Cameron Kim, a Bay Area artist who was born in Gyeonggi-do, South Korea, and lived for the last 22 years in the Bay Area died on Feb. 8, 2021, at the age of 43.
The cause was liver and heart failure. He died at the California Pacific Medical Center Van Ness campus after being taken in an ambulance from the Hospitality House’s Community Arts Program, where he complained of having trouble breathing, said the manager of the program, Janet Williams.
After years of being on the street, Kim began participating in the arts program on Market Street sometime in 2017. “I was so filthy, I was dirty, I smelled bad, but they gave me a chair, they sat me down, and they gave me all these art supplies to start painting with,” Kim told independent journalist Wendy B in a 2018 audio interview posted on Soundcloud.
For the next five years, he would spend every day at the studio, painting and encouraging other artists. Even when the studio was closed, he would sit outside and work on his art. I met him in November of last year while reporting on the art program’s move to an outdoor space during the pandemic. At the time, while working on his art, he told me he was 33. But whatever age, he had clearly found his calling — one that took him years to discover.
Kim’s early childhood in South Korea
Kim was born in 1978, in Gyeonggi-do, a province near Seoul, South Korea where he lived with his mother, father, and younger sister, now Candy Muehlenkamp.
Then, when he was seven and his sister three, his mother dropped them off at an orphanage because she couldn’t care for them after their father died. It was a story that Kim told his sister, but she had little memory of it, Muehlenkamp said.
For Kim, she said, the memory was strong, and he recalled hearing their mother say she “would be coming back in the morning to get us.” Kim told his sister that he waited up all night, but his mother never returned.
In 1987, after around two years in the orphanage, Kim and Muehlenkamp were adopted by an American family and moved to the United States. Kim was nine and his sister was five.
“Sometimes I feel abandoned. The people that adopted me, we didn’t get along well, that’s why I ended up on the streets,” Kim said in November when I interviewed him and other participants at the outdoor art class at Victoria Manalo Draves Park.
Muehlenkamp hasn’t spoken to her adopted parents in over 20 years.
Art, for her brother, became a lifeline. “He was always good at art,” said Muehlenkamp, who described a caring older brother who taught her how to swim and ride a bike.
High School in the Unites States
The siblings attended high school in Lemoore, California, a city of 26,000, 32 miles south of Fresno.
A high school friend of Kim’s, Erick Ursua, said Kim was very likable and had a good group of friends. But he noticed that for Kim, drinking became a way to escape whatever was going on at home.
After high school, Kim packed his things and left home without saying goodbye. He had a brief stint in the Navy before moving to the Bay Area in 1999, his sister said.
In the Bay Area, he worked various jobs, including as a bank teller and car salesman, according to his friend Ursua.
Living on the streets
Eventually, Kim hit rock bottom and he ended up living on the streets.
“I was doing a lot of drugs, I was drinking a lot, I just pretty much gave up on life,” Kim said in 2018.
Then, one day, as he was drawing on cardboard in an alleyway, a Tenderloin bar owner came up and asked him if he’d ever painted before. Cameron said no.
“He came back a couple nights later with all these art supplies … he even had an art bag that he bought for me. He said ‘here, why don’t you try this?’”
Finding comfort in art
Soon after, in 2017, he discovered the Hospitality House Community Arts Program. “After about two months of coming here and painting, around that time I just realized I didn’t want to drink anymore, I didn’t want to do drugs anymore, and I wanted to get help. It was around that time I checked myself into an emergency room to get clean,” Kim said in the 2018 interview.
Over the years, he had some success. He donated many of his paintings to the Hospitality House’s art auctions — one is taking place this week. One year, he sold a painting for “$1,600” he explained proudly to me during our conversation.
During the pandemic, Kim said he looked forward to Wednesdays, when he joined others at Victoria Manalo Draves Park to create art outdoors. “It’s a safe place, a community of artists — it feels more like family to me. I feel I can create, do art and be comfortable around people I know,” Kim told me while working on his collage in the park in November.
“He was kind and genuine, and never sought out anyone’s attention. He was good at judging people’s character, and understanding a person’s heart,” said his friend Ursua over the phone following Kim’s death.
But “unfortunately, it looks like … he just could not escape … the demons that were plaguing him,” said Ursua.
He is survived by his sister Candy Muehlenkamp, who lives in Fort Thomas, Kentucky, with her seven-year-old daughter and works as a technical program manager.
Kim had a tattoo with the numbers 333, which he explained signifies the angel number and means “you are on the right path, and someone is looking after you.”
The Hospitality House Community Arts Program plans to set up a solo exhibition with some of Kim's artwork this spring. When the show is announced, we will include it in our weekly Neighborhood Notes.