Moving to a new high school isn’t easy for anyone, let alone someone whose family emigrated from Korea to the United States.
Dr. Susie Sharpe, a board-certified internist at Mercy Springfield whose work as an artist is gaining international notice, says she spoke no English when her family landed in New York City. It’s one reason that overcoming hurdles and striving toward a dream is baked into Sharpe’s history and character.
Sharpe says while growing up, she knew she wanted to become an artist: “My dream was to go study in Paris, come back to Korea and become an art professor.”
Instead, while in the middle of high school in 1977, her parents decided the family, including Sharpe’s two younger brothers, should leave Korea, Sharpe says. “Korea was unstable,” she says. “You always had to worry about North Korea invading. And economically they weren’t doing so great. They thought that perhaps their kids would be better off in the United States. They had absolutely no idea just how hard it was going to be, and what they were going to have to give up.”
At the time her parents were in their 40s and 50s, she says. In Korea, her father was a pharmaceutical company executive, and her mother was a nationally known educator. In New York City, not speaking English and with next to no preparation, their new lives were very difficult.
In a new American high school, Sharpe had to learn English while trying to study her lessons. “It was very bad. Very painful,” she recalls. “I was called all kinds of things. I cried in school every day. I barely knew what classes I was taking; I was looking up words in the dictionary all the time for many years to come.”
And she realized her parents — successful in Korea — were suddenly nobody in America. “I quickly realized if I didn’t make it on my own, I was going to be a starving artist in the street. And it made me realize I can’t take that chance on art. I have to do something that has some sort of guarantee.”
That something would become medical school. She buried her artistic dreams and studied hard. “It wasn’t like I had one year of grace period so I could learn English. Everything went into the college transcript. And so I have a tremendous pressure, especially when I decided that I was going to go into medicine. I realized grades matter so much. Luckily, I was a good student in Korea. But even so, I mean, even during college for four years, I recorded every single lecture, sitting in the front row with a cassette recorder. Then I would play it back to take notes because I couldn’t understand it in class. I ended up majoring in chemistry only because it required the least amount of English.”
Sharpe graduated from Yale School of Medicine and did her residency at the Yale-New Haven Hospital. After starting a family and living in Seattle, she accepted a position at Mercy in Springfield. She worked many hours while participating in her son and daughter’s activities. They each played several instruments and Sharpe, an accomplished pianist, would accompany them. Her kids today are college students on the East Coast.
Eventually, the urge to create art grew too strong to ignore. “I always knew at some point, I had to do art,” she says. “It wasn’t an option. Medicine was my plan B; my backup plan — which worked out well and I ended up loving it. But I had to do what I was born to do.”
Sharpe picked up a paintbrush again, and since around 2014 her work has been exhibited in more than 50 local venues, including eight solo shows. In the last couple years, she has exhibited internationally with shows in Brussels, Luxembourg, Milan and Paris; and nationally with shows in New York and Miami. Sharpe’s creative work has been recognized with numerous awards and she has been featured in various publications and in a podcast.
While she didn’t study art in Paris or teach in Korea as she had planned, she made it to Paris as an artist, exhibiting a painting titled “Follow Your Dream to the Stars.”
That seemed appropriate, she says. “Because you know, when I initially dreamed about becoming a physician, that was an impossible dream because I didn’t have any role models around me,” Sharpe says. “I barely spoke any English, even during pre-med in college. When I started to think that I’ll someday become a physician, I couldn’t tell anybody. I couldn’t tell my parents that’s what I was doing. Because it just was a ridiculous dream for me to think about — to become a physician, not knowing English.
“And then once I finally became a physician, to think that I could revive my childhood dream and become an artist, that too was an impossible dream,” Sharpe says. “I was chasing the impossible dream pretty much all my life.”