

The paintings merge two genres: portraiture and historical painting.  

Many classical artists, specially Renaissance and Baroque artists, produced allegorical or mythological episodes but not anecdotal episodes.

Some paintings of Napoleon were more or less anecdotal, but he was contemporary.  

There have been no reference books available about anecdotal painting.

It was a tremendously difficult procession to produce supremely high-quality paintings that, with Western oil painting methods, would fully describe a pure oriental subject.

    My conviction that the painting should be paramountly powerful and colorful led me to create relief-like thickness using only oil painting pigments for which I invested enormous effort and experiments.     

Many artists were said to have used sand or straw for sculptural support, but they couldn’t achieve the same effectiveness.

Rembrandt used the sculptural thickness in light areas only, unlike mine in which the high relief-like impasto covers the whole canvas and enhances the more powerful depth and richness of the painting with the effect of animation.This could never be achieved with thinly-layered painting.

It is said that when Beethoven conceived of the overwhelmingly solemn Nine Symphony, he felt that the orchestral instruments alone were not powerful enough to have composed his symphony.  So, he brought the human voice, the vocal chorus, to  his last symphony for the first time of the symphony history. The acoustic depth created by this additional layer was a landmark moment in symphony composition.

In the photos of my works you cannot feel the power of relief-like thickness.  But if you see them in person, you can observe the powerful effectiveness of the relief.  And, both the paintings’ textures and the epic size of the canvases are designed to be seen from a distance for the real animation effect.

It was very difficult to meet oriental models, so I utilized every possible way to create them for contour of features of oriental faces. Many times, I used photos I took, and for lighting, plasticity, animation, and hands gestures,  I used American professional modes. One of my American door men sat for my works, but that gave me a hard time with facial modeling tasks, specifically in the shape of shadow due to the differences between Orientals and Westerners of facial bone structures, cavernous eye sockets, and other features. For his appearance, I referenced mostly to  Jing Bi Rok written by Seung Yong Ryu, the Admiral’s friend and his contemporary Prime Minister,  in which he wrote,   “Yi Sun-shin is reticent and barely smiles. His features are elegant and decent and looks like a stern scholar, but there is a courageous man of steady nerve inside.” I structured his face accordingly.  Also referenced was a  description by Yun Hyu, one of the Admiral’s far relatives in his book, Baek Ho Jun Seo, in which the Admiral is of strong,  big body structure, and cool courage.

I represented my self-portrait as the mother of Yi Sun-shin.

A Baroque artist in Italy, Artemisia Gentileschi, has said that she painted some of her stories without models many times to achieve an extraordinarily good quality of realistic paintings. 

For the costumes I designed them mostly based on the costumes of that old time displayed in the museums and folk villages in korea.

I decided against using new costumes that I had ordered from Korea for the works due to their improper designe for those old time trends.   

As they appraise my woks,  viewers will first observe my painting quality on which 

I focused, and then they will get interested in the stories. While they are lingering on the paintings, they will meet Admiral Yi Sun-shin as he is introduced internationally.


    From now until the end of my life, I will continue the series of Yi Sun-shin. He is one of the human beings who has the most anecdotal episodes which are not apocryphal and, eventually, Admiral Yi Sun-shin will be well-known to the world. 

When I think of producing of the continuing series I am already excited and tears run in my eyes again.

The next episode will be the scene in which many people, with a thousand emotions after their tiring and scared war to death, are heartily welcoming Admiral Yi Sun-shin’s return from the Myungryang battle. He was victorious,  with only 13 battleships and no reinforcements against 133 enemy battleships and their endless reinforcements.

The canvas will be monumental in size, and a whole cluster of emotional tones will be seen in this epic painting.

I believe it is my biggest blessing bestowed upon me by God that I, as a fine art artist, can have this chance to dare describe the private inner world of Admiral Yi Sun-shin on oil painting canvases, even in any aspect. For this opportunity,  I am truly grateful.