A year ago, Hwa-Jeen Na lost his childhood friend to suicide. Na said his buddy had recently come out to his family and struggled with the response.
“It was the first time I’ve ever been effected by loss, at least that close,” Na said. “I really didn’t know how to handle it, so I started asking a lot of questions of people and at one point I got the response that ultimately suicide is a decision, it’s a choice that someone makes. I was really struck by that. Why would someone ever make that choice?”
Ultimately, Na turned his grief and confusion into “As Much Heaven As Earth,” an ArtPrize entry located at the Grand Rapids Art Museum.
Na, who also identifies as gay, said he began speaking with other queer men, posing the question, “Why do you choose to stay?”
“They could take it as a physical meaning or metaphorical,” Na said. Na photographed the subjects based on their initial responses to the question and also asked them to provide a written piece in response to his question.
For example, one of the portraits was taken in a local Grand Rapids church. “The gentleman in this photo is an activist in the gay community,” Na said. “He comes from a very religious background and his text is a recount of his coming out to his family.”
Na said the written piece is a letter to the man’s mother.
“He talks about his battle with coming out and more or less about how when he first found out he was gay it felt like everything just disappeared, because he was told that the love of God would leave him. (As a result) he turned to drugs and to false relationships.
“But at some point he found God again, but a different kind of God, an accepting God. The title of this piece is called “A New God” and its just him realizing whatever deity you choose to believe in will still love you no matter what.”
Na titled the entire work “As Much Heaven As Earth” after a Korean phrase. “It’s a response you give when someone asks you how much you love them. You say you love them as much heaven as earth.”
Na is a recent graduate of Kendall College of Art & Design; he graduated this past spring. Originally from Dayton, Ohio, Na was recruited to Kendall after participating in the Ohio Governors Art Competition. Na plans to stay in Grand Rapids for the foreseeable future.