Why I am Pursuing Art
Updated: Feb 8
A reflection / a confession / a manifesto / a blog post
for the English-speaking audience
어느 새에 나는 이것을 깨달았다.* It is possible to live a whole life and die without ever having said anything of note, without adding a new idea, or without leaving a personal truth behind.
그리고 나서 또.** It's possible to live an entire life without ever having been understood. It is possible to have been assigned identity and categorized every which way in others' minds and creations without ever really having been known.
그리고 친구들과 운동을 하면서 알아낸 것:*** I cannot fully trust or believe someone who doesn’t show who they really are to me. I find it very difficult to follow a leader who wears leadership as a suit, without revealing their true nature.
사람들은 이런 것들은 중요하지 않다고 생각하거나, 아니면 이런 것까지 깨닫고 신경쓰기에는 자기 삶이 이미 너무나 고단하다고 생각해서 결국 포기하려고한다.**** People’s living conditions that are deeply affected by prevailing structures of power can easily make them simply accept the truths above and carry on. The true fight for equality rests in these battles of beliefs and in the personal mind. There is a dominance of fear throughout humanity that we must each take upon ourselves to fight, each beginning with the fear within our own selves.
마지막으로, 나는 이렇게 결심했다. 정말로 내가 원하는 것을 쟁취하려면, 나는 진정한 자신을 드러내고 자신의 뜻을 밝혀야 한다. 이렇게 해야지 나는 이 서양의 세계에서 나의 민족을 위해 싸울 수 있다. *****
하지만 이 억압적인 세상에서는 자기의 진심을 지키고 알고 표현하기가 너무나 어렵다.******
*At some point I realized this.
**After that, also this.
***And then I realized this while engaging in activism with peers:
****Others don’t think these things are important, or otherwise find their own life too challenging to realize and pay attention to these things and give up.
*****And finally, I determined this. If I really want to fight in the battles that I want, I must reveal my true self and intentions. Only this way will I be able to battle/advocate for my people in this world of the West.
******However, in this oppressive world, it is too difficult to protect, know, and express one’s own truth.
A small note: I suppose one might have a few questions when viewing the mixed usage of Korean and English here, particularly given the level of translation that I invested in. The simple answer to this choice would be that this is what impulsively felt right to me. There is some rational basis to the actual split/divide: I think critically and analytically in the language that I received my most formative academic experience, English. But Korean is the language that feels like home,* the language through which I can convey feelings of a certain intimacy and urgency in an implicit way that would simply not carry over even if translated. The cognitive thoughts happened in English, but the emotional response --the pain-- was felt in Korean.** I choose to express myself in Korean because there is simply no replacement for it. I suppose one could say that, as is the case with my art, my technical proficiency in Korean is a sort of medium in which I need further exploration and practice.
*Of note: home to a Korean wedded woman will, in a certain deeply personal way, always be her childhood home. Identifying my home has always been complicated and difficult for me, an immigrant who grew up separately from her parents since they migrated to the US. Home, in perhaps most real terms, means to me now wherever I live with Erik, and in the future, will be wherever I am building our own family. But it is in this Korean sense that I evoke this word here.
**I would say pain is a fundamental characteristic of being Korean (of its culture, of its people, of its identity), as is han, or a deep-seated rancor and anger. Pain as a feeling, for me, is always felt in Korean.
It has been a year and three months since that fateful visit to The Strand, where I got my $10 copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain*, 4th edition, by Betty Edwards, and whose exercises led me to decide that I might have an inclination towards art. My mother-in-law, Barbara Thiede, who discovers and waters seeds within countless individuals (seeds of the acute emotional and intellectual kind), had been the one to get it for me, and then to encourage her moody and somewhat defiant daughter-in-law to try her hand at making art. Three things, then, were key to the formula of how I came to art making: the book, the mentor, and the material and emotional conditions that I had to my avail after taking countless little steps in years prior.
All this to say that, bouts of insecurity and all, it has been long enough for me to have attained a certain level of technical proficiency in the craft of… drawing-and-painting-with-a-mish-mash-of-media. More importantly, it has been long enough for me to stew and process all the anger, resentment, bitterness, pain, and disappointment I brought into my art practice so that they no longer can cloud the artistic intentions that I present here. I have accrued some basic understanding and experience to know what it is that I speak of when I speak of art, and have found closeness enough to the state of emotional equilibrium required to be able to properly reflect and share my thoughts on this transition. I stand by a particular wisdom I'd heard once (was it Korean? I want to say yes): one needs distance to really be able to properly see/realize/assess a thing.
