Arts & Culture

Inside Two Worlds

Yumi Hogan brings an artist’s eye to the role of First Lady.

Yumi Hogan was in search of light when she moved into her new home. At first, it was difficult to find amid Government House’s ornate staircase, stately portraits, and dark wood accents. But when she arrived at a room on the third floor, with tall windows on two sides, she saw potential. She had staff remove the heavy drapes, requested the dark green walls be painted butter yellow, and loaded canvasses and rolls of thick paper into the cedar closet. She stacked ink bowls and brushes on a nearby table. Here, in her new studio, it started to feel like home.

Maryland’s newest First Lady has always identified as an artist first. Finding her own space in the historic governor’s mansion, where tours routinely stop by, was essential. Plus, she admits she’s not like other First Ladies—as an immigrant and one-time single mother, she has had different life experiences. She favors scarves, flowing silk tops, and jeans to power suits. She has never wanted to live a public life, but now that she’s here, she’s determined to make it her own.

Hogan also knows she has a big weight to carry—she is the first Korean-born governor’s wife in the United States. Her husband, Larry Hogan, was an underdog candidate who had never held a prior elected position, and is one of only two Republican governors in Maryland during the last 40 years. Yumi Hogan’s new role as First Lady brings with it the responsibility of becoming a voice for immigrants and single mothers, two groups not frequently represented in Republican politics.

But she is determined not to give up her dream job—teaching. This is her fourth year as an adjunct professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where she received her undergraduate degree in 2008, at the age of 48. She instructs roughly 20 students each semester to use the materials and delicate painting techniques of her homeland.

For decades, Hogan has persisted to live this dream. Though it may seem daunting, she wants to maintain her identity and find the balance between her two, distinct lives.

Even in elementary school in South Korea, Hogan showed an inclination for her future career. She remembers that she covered her paper with color when she drew the rolling landscape around her, using crayons or watercolors. She’d peek at her classmates’ work and notice that they never filled in the sky. So she’d show them how.

By middle school, Hogan, the youngest of eight, caught the attention of the art teacher. He told her, “You have a future in art. You are different from other kids,” she recalls. She never forgot his words.

Hogan left South Korea for America at 18 with her then-husband. Dreaming of an education, they landed in Texas, and had three daughters, but it wasn’t long before the marriage ended. Hogan doesn’t talk about why it didn’t work out. She moved to California, finding herself alone in a new country, raising three girls—their father not in the picture. Then, a friend told her about the excellent public schools in Howard County.

“I can’t remember ever wanting anything. Looking back, I don’t know how she did it.”

“I had no question, I had to move,” Hogan says. “It was all about my kids.”

She found a job as a cashier, joined a Korean church, and added tutoring local children to her workload. She also squeezed in community-college classes, and earned her associate degree in art, once her daughters were teenagers.

Daughter Jaymi Sterling, 34, recalls her mother as caring and selfless, never complaining as she shuttled Sterling and her sisters to school, softball practice, and National Honor Society meetings. “I can’t remember ever wanting anything,” she says. “Looking back, I don’t know how she did it.”

With work six days a week and church all day on Sunday—Hogan is a devout Presbyterian—there wasn’t much time for painting. But Sterling remembers the pungent smell of turpentine wafting through their townhouse as her mother fit in her art whenever she could—sometimes setting up canvases in the kitchen. Back then, Hogan worked with oil paints mostly, and adopted a realistic style found more frequently in her adopted country.

Hogan famously brushed off her future husband when they met in 2001, at an art opening where she was showing her work. Governor Hogan, at the time a successful real-estate developer, recalls that, “I thought the artist was more interesting than the art,” but Yumi Hogan put away the business card he gave her. She wasn’t interested in just dating, and wanted someone who was serious about her and her girls. She didn’t consider him until he showed up at the same show the next year and asked her why she hadn’t called. Now, she says she sees that it was God’s plan.

After their marriage in 2004, she told her husband about her desire to attend art school. “I told her, ‘It’s time to pursue your dreams,'” Gov. Hogan says. He supported her while she attended MICA, her choice because of its national reputation and its diversity, thanks to an exchange program that attracts students from all over the world.

Her daughters were elated. Sterling remembers that before her stepfather’s encouragement, her mother seemed reluctant to go, perhaps because she was so used to sacrificing. “She came up with a lot of excuses. She didn’t really know how to do something for herself. And I think she felt guilty in a way.”

While Hogan was at MICA, Robert Merrill, a literature and humanities professor, watched her become a surrogate mother of sorts to her much younger classmates, including many international students.

“She was a lot shier and less self-confident than she is now,” Merrill says, “but even then she talked to me about her goal of teaching art.”

And her work began to transform. She incorporated memories of the Korean landscape—similar to Maryland’s, she says—and her paintings became more abstract. She experimented with layering, brush strokes, and color. Her professors encouraged her to find more depth, and she discovered how to channel her emotions into her brush.

The transformation was complete once she started graduate school at American University. Hogan worked in a studio with no windows, and worried about oil paint’s toxic fumes. So she switched to the Sumi ink favored by Asian artists, coupled with Korean Hanji paper. Through her work, she’d found a way to connect to the land she’d left behind.

Her husband built her a studio at their home in Edgewater, with big windows so she could work while looking out on the water. Sometimes, when she’d watch the trees bend in the wind, she remembered watching her mother and grandmother weave silk when she was a child, feeling the silk’s whispery touch on her skin.

