Wendy Park’s Dream Language Unveiled

Dream Language: Exploring Wendy Park’s Captivating Paintings

By Sara Hantman

Portrait by Max Knight

The Evocative Power of Wendy Park’s Art

Wendy Park’s paintings possess a unique ability to evoke a range of emotions within the viewer. They transport us to a place where joy, heartache, and nostalgia intertwine, evoking cherished memories and deep-seated longing. Born and raised in Los Angeles by first-generation South Korean immigrants, Park masterfully weaves together themes of diaspora, family, labor, and culture in her artwork. Without directly depicting people or emotions, Park’s vibrant and playful use of color, whimsically arranged objects, and dynamic lettering on canvas create a profound sense of connection.

An Alternative American Dream

Challenging conventional symbols of desire and success, Park’s still-life compositions present a different facet of the American Dream. Set against the backdrop of pegboard walls, linoleum tile floors, and folding security gates, her paintings capture the essence of the indoor swap meets that her parents worked at during her childhood. Styrofoam cups of coffee, stacks of repurposed milk crates, handwritten sale signs, and rows of clothes hangers become the subjects of her art. These humble and utilitarian objects represent the relentless pace of work and the constant struggles faced by working-class communities.

Park’s portrayals of everyday items like hand-cut Fuji apples, piping hot cup ramen, and saran-wrapped kimbap reveal the scarcity of time for leisure and nourishment in the lives of her parents. Amidst the chaos of the swap meet, she captures moments of respite shared among family members—an unfinished cigarette, melting ice in a half-sipped glass of whiskey, or playing cards scattered across a makeshift plywood table. These fleeting moments of connection are interrupted by the arrival of potential customers, highlighting the unrelenting demands of their livelihood.

An Interview with Wendy Park

Sara Hantman: To better understand the inspiration behind your artwork, could you share the story of how your parents met and why they chose to move to Los Angeles?

Wendy Park: In 1980, my dad came to LA, followed by my mom in 1984. They actually met in LA on a blind date arranged by family members who worked together at a restaurant in Koreatown. Both of them sought the American Dream. My dad came to LA because it was challenging to find work in Korea without a degree, while my mom saw LA as an opportunity for a fresh start and a chance to find a husband. They fell in love at first sight, and my dad made every effort to impress my mom. Despite not having much money working in pool construction, he would plan inexpensive dates such as watching the sunset at Redondo Beach or having picnics at the Griffith Observatory. After just two months, they got married, moved into a small apartment in Koreatown, and began working together at the Paramount outdoor swap meet.

Sara Hantman: Considering the powerful connection between your artwork and your parents’ experiences, I’m curious to know their response to your work.

Wendy Park: Unfortunately, my dad passed away three years ago, which profoundly influenced my current body of work. As my biggest inspiration, his approval meant everything to me. I’ve realized over time how similar we were in terms of our artistic inclinations and visual thinking. Whenever he wanted to explain something, he would grab a pen and paper and start drawing. I would have loved for him to see my art, as he is the one person I wanted to share it with the most. As for my mom, she was in Korea during the exhibition, but we did a Kakao video call, and I walked her through the paintings. Despite not fully comprehending why people would want paintings of the places she worked at, she felt a sense of nostalgia and appreciated the memories associated with them. The vibrant colors, however, also triggered some sadness as they reminded her of the challenging times they endured. It was a bittersweet response.

The Language of Symbolism

Park’s paintings are rich with symbolism, inviting viewers to delve deeper into the layered narratives within her art. Vibrant neon colors take center stage, reflecting her childhood perception of the swap meet as a place of wonder and excitement. As a creative child, Park found herself immersed in a world of art, surrounded by artists who embroidered intricate details on clothes or airbrushed captivating designs on t-shirts. Her paintings pay homage to these memories and the artistry that thrived within the swap meet community.

Beneath the surface, however, Park’s artwork reveals the cracks in the lives of working-class communities. Unfinished cups of ramen and coffee symbolize the perpetual motion and lack of leisure time experienced by her parents. It is a reminder of their constant dedication to attracting customers and making sales. The presence of a cooking pot in the midst of the swap meet setting represents her parents’ frugality, opting to bring their own ingredients and portable burner to work rather than spending money on lunch. It provided them with a sense of comfort amidst the demanding environment.

