In recent years, I have given some thought to considering how I work and why I work the way I do. While my imagery is abstract in nature, its conceptual and formalistic origins lie in concrete and tangible experiences, particularly those of my early childhood in Korea. Following speaks to some of these influences that shape, inform, and motivate my work.
My maternal grandmother, more than anyone or anything, has had profound bearing and influence on my formation as a person and by extension, my work. I was born in Seoul, South Korea and while I was still an infant, my parents immigrated to the US and left me in grandmother's care. Their plan was to retrieve me as soon as they were able, but this turned into ten years and my grandmother raised me for that first decade of my life.
Having lost her husband early on with a large family to rear after, grandmother was strong-minded and independent, especially for a woman of her generation and culture. She was, as well, meticulous and diligent. When I close my eyes, I can still see her busily going about and seeing to tasks with a certain commitment to rituals of daily life.
My grandmother was a devout Buddhist. Every night at bedtime, she would say her prayers, reciting chants as Korean Buddhist do in transliteration of words from Chinese, Korean, and Sanskrit. What I was hearing was all quite abstract to me, and in essence, simply a series of lyrical rhythms and repetitions.
Nightly, I fell asleep to my grandmother's whispered chants and found the evening ritual to be extremely comforting. And now, in my work, I find myself engaging in similar ritualistic repetition, both in forming and shaping individual dot marks on my collagraph plates and in the printmaking process itself, which reinforces the repetitive act.
There were repetitions of visual sort, as well. As an extended guest to the household, I had the privilege of occupying and sharing grandmother's room. The large room, social center and heart of our home, was furnished entirely with traditional Korean lacquer furniture ornamented with mother-of-pearl inlays. Their graphic language was one that of patterns and recurring motifs, and it is not difficult to find in my work visual and formalistic references that hearken back to those objects that comprised my physical environment.
Likewise captivating to me, were the ceiling tiles in my grandmother's room. They were embellished with abstract graphic elements and because they were handmade, each tile was slightly different. I spent many hours studying those ceiling tiles--my eyes going from one to the next, comparing and contrasting subtle variations on each introduced by the human element. Fast forward to the current day, it is still this type of activity that continues to hold my fascination: seeking out and creating nuanced diversity within theme and structure.
Also prominently displayed in our home, were my mother's paintings. My mother is an artist trained in traditional Korean brush painting, and in her work, one observes the simplicity and sparse, restrained sensibility characteristic of Asian art and aesthetics.
Having an artist mother, creative activity on my part was largely encouraged from an early age. I took in my mother's work with much interest, although in retrospect, I understand those paintings meant much more than artistic expression and accomplishment to aspire to. Growing up, the concept of a mother was one that was abstract to me. In that, I believe these paintings came to represent a physical manifestation of the mother and gave me something tangible to wrap my mind around. And perhaps because of this, they carried that much more resonance.
There are other fond memories of grandmother's house. One of my very favorite places to play in on a lovely spring day, was called "jang-dok-dae." Jang-dok-dae is an area of the yard set aside specifically for storage of pickled and fermented foods, which are central to the Korean diet.
At grandmother's house, jang-dok-dae was a spacious, square platform perched up on the side of the property. Amongst the varying sizes of beautifully glazed earthenware, I found my playground. It tickles me to see how much the jang-dok-dae resembles clustering of circular elements found in my collagraphs. Or, more accurately, vice versa.
I grew up in a household full of aunts and uncles (besides yours truly, my grandmother raised nine children of her own), and as a child, I witnessed many games of "Baduk." Baduk is a strategic board game played on a grid of black lines. At grandmother's, we had a beautiful Baduk set with playing stones made out of genuine clamshell (for the white pieces) and slate (for the black pieces). I was too young to play, so I would behave for the most part and watch the adults play.
Unbeknownst to the grown-ups, the Baduk set became my plaything when they were not around. It was primarily a visual preoccupation; I would arrange and rearrange the playing pieces on the game board, in different formations and configurations. Surprisingly, or not, I do not deviate much from these early pastimes in my current work, as I engross myself in minute adjustment and placement of individual dot elements.
VISIT TO THE TAPSA TEMPLE
In and outside the home, I was grandmother's little sidekick. Wherever she went, I went. There were many visits to the temple, and one in particular stands out vividly in my memory. On this special day, we visited the Tapsa Temple ("Tower Temple") located in the Maisan mountains.
Strewn about the temple grounds were stone towers built by a nineteenth century hermit monk, who, as a personal prayer, spent 30 years building the 108 structures of which 80 survive. Grandmother explained to me that the stone towers, some at over 10 meters tall, were constructed by hand piling stones atop one another without the use of mortar. They, nevertheless, stood solid and strong. I recall being quite taken, as my child-sized brain attempted to absorb the enormity of what I saw before me. Those stone towers stayed with me for some time afterwards.
In my work, I am at most in my element making small gestures. I'm simply not very good at making big, bold statements. So I occupy myself with tiny dot marks, in hopes that together they will amount to something larger. It would be presumptuous at best, to draw any form of comparison between the amazing Tapsa Temple stone towers and my work. But I like to imagine that on that singular day, something of the intent and spirit of those stone towers was imparted on me.
Finally, discussion of a Korean cultural experience would not be complete without consideration of Confucianism's impact on Korean culture. Confucianism promotes systems of relationships, structure and order within society and family, and interests of the collective over individual. Such values have a stronghold on the Korean psyche and a child learns these principles early and well.
The emphasis here in the West is a bit different; it is very much about the individual, and his or her uniqueness. With my bicultural background, an important and ongoing aspect of the journey is negotiating, balancing, and reconciling this tension between collectivity and individuality--themes that feature prominently in my work.
When I was transplanted to the US at age ten, there was an abrupt severing of ties from this early part of my life and experience in Korea. There was a certain need and expectation not to look back as I adapted to a new family, culture, and language.
Recollecting and identifying the threads of connection between these formative years and my current work has given me a greater understanding for how and why I work the way I do. It is, too, wonderfully heartening to find such a large part of myself from those early years not only remaining intact, but forming the foundation of my work and practice.
My grandmother, Kim Bok-Rye, and me, circa 1974.
Image of bodhisattva my grandmother would face during prayer and her prayer beads to the right. On my visit to Korea in 2004, I found the imagery hanging precisely on the same spot as it always has while I was growing up.
One of many traditional Korean lacquer furniture in grandmother's room.
Ceiling tiles in grandmother's room.
Traditional Korean brush painting by my mother.
A corner of the jang-dok-dae at grandmother's house.
Game of Baduk, or Go, as it is known in the Western world.
Tapsa Temple nestled in the Maisan mountains.