Finally, of relevance here, I have also found enough stability and reliability in my part-time job at Columbia School of Social Work which I started soon after I got that book. It is a wonderful job. I work with great individuals who allow me to contribute to their empowerment and leadership. The students, all pursuing their Masters of Social Work degree, work together with me in a collaborative setting that fosters a culture of caring and mutual support. I don’t speak of it much when I am in my artist mode, as it is only by compartmentalizing the roles I play that I can be fully present for both. I am on holiday break from this job, which allows me the time I need to gather my thoughts for this reflection.
*The book's title draws on an outdated concept and it may turn one off. It doesn’t affect content though, and I would encourage any reader who may be interested in developing drawing skills at any level to consider this unique instructional book.
Back to those negative feelings. I will not delve into them here. Not because I disapprove of them or want to hide them, but rather because this isn't the right place for it. They are most definitely valuable for living, and have a place in my actual art, or in activism, or other places of expression. Or, maybe it's the Korean aspect of myself kicking in, that regards my negative feelings so preciously and privately, such that when it is shared (and, God forbid, shared publicly), it should only be done when I have good enough reason. Anyhow, onto my point.
The negative feelings were plenty, growing, and I couldn't find the proper communal places in my life that naturally allowed for them to be acknowledged and exist. The social justice world is replete with the misfired direct expression of deep trauma from an oppressive and dehumanizing world without sufficient personal processing. This kind of traumatic expression is ultimately a mere expression of pain. But at its ugliest, it is self-righteous and monstrous, like a machine gun left to go off leaving everyone around bleeding. The Korean world's processing of pains is very quiet and implicit, even hidden out of sight, in a way that can be difficult to grasp, translate, and apply in the Western world of active speech and assertions.
Related but deserving yet of separate regard, I also had a lot of questions that wouldn't be answered. Worse, spaces that I occupied had no room for questioning. This is related to negative feelings because a question directly implies ambiguity, confusion, uncertainty, and finally difficulty. So, where there was no room for negative feeling, there was no room for real questioning. The best place for questioning is in academia, and in philosophy. But the best opportunity I had to question in academia was my master's of social work program at the University of Chicago, and I've come to learn that MSW programs are too riddled with trauma (brought in as well as newly created) for the emotional distance required to engage in critical thinking and discourse. Moreover, the opportunities I had to join the philosophy world during that time drove one point home more solidly than any: the world of Western philosophy is almost always comprised of white people (and almost always men) doing philosophy for white people with other white people. The world of philosophy presents to me an extremely rewarding and exhilarating journey, but it could not promise not to inflict significant pain of yet another kind.
Art, in its endless possibility, its lack of definition and structure, and its bare manifestation of my own merits* promised to allow the space for me to process negative emotions, to question outside of preset boundaries, and to prove the value of my unorthodox perspective and thinking. Art is my most permanent and dedicated conduit for expressing appreciation, love, affirmation, and encouragement,** of which I've come to learn as a social justice worker there is a dire and overwhelming dearth. Art also allows me to tackle what I feel is one of the greatest challenges of social justice: how do we envision the world that we fight for and believe in? There is only so long that we can go on only negating and pushing against, after all.
Art is what I know now that I needed -- and need -- when I was young, seeking a voice, perspective, guidance, reason, and affirmation of the complexity of my human experience. Access to the arts and humanities is what I needed more of when I was younger, an undocumented immigrant Korean-American girl. People visible to me loved me and went to incredible lengths for me to have greater opportunities and access in this country. People visible to me provided me and my family guidance and opportunities towards economic security. People visible to me believed in me, empowered me, and fought for my political representation and rights. I am deeply grateful to these people, who have, in so doing, gone far beyond what could ever be asked of ordinary people, without whom I wouldn't be living in the US, have ever gone to college, have ever left public accounting, have ever been exposed to the world, etc. But I wonder to this day: Where were the people encouraging me to accept and pursue my whole humanity, my whole experiences? Where were those who did or should do so for my entire community? People understood and affirmed aspects of my compartmentalized and scattered self, but try as I might, no one within my range of vision seemed to be able to show me how to be my full self. At least, there seemed to be no one willing to acknowledge for me the truth that I, a Korean-American immigrant young woman, had not yet achieved my full self, and that this potential could actually be within my own grasp. All of the artists that were visible to me either were actually or felt to me very white. They did not reach me where I was.
