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The Night Owl Downstairs - American Craft Magazine

I am an artist who makes paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptural ceramics. I am a middle-aged immigrant Korean woman and mom of a 14-year-old biracial teenager. I am also a full-time professor. Atlanta is the city where I have lived the longest besides my hometown of Daegu, South Korea. We live in a suburb called Doraville, at the end of the Atlanta metro system’s Gold Line. Overall, I have chosen the American suburban life with my family, while trying my best to be an active artist.

We live in a ranch-style house with a large family entertainment room in the basement that I turned into a painting studio. The only change I made was to remove the carpeting. I also have a ceramic studio, which is located in a former woodshop that the previous homeowner built in the basement boiler room. My workspace is on the hill side of the house, and from it I can access the backyard and garden.

My dad, who lived in Korea, used to tell me that Atlanta is a sister city of Daegu. I doubt there was anything going on between the two cities, but I understand why he kept talking about it—he wanted to relate to us closely. I get it, because I also find myself constantly trying to make connections between Korean and American cultures. It became my habit to collect relatable images, products, stories, and people. For example, my hometown is known for producing apples, and Atlanta is known for peaches: this iconic fruit often appears in my work.

Starting with the idea of linking East and West, my adventure in connecting things is constantly manifesting. Old and new, Gen X and millennial, Korean mulberry paper and acrylic paint . . . It became my mission to hybridize different things to make new and odd things in my art practice.

As a painter who usually works alone, being in a community-based studio was not easy at first. I felt awkward and often uncomfortable in the big, open setting. People there wondered if my sculptures were functional. I hand-build and throw, often following the shapes of vessels to build the forms and then altering or deconstructing them. My intentions were mysterious to people who were used to thinking of clay objects mainly in terms of how they function. When I cut a big hole out of a thrown vase, I was asked if I planned to put a candle inside. Through these interesting reactions, I learned to understand objecthood and how to communicate with objects to make better sculpture. Overall, I met so many wonderful people and learned a totally different perspective. It was an amazing social study for my own understanding.

In 2016, after some exploration around the neighborhood, my husband and I found our home in Doraville where I could have my painting and ceramic studios in the basement. I put wood panels over sawhorses to make large tables where I often bring my sculptures to paint. The same year, I won an Artadia Award and bought a Skutt kiln and Shimpo wheel to complete my ceramic studio.

Connecting Work, Family, and Mediums

I have had studios outside of my house, but it was never ideal. I spent too much time driving back and forth, and paying rent for two studios was a lot. I needed a place where I could take care of my family, get rest, eat, and work all in one place. I like having my studios at home. While I am working, I can hear my son taking a shower and my two dogs running around rambunctiously—and I can smell what my husband is cooking upstairs. It can be distracting. Sometimes I have to yell through the ceiling for everyone to be quiet, but I love this setting.

I find my peace within chaos. When I know my family is doing what they need to do, I can better focus on my work. My brain and body have adopted disruption as part of the creative process, and it has been this way for more than a decade. I don’t try to carve out the perfect moment to work, because that does not exist in my world. However, I confess I am a night owl and work best when everyone else has gone to bed. I am finally left alone after 10 p.m. Sometimes I find myself up until 3 a.m. working. I finally get into my zone and my process is moving, and alas, I cannot stop until it gets late.

I like to play the same movies or K-dramas on Netflix over and over for background noise. Sometimes I do watch, but most of the time I am just listening because I have seen what is happening already and it does not require my full attention. Plus, this is the way I keep track of time. I have played the Netflix series Ugly Delicious (featuring star chef David Chang) several times. Recently I have been watching Somebody Feed Phil. The show takes us to different cities and countries to learn about food and culture. It is warm and funny and full of jokes. Have I told you how I learned English? It was by watching Friends and You’ve Got Mail nonstop.

People asked if I like one medium over the other, and they both give me different, difficult tasks and joys. They both take a long time to convert concepts into process. I jokingly say the painting process is like dealing with my husband (a good old problem) and the ceramic process is more like my teenage son (a new, adventurous, and unexpected problem). They are similar yet very different. I still have not structured my studio discipline perfectly, but I follow my deadline and exhibition schedules for both practices, and it has been manageable so far. Of course, painting and ceramics influence each other so much.

Conceptual Collections, Making Moves

What else? I collect many objects and images based on my conceptual interests. My studios are full of objects that I have made and found. When I was hooked on the color blue and on Blue Willow ceramic patterns, I went to every thrift store in town to find old Blue Willow plates and tea cups. My friends also sent them to me. I often incorporate these patterns into both my paintings and ceramic surfaces. For Stranger Yellow, a solo exhibition in 2022 at Derek Eller Gallery in New York City, I made a centerpiece using this pattern. Blue Willow was designed by a British company based on a made-up Chinese love story. People here collect these objects to affirm their fantasy of Eastern beauty and tradition.

My family and I plan to move this fall to Tallahassee, Florida, as I recently accepted a position at Florida State University teaching painting. I am sad to leave Doraville and Atlanta, but I’m also excited to start my next chapter. Of course, I will have to rebuild my studios all over again, but perhaps they will be even better than the ones we have here. As my husband points out, “Every time we move, we upgrade our life and things get better.” I am hopeful that this necessary chaos will be adventurous and inspirational.

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