Profile of Artist Wonsook Kim

By: Grace Jahng Lee

August 12, 2014

“Art is about communication. Many times, the communication I feel from pieces is very destructive. We all know how hard life is and how the things we see don’t make sense. But that’s Life 101. What you say about it, where you go with it, is where the interest lies. Something beautiful, worthwhile to share, images you didn’t think about before or giving people a different perception – that is what I’m interested in. So I paint sadness and happiness, the kind of place that is unspoken yet spoken, unexplainable but expressible,” says Wonsook Kim, who was recognized as Artist of the Year in 1995 by the United Nations.

Born in Pusan at the end of the Korean War, Kim was raised in Seoul by a family of classical musicians. Her parents met at church, where her father was the choir conductor and her mother was the pianist.

“It was quite a noisy and artistic family,” says Kim.

Three of her seven siblings are now professional musicians (one is a concert pianist in Italy, another is a violinist in the Baltimore Symphony, another is a cellist and teacher).

“The others in my family were much more brilliant,” says Kim. “My oldest sister was always the first in class. I owe her a lot. There was no way I could top her. I had to do everything that she wouldn’t in order to make a place for myself. So I read novels and made drawings of the stories. I was into comics and all the naughty girl things that she would not go near. My parents were preoccupied with a lot of geniuses in my family so I was left to my own devices, which was the best thing ever.”

“Like any child, I always loved to draw. Every child is a born artist. Somewhere along the line, you lose that. I was one of the lucky ones who continued.”

Kim recalls being interested in storytelling from a young age, when her grandmothers used to tell her stories. While her father was the managing editor of a major Korean newspaper, Kim served as his assistant.

“At night, when he was tired and needed to write, he would dictate, and I would write down the words for him. That was a real privilege for me to have that job, but I wanted to go abroad, and writing in other languages wasn’t easy. Art was a lot more universal – I didn’t have to struggle with language.”

Through her paintings, Kim engages her audience in visual storytelling. She began to develop her interest in becoming a professional artist in high school.

“I had such a crush on the art teacher,” Kim laughs. “He was so cool, one of those types that’s like, ‘I’m mad at the world but I still have to eat.’ A bunch of us worshipped him. He had an afterschool arts club so we went. The campus was in the mountains and very big so we ran around, painted, and drew.”

Kim enrolled at Hongik University, which had one of the top fine art schools in Korea, and became disappointed by her experience.

“I had an eighteen-year-old girl’s image of what artists did and it was unrealistic. I found that art school was really a continuation of high school where the teacher told you what to do and if he didn’t like what you did, he took a red pen and crossed things out and wrote over it.”

After completing a semester, she began to study English with the intention of studying abroad. Hesitant to tell her parents of her plans, she studied for the TOEFL at five a.m. prior to school and also attended a hagwon for English classes. She recalls listening to AFKN (American Forces Korean Network, the army base’s radio broadcast) on a small radio with headphones.

“I had that in my ear practically 24/7. They were heavy on the Beatles and you could get a kind of cultural introduction through that. So when I came to the U.S., the sounds and the songs weren’t that foreign. It didn’t make any sense in the beginning, like some animal roaring, but slowly, I understood a word or two here and there, like ‘sky’ or ‘train.’ I was not a typical foreign student who came to the U.S. and struggled with the language for a long time. I understood a lot although I couldn’t speak that much,” says Kim.

Wonsook Kim in her Studio, 1998

Kim was accepted by U.C. Berkeley and attended a summer session there.

“It was very expensive and my family was not very well-to-do so I had to tell them that they didn’t have to worry about money,” says Kim.

She instead decided to attend Illinois State University, which offered her a full scholarship and a monthly stipend of seventy-eight dollars.

“It was 1972 and this was a small fortune at that time,” she recalls. “There weren’t a lot of foreign students, especially at the undergraduate level. It was the beginning of a new awareness of foreign students, women, and different interest groups. I was very fortunate to be able to take advantage of this time.”

When she began her art education in the U.S., abstract expressionism (an art movement developed in New York in the 1940s that focused on spontaneity and conveying emotions through form and color) and the color field (a style of painting closely related to abstract expressionism) were dominant.

“It’s the kind of abstraction where you pour paint on a canvas and you step on it or roll on it-you know the type. Everyone was doing that so I did that. If someone was rolling on a canvas, I’d make the canvas a little bigger and roll with a couple more colors. It was that kind of academic exercise. It kept me maintaining my A’s to keep my scholarship,” says Kim.

She credits Professor Harold Boyd at Illinois State for being the pivotal force that altered the direction of her art. She recalls arriving to class late one day after attending a performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

“I showed him the concert program as an excuse. As I always do, I had drawn all around the program notes and on the back of it. He said, ‘Why can’t you make art of this?’”

“So I started painting life-things around me, stories that I heard as a child, Korean stories, and it was such a prolific year. That was 1975-76. I made a lot of drawings. I didn’t have much money so most of my work involved drawings. Looking back, it’s about the best work I ever did. All the work I did afterward was trying to chase that shadow, to do it again, but of course you cannot return to your youth. The beauty of it was that I was totally unaware of it at that time,” says Kim.

Kim obtained three degrees (BFA, MA, and MFA in fine arts) from Illinois State. There were few undergraduate students from Korea back then, she recalls.

“I wanted to run away from home and go to a new land and be on my own. So I was actually elated. Back then, it wasn’t normal for unmarried girls to go off on their own. Even with the language barrier-of course it was scary but it was all very exciting. Exactly what I signed up for.” Kim was the first of her siblings to study abroad and several of her female siblings followed her footsteps.

“Like every MFA grad wanting to be an artist, I went to New York. I paid my dues, working for eight years before I could support myself with my art.”

She worked as a court interpreter, getting paid fifty dollars a hour. “That was huge back then. I could do a couple of court cases and I’d be set for a month to paint,” says Kim.

After finding herself becoming too involved in the cases, she resigned from the job. “Anyone who needed a court-appointed interpreter was in a sad situation – without others around for support, caught in situations they didn’t understand.”

She also worked as a stylist for fashion and home furnishing magazines while working on her paintings in the evenings. After eight years, she held her first show and was subsequently able to earn a living from her art.

Currently, Kim divides her time between New York and Indiana, where her husband’s medical device invention company is based. She is represented by several galleries, including Gallery Hyundai in Seoul, Kang Collections in New York, Thomas McCormick in Chicago, and MK Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Wonsook Kim with her husband, Thomas Clement, at the Hyundai Gallery opening, 2012

Kim’s paintings often engage with themes of vulnerability and contrast, and her artistic influences extend beyond visual artists to include writers (such as T.S. Eliot and the Korean poet Midang), her grandmother, and her friend who was a flower vendor on 14th Street.

According to Kim, “If I can make someone look at things a bit differently, brighten their outlook, make them think in a different way or appreciate what they see around them, that’s a great success. Any great piece of art, music, or writing alters our existence. The goal, the aspiration for doing this is to celebrate life.”

Born in Seoul, Grace Jahng Lee is a writer of prose and poetry based in New York City.