A really stellar interview with Korean artist EunJung Park, who is now based in the US, and creates delightful mixed media sewing-meets-painting pieces that I just can't get enough of. We chat about researching materials and their behavior, how living the U.S. and Korea has influenced her education and practice, and what she finds challenging -- and rewarding -- about pursuing art. More at the links below!
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First, tell me a bit about yourself! What has your art education been like so far? What first interested you in making art?
I began my formal art education in Korea, at Kookmin University in Seoul, where I focused on a more traditional style of painting on canvas. The Korean art education tends to be a bit more hierarchical than the U.S. art education, in that professors are understood to be masters who students listen to, and whose approach students follow. I actually learned a lot this way, and am grateful to my professors in Korea. At the same time, I also had the sense that I wanted to explore other approaches to learning and painting, and so I applied to the Maryland Institute College of Art. I found that students there participate a great deal more in discussions and critiques, and that professors guide students to find their own unique ways of working. The atmosphere also encouraged a lot of experimentation with materials and format, and I began to make not just paintings, but also sculpture and installations.
As a child, I was often attracted to ugly things, and thought that there was something beautiful in them. I think that this is an impulse a lot of artists share. I was also lucky to have a family that was very culturally open, and travelled a great deal. My parents made a point of exposing me to other cultures and ways of thinking. And I would add that my dad is very much a maker--he is constantly finding new projects to make--and this is something that I picked up from him. I recently found a lot of photos of me at 2 years old with a little hammer, working away. Before I was an artist, I was a maker.
You work in various media including painting, installation, and sound. Can you tell me more about your practice?
My work almost always responds to something I've encountered in my everyday life. It usually starts out with a specific desire--something I want to make--although that desire is only accompanied by somewhat vague images in my head. Then I sketch a lot to try to flesh out these images. As I sketch, I'm not thinking just about lines, but really imagining what I'm sketching as various materials--kinds of textiles, or wood, or styrofoam, etc. After making a lot of drawings, I've usually closed in on the image I'm after, enough so that I can formulate a plan about how to begin building and painting. As I work, I often will deviate from this plan, though I never know in advance when this will happen.
Regardless of how they turn out, almost all of my pieces begin through this same process. At times they develop into paintings, and at other times they develop into sculptures or installations. As they move toward different media, of course, the process changes a bit--installations, for example, often involve a little more improvisation than the paintings do.
You employ a lot of different materials, even in your paintings, which are object-like and utilize different types of textile, fiberglass, cardboard, foam, and more. What is your process like?
I begin my work by repeating simple units. I use this repetition, and the transformation of units across successive repetitions, as a strategy to build larger structures. To create a unit, I abstract forms I find in my everyday life—such as parts of the body or of architectural interiors. The forms I work with often seem primordial to me, in the sense that they appear repeatedly across multiple aspects of my experience. I also often overlay and combine these forms to create new ones, which reference multiple sources without depicting any of them directly. Having found such a unit, I distort and repeat it multiple times to create the overall shape of my work. I find that this reiteration of forms builds meaning, as they echo and call to one another, and to their overall shape as an amalgamation.
I then use a number of devices to investigate this overall structure—sewing raised, pillowed areas; cutting out hollow areas; and adding surface texture and color. I was drawn to working with deep, pillowed forms for several reasons, but primarily because I find that they are highly tactile, and have a very direct connection to people’s sense memory. In many ways, I experience the materiality of these forms—the weave of the textiles and the tautness with which they restrain their stuffing—before I recognize their symbolic qualities. This suits my needs—insofar as possible, I want viewers to enter this work at a pre-linguistic level, without the intrusion of a too-quick ‘reading,’ and to let its meaning assemble slowly.
I'm always very interested in finding new materials to work with.
Do you plan your pieces ahead or work more intuitively? Do you do any research of any kind in preparing or thinking about new work?
I'm neither completely systematic nor completely improvisational in my approach--both enter in. I find that good planning prepares the way for my best improvisations.
I do a lot of research into materials--both by reading and by talking to staff members at hardware and paint stores. I also read a lot to inform my overall project, the larger questions that engage me. I don't, however, tend to to do research for specific pieces, which develop much more out of my sketchbook practice.
You're originally from Korea and are now in the US; do you feel that this transition, whether culturally, geographically or otherwise, has influenced your work?
Yes, I do. I love my home country and its culture, and within Korea there are many different kinds of people. But because there are far fewer foreigners living in Korea than in the U.S., the level of cultural diversity can be less drastic. In the U.S., at MICA, I had the chance to talk with accomplished visiting artists from all over the world, and hearing such diverse opinions really helped to open my work up.
As a student in the U.S., I also found myself experimenting with materials that were a bit foreign to me. They weren't better than what I used in Korea--and sometimes I really missed the great supplies I had in Korea. But because they were different than what I was used to, I had to experiment, and eventually began to experiment with other materials as well.
I want to say, however, that I also think that the core of art-making doesn't change, regardless of where you travel.
What is your studio or workspace like?
I prefer to have a studio that's either in or close to my home. Windows are very important because I feel I can see my work best in the sunlight, and because I use a number of materials that require good ventilation.
My workspace tends to have three different areas. I begin on the floor, where I build the irregular structures that form the bases of my work--I spend quite a bit of time there. I then move to the table as I start to elaborate on those structures with fabrics, wood, and other materials. And then I will often move to the wall to evaluate the structure and, eventually, to paint it.
I always pause to clean my studio after each stage, because things get pretty chaotic as I work. I find that cleaning gives me the clarity I need to move into the next stage.
Do you have a tool or an object in the studio that you couldn't live without?
My iPad, in which I do a lot of my sketching, and which I try to keep on me at almost all times. I sketch quite a bit, because I think that it's important to prepare the way for new ideas. But when good ideas do come, I find that they come suddenly like lightning, and that they don't stay long. If I wait to put an idea down, it starts to change in my head, and I can never get back to the original. I like working in the iPad because it has unlimited space, and because it allows me to easily make many versions of the same drawing.
What do you consider the most challenging part of pursuing your practice, whether creatively or professionally?
I think that being an emerging artist means accepting quite a bit of instability. Even if you secure a good show, and even if it garners a good response, it seldom builds into anything more permanent--and you need to begin sending out a new round of applications the next day. It's hard to do this, make money, and also set aside the time needed to make art thoughtfully. I'm not alone in this, I know.
What is the best advice you've ever received? Is there any you're glad you ignored?
It may sound simple, but probably the best advice I received was from my MFA Director, who told me to believe in myself. By which I understood him to mean that it is important to learn from other people, but also to not give them the ultimate power of validation. It's only insofar as you believe in yourself that your work can convince other people. I also think that making art can be really frustrating--that it can really bother artists a lot, and they can relinquish their belief as a result. So I think that it is much easier to believe in yourself when you begin, but harder to sustain over a career. It takes work.
Someone once told me that my work is best when its color is more subtle. I'm glad I ignored this advice, because I think that this came from her taste preferences rather than a close reading of the work. If you follow taste--especially someone else's--I think your art will become boring. You need to follow something else.
How would you define "success?"
In my own work, I think I've been successful when I make something I've never seen before. As an artist, I think I will be successful if I have a good space to work, where I can go anytime I want, and I won't be interrupted; if I can purchase whatever supplies I need without restraint; and if I am financially secure.
What are you working on right now?
I'm in a sketching phase, working a lot in my iPad. I'm planning projects that will bring my most recent approach to painting into installations, and will incorporate a wider variety of materials.
Anything else you would like to add?
Thank you very much for the opportunity to share my work with you!
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