Though she’s dabbled in portraits and still lifes, Hogan returns again and again to the natural world. “Nature is very similar to our life,” she says. It’s “calm, then suddenly wind comes up. And then, change.”

Hogan’s mood had changed . . . “It dawned on her that he might win.”

It was in the fall of 2013 that her husband came to her with the question.

Larry Hogan’s supporters had been suggesting that he run for governor. In 2011, the son of a former Maryland congressman had founded Change Maryland, an organization that advocates for lower taxes and less government spending. He’d also run unsuccessfully for Congress twice before and been a part of Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s administration during the early to mid 2000s. Now, the Republican party was looking for a strong voice to take on then-Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown.

“What do you think?” Hogan asked his wife. Yumi Hogan says she had never considered her husband a politician—she always described him as “a simple man” who loves her unconditionally and accepts her daughters as his own. But she also remembered how he supported her through two arts degrees.

“How much did he help me? I have to help him,” she says. “He has a good heart, and I know that.”

She remembers telling him, “Honey, do it. You are talented and would be a good leader. I’m going to pray for you.”

Accompanying him on the campaign trail, and seeing how excited people were, strengthened her resolve. And she connected with them, too—Gov. Hogan calls her his “secret weapon.” Looking back, he wonders if “she understood what she was getting herself into.”

Her MICA colleagues could tell reality hadn’t set in. Rex Stevens, the chair of the drawing and general fine arts departments, remembers telling her, “You might have to be ready to be the First Lady.”

“One step at a time,” she responded.

By then, she’d taught six semesters at MICA, and her class had gotten popular. Her colleagues and students noticed how she captivated the classroom with her quiet strength. She had a reputation for being strict, but also understanding.

“She radiates all this artistic energy,” says Daniel Iturralde, a former pupil who became her teaching assistant for the spring 2015 semester. “She holds herself to a very high standard, and she expects the same, if not more, from her students.”

Merrill says she had always discussed her husband’s interest in politics with him, but there are certain aspects of a campaign that are difficult to anticipate.

For someone who was, as her daughter Sterling says, not comfortable with the spotlight, it brought a new level of attention. Stevens had requested a Hogan for Governor bumper sticker, which he proudly displayed on his door in support of Yumi Hogan. Soon, the campus was buzzing about what the election meant for MICA, and what it would mean to have a Republican in office who supported the arts.

During the last two months before election night, Merrill noticed that Yumi Hogan’s mood had changed to a mixture of excitement and anxiety. “It dawned on her that he might win.”

And then the fateful night arrived. As Brown conceded the race after midnight on November 5, 2014, and now Gov. Hogan took the stage in front of an excited crowd at a party at the Westin Annapolis, Hogan swelled with pride at what her husband had accomplished.

Though on the surface it may not seem that politics and art would mesh, Merrill says Hogan’s new role suits her “She’s a strong person that wants a voice in leadership and teaching,” he says. “This gives her another platform.”

Former First Lady Kendel Ehrlich knows what the Hogans are going through. She remembers how hectic the transition to public life was when her husband, Bob Ehrlich, won the governorship in 2002.

It’s a challenge “having troopers and staff around all the time, and trying to keep life as normal as possible,” Ehrlich says. “Having people constantly there is definitely an adjustment.”

After her husband’s victory, Hogan promised that she’d continue teaching, though the school hired a secondary instructor who alternates classes with her. Since November, when she walks the campus, a Maryland State Police officer trails not far behind.

“She’s a strong person that wants a voice in leadership and teaching.”

At 8:30 on a rainy April morning, a group of students, some holding coffee cups, surround Hogan in the classroom. They gaze together at the front wall where their homework assignments hang—traditional hand fans they’ve decorated. Hogan gestures to one with a depiction of a tree with curving, intricate branches in black ink.

“What’s that movie with the trees that are talking . . . Pocahontas?” Hogan says, referring to the Disney animated movie.

The class laughs at the randomness of the comment, and Hogan goes on to explain that the line and detail make the tree come alive. She holds her hand close to its ridges, imitating the strokes. On one side of the classroom, members of the First Lady’s staff observe the class, as they sometimes do.

Hogan is still figuring out how to incorporate art into her new role. She has considered hosting a children’s art competition, with work displayed at Government House, so she can give them the same encouragement she received. Gov. Hogan says he knows the importance of arts education, though it remains to be seen how that will translate into his administration.

The Hogans’ move has brought some sadness. They’ve decided to put their Edgewater home, with Hogan’s other studio, on the market. And, “it’s been 80-some days, and we’re still unpacking,” Gov. Hogan says. But they are settling in, if slowly. The First Lady, who loves to cook and brought her kimchi refrigerator to her new home, has prepared traditional Korean cuisine for the staff. She’s the first Maryland First Lady in anyone’s memory to have done so.

Back in class that April day, Hogan moves on to the next fan. This one has two color paintings on it—an abstract landscape in yellow and green, and a depiction of a black-haired woman, a pink flower behind her ear.

Hogan begins, pointing to the woman. “This is very personal. This figure, is this someone related to you?”

The student, a man in an olive coat, shrugs. “I just painted someone.”

Hogan steps back to look at it again. “First, I see two paintings. But then I see the background, brush strokes . . . something is connecting them.”

The student shrugs again. Hogan smiles, then looks back at the fan. Her student might not see the connection, but she does. “It’s interesting,” she says, folding her arms. Sometimes, it’s not easy to see how different parts of life are related. But she realizes now that the connections are there, below the surface.