This year marks the 10th anniversary of a cute white bunny named “Benny,” one of the most well-loved emoticon characters in Kakao Talk. To commemorate the special occasion, an exhibition took place two times from April to early June in different locations: the Lotte Gallery at Jamsil and Cheongnyangni. The exhibition displayed over 120 illustrations of Benny, which were published in the essay books of its creator Gu gyung-seon. On May 3, when it shifted to its second venue, Gu, otherwise known as her nickname Artist Gu, showed up at her book signing ceremony. On that very day, The Argus paid a visit to the gallery, in hopes of finding out the back-story of the most adored character and its creator.
The Big-eared Bunny Benny
Benny, a steadily selling Kakao Talk emoticon, was given birth by someone’s humble wish. Having loved drawing from early childhood, she took a character-drawing class from an art academy specifically for illustration. At the age of two, Artist Gu suffered from a fever which claimed her auditory ability in its wake. Therefore, she looked for a spokesperson who would carefully listen to every sound in the world. From the animal encyclopedia, she learned that one of the animals with the best hearing ability is the rabbit. On the spot, she chose the rabbit as her character without a hint of hesitation. This marks the birth of Benny and of her career an illustrator, as she illustrates Benny as a very own representation of herself.
Artist Gu gyung-seon
In 2015, Artist Gu published her first autobiographical picture book titled “The Day Wasn’t So Bad” with Benny as the protagonist. Here, she unfolded her life fraught with frustration in a forthright manner. Two years later, this April, she dedicated another Benny essay book, “Mom Always Loves You,” to her mother, in appreciation for giving her the courage to always come back from numerous setbacks. One month after its release, in early May, her book was recommended as a “book to bring on a trip” by Kyobo Book Center. Clearly, her stories and her Benny have won over the hearts of thousands and continue to provide them comfort like no other.
On arriving at the gallery, a large-sized Benny amid the flying birthday decorations accosted The Argus at the entrance. Surprisingly, there already was a decent number of people appreciating the illustrations on display. It was hard to believe that the exhibition had opened its doors only a few hours earlier.
On the right was the front desk, on which lay exhibition pamphlets, Gu’s two essay books, and a Benny coloring book. On the left side, there was a separate station, presenting a scented perfume which was specially created by the artist herself thinking of Benny. To share her creation, there was a stack of Benny-shaped paper slips with a pink ribbon on the ears for the visitors to carry the Benny scent with them. In only a few hours, the scented paper was out of stock, attesting to the popularity of Benny and its new fragrance.
In September of the year 2013, Artist Gu was diagnosed with a rare retinal disease called ‘retinitis pigmentosa,’ a condition that causes gradual loss of vision. She could someday go blind not knowing exactly when and where. Nevertheless, she has set her sights on what she still has, not on what she may lose. With her olfactory sense intact, she embarked on assigning a signature aroma to her Benny. That she brought in her special creation to the exhibition to share with Benny lovers exhibited the heaps of warmth in her heart.
Birth of Benny
The exhibition consisted of three themes. The first theme was how Benny was first brought into the world. The pastel pink painted wall?the same color as Benny’s blush on her cheeks?presented the early illustration works in tiles. The canvass portrayed Benny in miscellaneous situations, including one where she looks at her protruding belly and promises to shed some weight. Such a portrayal of the petty things that take place every day greatly resembled our own mediocre lives.
One large picture illustrated Benny lying down on her back in a dull green background. The illustration titled “Everything Is a Bother” was the start of it all. After nine months of intensive drawing practice, Gu started off her career as a skin (wallpaper) artist for Cyworld, an outdated Social Networking Site in Korea. During the first year, she got worn out from low pay and low popularity. As a reflection of her own exhaustion, she drew this picture. Almost instantly, it garnered unprecedented popularity with over 160, 000 downloads and crowned her one of the most sought-after skin artists in Cyworld.
Benny’s bucket list
Afterwards, illustrations filled with beautiful backgrounds followed. On a square column, there were Gu’s 26 bucket lists, all of which were specified with a specific goal except for one. The last clause was left blank so that she would never complete her bucket list and feel a sense of void.
Upon viewing the illustrations that correspond to her list, The Argus could not but put on a small smile. Although they were merely drawings by an artist, The Argus could empathize with the earnest excitement of Gu as she envisioned her wishes or recollected memories of the accomplished ones and painted them on the canvas.
The Mother and daughter relationship
The exhibition came to an emotional end introducing Benny’s Mom You Mi-soon, who has shown an unparalleled level of trust, support and love for her daughter, Artist Gu. Before she completely lost her hearing, Gu’s mother taught her how to speak by placing her little hand on her throat so that she would feel the vibration and reproduce a similar version. Repeated practice helped her to retain some ability to make some sounds and understand language.
The illustrations showcasing such stories between Gu and her mother clearly showed how grateful she was for the very existence of her mom in her life. Out of the whole exhibition, one picture stood out the most. Titled “Mom Is My Shield,” the picture shows a mother bunny protecting her daughter from all the incoming arrows with a single shield. Four years ago, when she found out about her daughter’s eyes, she thought she could not bear the loss. According to the book “Mom Always Loves You,” Gu’s mom confessed, “I thought I should go to heaven with you when that day [losing vision] came.”
Out of all the relationships in the world, the tightest and the toughest must be a relation between parents and their children. So often, they hurt each other with unintended words and reunite through reconciliation. Yet, neither makes verbal confessions of their unconditional love toward one another, but leave it implied. Thanks to Gu’s illustrations, The Argus reflected on her own relationship, which entailed so much receiving but not so much giving in return.
Artist Gu and her supporters
An hour before the scheduled book signing, people of all ages swarmed in on the small space. While waiting, The Argus talked to a young woman holding a flower bouquet wrapped in newspapers. In her mid-thirties, she teaches children at a kindergarten. She had come all the way from Chungju to finally meet the artist in person. Having been a longtime fan since Cyworld, she was obviously thrilled. She also kindly advised The Argus to buy Gu’s books online to get free Benny giveaways such as a Benny sticker and water bottle. By the way her face lit up and her eyes sparked when she talked about Gu, and Benny, it was not very difficult to see how much she cares for both of them.
Soon, Gu arrived at the exhibition. She seemed surprised to see the long line that ended far away from the entrance. After a long wait, The Argus could finally receive her autograph. Throughout the two hours of signing, Gu wore her brightest smile, fixating her eyes on her fans and nodding to every word they mouthed. Upon first impression, she was as lovely as her character. Indeed, there was a reason so many people sacrificed their holiday to see her.
In everyday life, there are so many things that go unnoticed and unappreciated. For example, we get to witness the beauty of fluffy clouds in the sky and bustling pedestrians on the street and call our friends to say hello. In spite of all that we already have, we suffer from continual lethargy as if to complain that our lives lack enough drama.
With a month of school left, it is about time to take on a different perspective and start anew. The first step would be to focus on what we can do instead of what we cannot. Take the case of Artist Gu for example. She did not dwell on the things that she was robbed of, but she learned to cherish her ability to smell, see within a limited scope and draw. As a result, she came up with Benny and continues to convey a truly heartwarming message of hope and the power of love.
All of us are interested and talented in one or two things. However, we fail to give them the recognition they rightfully deserve, and seek other interests and talents that do not exist. Life is too short. To make the most of it, the clever move would be to make the most of our time and ourselves in the present.
By Lee Sei-yon Associate Editor of Culture Section