The Tao of Korean American painter Hyunmee Lee

Greg Marshall, Of the Record

Artist Hyunmee Lee’s work spans three continents, disparate cultures and more than 30 years. Lee’s abstract canvases play with space, form and abstraction. Her work will be on display at Julie Nester Gallery through Feb. 25. The artist responded to questions about her life as a Korean-American, her work, and how she finds Zen in the Western world.

SCENE: Tell me a little bit about your background. Why did you to settle in Utah? How long have you been here?

LEE: I was born in Seoul, Korea in 1961. I went to a special art high school and graduated from the College of Fine Arts at Hong-Ik University in Seoul. I moved to Australia and lived in Sydney for six years. There, I completed a Graduate Diploma in Visual Arts (MA), followed by a Master of Arts in Visual Arts (MFA), both at the Sydney College of the Arts in the University of Sydney. I returned Korea in 1991 and concentrated on consolidating my artwork as a professional artist, and also commenced my university teaching career in Hong-Ik University before coming to the United States in 1997.

In November 1997, I came to Utah for my husband’s architectural work. He was raised in Korea, studied in New York, and practiced in Washington, D.C. from 1980 through the 1990s. I have been been a faulty member at the Utah Valley University, since 2001.

SCENE: Some critics have written that your work is influenced by Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Can you describe how these beliefs influence your work?

LEE: Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism are the philosophical background of my work and life. Strangely, I became more attached to the philosophical traditions of my own culture when I started living away from Korea in 1986. In the work I painted in Sydney, I explored the three Oriental traditions of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism (Zen, Chi). I realized then that these traditions of thought formed the essential basis of my work and life. Then, my paintings started to explore the idea of the "self’ the most fundamental element of our human nature.

SCENE: How do you see art and artists in relation to nature?

LEE: In my case, it is fundamental to have relationship with nature. When I feel troubled and confused I remind myself, "What is your original face before you were born?" It means I try to convey the condition of an original blankness or purity of consciousness through my work. I am trying to get back to the origins of image-making, such as nature.

SCENE: Can you describe the art scene in Korea? How has it changed in recent years?

LEE: Korea (specifically Seoul) has been one of the competitive art industry venue in Asia. The contemporary art growth has been significant since 80s. There are many good art schools and contemporary galleries in Seoul (similar to New York), and many professional opportunities as well; international art fairs and art movements.

Since I moved to Utah (it’s been 11 years) I have been busy to establish myself in the new market. In recent years, I have worked with more galleries in the U.S. I am excited to have more opportunities to participate recognized art programs in the U.S. and exhibit in overseas.

SCENE: Why did you decide to leave Korea to study in Australia?

LEE: After my BFA, I had a chance to study English language in Queensland University (Brisbane, Australia), and then, there, I found out that Sydney College of Arts in the University of Sydney is the best art school in Australia. I applied and was admitted. In Sydney, I had wonderful professors in theory and studio art to build a solid foundation to be an artist and art teacher. During my six years of study in Sydney, I had my first commercial gallery relationship and solo exhibits.

SCENE: Do you feel disconnected from U.S.-born artists?

LEE: I don’t feel disconnected . . . I am proud be recognized as an Asian American artist. Having my own ethnic and Eastern culture can be advantage for me. Furthermore, I feel I am lucky that I have my own tradition to share with people who don’t have those experiences. I am pretty much living in my own world, it doesn’t matter where I have been. I’d rather have an influence on the outside world. . . . I would like to learn so many things in United States.

SCENE: What appeals to you about abstract painting?

LEE: What appeals to me about abstract painting is that I can create my own way and style, as people have chosen their own lifestyles. I started painting/drawing when I was very young. I learned water color, oil paintings and sculpture in the special art high school (Seoul Arts High school), and I submitted to many years of traditional art training at universities before I began abstract painting. Though I enjoyed portraits and landscape paintings, I have been attached to abstract painting because I needed it. . . . I needed it because I discovered that I could express more through my work.

SCENE: Some journalists compare your work to calligraphy. Can you describe your artistic process? How does calligraphy influence your work?

Eastern traditions of thought formed the essential basis of my work and life, and that includes calligraphy. I use its spirit, rather than its form, in my work When I discovered that gesture has its own power in my work. I invented my own calligraphy with gesture in my painting and drawing, it has improved gradually during last 20 years. Calligraphy has been my culture and body. Calligraphy and Zen are connected. Zen is one of important ideas of my work and life. Many people in the West think of Zen simply as "meditation." As an artist, I prefer to think of it as "abstract gaze." It is a certain way of looking and thinking. For reaching the level of looking and thinking, calligraphy has been a great tool for me.

My first calligraphy exercises were when I was five years old. Being raised in a Confucianist family in Korea, I was lucky to have the traditional training from my grandfather. At that time I learned sumi ink, Korean rice paper, lines, as well as patience and controlling myself.

SCENE: Anything else you’d like to add, either about your work, artistic process or life?

LEE: My personal growth has been a process of dialogue and exchange between different cultural traditions. I believe that this has been a big advantage to my work as an artist, and it has given me more breadth as a teacher of contemporary art. My ability to conceptualize and articulate the issues of art practice reflects the advanced level of my education, my experience as an art instructor, and the insights I have gained as a painter.

My paintings have also focused on issues of contemporary concepts such as space. I am always trying to analyze and interpret the meanings of space in my painting and in my real life, and it relates to other disciplines of my work. I guess the meaning of space changes according to the culture I am in. Also, I always wonder how my paintings reflect history, society and everyday life. I try to analyze links or the relationship between my individuality and society in the creation and understanding of works of art.

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