In 2015, it seemed Lee Chan-jae had nothing much to look forward to in life.
With his two grown children and three grandsons far away in the US and South Korea, the then-73-year-old Korean immigrant in Brazil spent most of his time watching Korean TV in his Sao Paulo home or passing the time at a nearby park.
Then an idea from his son, worried about his empty-nester father, changed everything.
At first reluctantly, Lee started to draw for his grandsons -- Arthur, Allan and Astro, whom he missed dearly -- and posted the drawings on Instagram with the help of his wife and son.
Art and social media, which had no personal meaning for Lee until then, slowly became a means to tell stories about his life, send love to his dear ones and reconnect with the world.
Four years and nearly 500 postings later, Lee and his wife An Kyong-ja are social media icons, having endeared themselves to over 387,000 followers on Instagram.
Lee Chan-jae and his wife, An Kyong-ja
“I am living a new life now,” said Lee, now 77, sitting alongside his wife during an interview with The Korea Herald in Seoul earlier this week.
“Who would have thought? I was a retiree who had nothing else to do except go to the park.”
The couple’s story has been carried by international media, including BBC and Al Jazeera, and made into a book, “Looking Back, Life Was Beautiful,” which was released in Korea earlier this year. They had a solo art exhibition in Brazil and Seoul and recently won the international Webby Award. Prints of Lee’s drawings are now available for sale.
During the interview, An, Lee’s wife, shared how a passerby recognized them on the street just a few days earlier after they appeared on Korean TV. The couple moved back to Korea in 2017 and now live in Bucheon, west of Seoul, a five-minute walk from the home of their daughter and two teenage grandsons.
Lee Miru, the daughter who accompanied the couple to the interview, said Arthur, 15, and Allan, 14, are proud of their grandparents.
“Like any boy their age, they’re into YouTube and mobile games. They don’t do Instagram that much, but I know they check their grandparents’ account from time to time. They won’t say anything, though,” she said.
For the senior Lee, the journey was also about discovering a new self, or the artist inside him.
“At first, I didn’t know what to draw. I have never drawn seriously in my life,” he said. “I first drew rough sketches with pencils and pens and then moved onto watercolors. I have tried different techniques and styles. I know nothing about oil painting, so I leave that.”
Now he can say without hesitation that his personal style is drawing with a few bold stokes of the brush.
His works cover a wide range of themes -- from dinosaurs, which the boys loved when they were younger, to Korean culture, his own memories of the past and the K-pop juggernaut BTS, the boys’ current fascination.
Lee draws pictures and his wife An writes stories to go with them. (Instagram@drawings_for_my_grandchildren)
Their work touches on a variety of themes, including snippets of the couple’s life together as well as the boys' interests. Seen here is Lee's rendering of K-pop group BTS. (Instagram@drawings_for_my_grandchildren)
He paints diligently, trying to post one image a day on Instagram.
“If I don’t post for two days in a row, I feel uneasy, because there are so many followers waiting for a new post,” he said.
An believes maybe they were meant to be doing what they are doing now.
Back in 1963, she met her husband while preparing for a poetry and art exhibition at Seoul National University. Both were attending SNU. He drew an illustration for a poem she wrote, and that was the beginning of their five-decade relationship.
What they gained from the Instagram project was more than fame or money. It’s about having that sense of purpose in life, they said.
“We go out and see things with interest. We look for ideas for our next Instagram post. We take interest in children, animals, the lives of other old people, and try to learn what’s going on in the world,” the wife said. The daughter added her parents have become younger at heart.
Emboldened, the couple are now more willing to try new things. An is working on a short story that she hopes to publish, and Lee is hoping to rekindle his passion for singing. He once dreamed of becoming a singer, he revealed.
Now, because of hearing loss, it has become difficult for him to sing on pitch. Still, he wants to try before it’s too late.
“We are leaving our drawings and stories for our grandchildren. Why not some music?” An said.
By Lee Sun-young (firstname.lastname@example.org