*Here I will take a moment to mention that there is an undeniable level of privilege that is needed in order to afford the cost, time, and emotional wherewithal to make art. I'm a fervent believer that if only given the opportunity beyond the systemic legal, economic, and social barriers that exist for so many, everyone would be able to display some sort of awe-inspiring "talent" in forms of expression and creativity. I use the word opportunity very widely here, but mean fully that they are all byproducts of systemic policies and processes: opportunity to be loved unconditionally by a set of parents that are fully present, opportunity for education and food security, opportunity for stability and security. Too many individuals and communities do not have these for absolutely no fault of their own, and it shouldn't have to be so.
**This isn't to say that only those things I make art of or for are things that I love or appreciate, or that all things I make art of are done with these or only these intentions. Broadly speaking, though, this is one true and substantial motivator and intention for me to create art.
Recently, Erik and I had a dialogue regarding someone who has a track record of misunderstanding my intentions. "No, that is not what I mean," I told him in jokingly heated response, "this is literally why I'm doing realism in art right now. I want to portray exactly what I mean in as clear as way as possible, and I want them to get it as clearly as I've laid it out." Of course, communicating, especially communicating artfully, doesn't work that simply and straightforwardly. You could say that that's one of those things in life that Chris Cleaves's Little Bee might smile at and call "a good trick."
I've been drawn to figurative art, and realism, since I definitively started on this path last year. You could say that it's a natural manifestation of my being drawn to the social human condition of this world --a focus that is only encouraged by having married into a practicing Jewish family, whose beliefs are focused on acting on the issues of this real and material broken world*, rather than the life after life that my Catholic upbringing espoused.** Moreover, I've certainly racked my brain over my life to understand, accept, and work with the real and material world that we live in. I think that escape and fantasy are valid, good, and at times even necessary to deal with reality. But for the long term, I want to explore and encourage methods for facing the truth, undeniable and at times irreconcilable. I would like for us all to be experts of what is here and now, however each of us get to it.
Currently, I am simply focusing on growing my skill set to faithfully represent the physical world around me.*** I am painting from photographs, or otherwise subjects that are readily accessible for my eyes to take in as I paint. Now that I am in a good groove of focus and growth in the applied and technical, I have realized that towards the beginning, I was a little too hung up on the ideas behind the representations that I wasn't putting nearly enough attention to the representation (art) itself. While I think it remains true for me that the ideas behind the art are a bit more important than the art itself, I would like to get to a point that I am familiar enough with the technical aspects of art that I can manipulate it well enough to convey what I want, even if, or especially so when it may be imagined or not-yet real.
*Broken, using a sort of spiritual lens. Of course, we all know that the system is working just as it was designed to.
**I want to make clear here that, though I am no longer a Catholic believer, there is quite a lot that is good and valuable that I learned and shaped me from this Catholic upbringing.
***faithful representation being a value I carry from my accounting days, my career before I turned to social work ;)
I finish this reflection on my entire art career so far and what brought me to it on a note of tremendous gratitude and optimism. I've been too much of a strange and misfit creature for my environment for most of my life (this has become so normal and natural for me that presenting it this way feels strange), but despite various pressures to fit in, it seems that somehow I've been able to retain a bit of my true self. I am thankful to anyone that ever shared a bit of kindness to this strange person along the way, and presented their honest selves to me. As brief as these encounters might have been, they made me feel understood. I think back with most nostalgia of my experiences at the wonderful Chicago public schools that I attended, which I think were my most formative years: the proudly diverse Peterson Middle School, and the elitist but precious and freeing Northside high school. My immigrant experiences began there. Little did I know then, and especially more after then, what level of freedom and possibility in speaking and contributing this life would eventually allow for me.
Acknowledgements: This piece of writing is very precious to me, the result of lots of thinking and mulling over what is most important and worthwhile since before I even started on my current art path. I could not have presented it in as polished a way as I do here if it wasn’t for the tremendous help of several individuals. My heartfelt thanks to Barbara and Ralf Thiede, prolific writers and editors, who edited for flow, clarity, and grammatical correctness with thoroughness, curiosity, and careful regard. My thanks to my friends Jay Kim (Korean) and Kevin Lee (Korean-American) for generously lending me their honest perspective and knowledge on presenting Korean culture, as well as moral support in my search for Korean-American identity. Finally, my thanks to my wonderful husband, Erik Henning Thiede, who isn’t only a pretty face to look at, but actively encourages me to develop my own opinions and assert myself, and whose membership in a certain category of Americans (that of educated liberal white men) carries a certain kind of weight that matters.