Furthermore, Park incorporates Korean objects alongside the American labels they sold, highlighting the fusion of cultures and the unique experience of being Korean American. Cup ramen, an ultimate comfort food for Park during her childhood, becomes a symbol of shared cultural experiences. Her paintings provide a sense of representation rarely seen in galleries, allowing visitors to connect with familiar foods and objects that are part of their own stories.

A Sense of Belonging through Art

The exhibition of Park’s artwork in Los Angeles holds profound significance. As her birthplace and long-time home, LA serves as a backdrop that enriches the narrative of her paintings. The artist fondly recalls the swap meet as a vibrant playground, a place where she grew up quickly, forging connections with other children of swap meet vendors. The cultural tapestry of the swap meet, with its Latino shops, party supply stores, Mexican candy shops, and more, shaped her outlook on art, diversity, and community.

Park takes pride in bringing her personal experiences back to a city that was once a thriving hub for swap meets but is now witnessing their decline. Through her art, she seeks to raise awareness of the immigrant and working-class communities that operated and frequented these spaces. Her paintings aim to evoke sentimentality in those who grew up in similar environments, while also providing an opportunity for others to gain insight into these often overlooked stories.

Extending the Artistic Experience

In addition to her paintings, Park expanded her artistic endeavors into augmented reality (AR). Collaborating with her husband, Alan Torres, an accomplished artist, she sought to augment the visual space of her artwork and offer viewers a more interactive experience.

AR technology allows for manipulation of scale, rotation of models, and close examination with a device, empowering the audience with agency and control over their interaction with the art. By removing the layer of caution and preciousness often associated with physical sculptures, AR provides a less intimidating and more accessible way to engage with artwork in a gallery setting. It also caters to younger generations, who have grown up in a digital-first world.

One of Park’s AR installations revolves around the Korean “Hwatu” card game, which encourages group participation. This new medium allowed her to transport viewers into a virtual Hwatu game room, complete with movements and sounds reminiscent of the real experience. The goal was to create an immersive and collaborative environment, where people could interact with each other and capture organic moments through shared photos. By embracing technology, Park aims to preserve the history and sense of community surrounding swap meets as they gradually disappear.


Wendy Park’s artwork transcends conventional boundaries, invoking a range of emotions while shedding light on the immigrant and working-class experience. Her skillful use of color, composition, and symbolism transports viewers into a world of nostalgia, reminiscence, and cultural fusion. Through her paintings, Park invites us to contemplate our own histories, the significance of shared spaces, and the resilience of diverse communities.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How did Wendy Park’s personal experiences shape her artwork?

As the child of immigrant parents who operated swap meet stalls, Wendy Park’s childhood memories and observations heavily influenced her artistic perspective. Growing up in an environment defined by hard work and cultural fusion, Park’s artwork serves as a reflection of her experiences and a tribute to her family’s journey.

2. What inspired Wendy Park to incorporate augmented reality (AR) into her artwork?

Working alongside her husband, Alan Torres, Wendy Park introduced augmented reality as a means to extend the viewer’s experience and provide a more interactive platform. AR allows for a greater level of engagement, offering viewers control over scale, rotation, and exploration of her art. It also opens up new possibilities for sharing and preserving cultural narratives.

3. How does Wendy Park’s artwork challenge traditional notions of the American Dream?

Instead of portraying the conventional symbols of desire and wealth, Wendy Park’s paintings capture the realities of working-class communities. Through scenes of swap meets, she showcases the dedication, resilience, and resourcefulness of immigrant families, providing a fresh perspective on the American Dream within the context of her own upbringing.

4. What role does symbolism play in Wendy Park’s artwork?

Symbolism is a significant element in Wendy Park’s artwork. She utilizes vibrant colors, selectively chosen objects, and juxtapositions to convey deeper meanings and evoke a specific emotional response. By incorporating everyday items and cultural references, Park connects with viewers on a personal and relatable level.

5. Why is Wendy Park’s artwork significant in terms of representation?

Wendy Park’s artwork provides a sense of representation rarely seen in traditional gallery spaces. By incorporating objects and foods from her Korean American upbringing, she allows viewers to connect with their own cultural identities and personal histories, fostering a sense of belonging and inclusivity among diverse audiences.