“Peace, Love, and Lots of Laughter.” A very common statement, one that you would expect to find next to the picture of a beautiful woman (which you would in this case) on a site such as MySpace or FaceBook. You wouldn’t be surprised to find it on the web site of a female artist either. After looking through her gallery of incredible silkscreen paintings and sculpture, you might say that the description was an apt summary of her work. You might even linger a bit on her profile after that, saying that even though it sounds a little stock, maybe there is some genuineness to it. And then you would most likely go on with your day, maybe smiling occasionally when thinking of “Peace and Love.” But you would miss an incredible story.
In the beginning
Jin Lee attended Hongik University in Seoul, Korea from 1993-1997. The first two years of school were what college students in almost any culture experience. She describes her work during these first few years as big, classic sculptures. “I felt that good art meant big size.” She describes her first few years at Hongik University as “… dark, political and idealistic… . When I look back at it, I feel I was just pretending.”
When I would be talking to foreign men, I could here the girls whispering in Korean that “she must be sleeping with him”.
The first test
In 1995, Jin Lee packed her bags and flew to Paris to study French and the “root of art” at the Sorbonne University. Her decision to go to Paris was based on a simple question her mother had asked her – “ “Why do you make junk that will never go away?” “My mother was a kind and loving woman who used sarcasm to convey the truth.” Jin Lee wasn’t hurt by the remark, but it did make her reassess her art and its themes. She began to feel that “too many students were focusing on making anti-establishment and anti-corporationalisitic artwork to make a political or social statement of discontent. While this is an important thing for artists to do, there needs to be balance. Too much negativity would just create more negativity and corrupt the world further. Some part of art should come from peace, happiness and good feelings.”
Once in Paris, she decided not to speak any Korean and did not ask for any help with translating French in her daily activities. “It was very hard at first, negotiating apartment contracts, dealing with utilities, etc., but I was determined to do this on my own.” This decision alienated her from other Korean girls attending the Sorbonne. “For the first two months, they all looked down on me. They would say things like “She’s stupid. She doesn’t ever study. She won’t ever learn French’.” Jin Lee took every opportunity to talk with non-Korean foreigners. “When I would be talking to foreign men, I could here the girls whispering in Korean that “she must be sleeping with him’. At times I would say a simple Anyo Haseayo (Hello), and they would get really quiet and back away. My father’s (projects) were doing well, and I could have asked for help at any time, but I felt I had to do this on my own.”
It was at this point that Jin Lee developed appendicitis, and still could speak only a little French. “While I was in the hospital, recovering from the surgery, fading in and out of consciousness because of the drugs, I saw an orderly steal about 2,000 USD from me, but I, of course, couldn’t say anything, and didn’t know who I could say it to. I also asked a neighbor of mine to get me some towels and others things I needed for the apartment while I was in the hospital. And she was a great help, later I discovered that she had taken two of my checkbooks during this time.” Jin Lee’s total losses due to the illness caped at around 4,000 USD, but she still didn’t ask her very supportive family for help.
The first victory
“I had to stay out of school for two months because I didn’t have the money to pay for it. Since I couldn’t attend school, I used the time to talk to my neighbors and spend time with friends. When I went back to school, the reaction was great. People who had put me down were “Damn, she can speak French’. People were surprised and giving me second looks. It felt great!” Daily life in Paris was much smoother after that.
Junior Year and the second test
“I was lost [my junior year]. I didn’t show up to class very often, and got poor grades in class. I did a lot of other things. I played the drums and did a lot of volunteer work.” Jin Lee and her peers were constantly arguing about whether or not the making of ceramic cups and mugs was true art, or just a craft. The majority opinion was that these activities were a craft done by people with excess time to waist, and could never be considered true art. “I didn’t believe this for one second. It was an ongoing argument my junior year.” In the beginning of her senior year, Jin Lee had to choose a professor to mentor her and graduate with her. The project she picked seemed workable enough for her at the time. Jin Lee chose to prove that mugs and teapots could indeed be true art. “I’ve always loved a challenge.”
She had no idea how much of a challenge it would be. The pottery professor didn’t want to work with her because 20% of each piece would be cast and porcelain would be used. The sculpture professor didn’t want to work with her because sculpting mugs was a craft and not a true art form. “I felt abandoned by my professors. The feedback was that I couldn’t do it; it was a stupid idea; it wasn’t going to work; it wasn’t true art.” Paris all over again, but with reinforcements this time
A little help from my father
I asked Jin Lee if conflict was a necessary evil for an artist. Her response was “conflict is how you find your true passion, what your true vision is.” When I asked her how she was able to push through the resistance, her face became radiant as she said, “My father. He has always encouraged me to follow my dreams, follow my passions and see where they take me. In the end, that is all you really have in life.” She was back in her hometown, back with her family and once again having to prove herself. In the end, the victory was even better than Paris. “Everyone was kissing up to me, asking me if I wanted to sell any of my work.” After nine months of rejection and feeling abandoned by her professors, Jin Lee was naturally resistant to letting the university having any of her work at first. But in the end, she decided to donate her teapot to the university’s permanent collection so that “other students might find some inspiration in my work to pursue their passions and dreams… . Each year the university picks the work of only one graduating student, so it is quite an honor.”
In 1998, Jin Lee once again packed her bags and tools, and moved to New Zealand where she worked as a “Potter” for Burning Issue Gallery in Whangarei. During her time in New Zealand she had exhibitions at the Gothic Gallery and a group exhibition at the clock Tower Gallery benefiting the Heart Foundation. Later she would be commissioned by the New Zealand Federation of Business & Professional Women’s Clubs Incorporated to design their “Daphne Chapman Award.”
During this time, Jin Lee started to become disillusioned with the medium of pottery. “It is a time consuming, labor intensive process considering what you get in return. Because of the firing process, you are limited by what shapes you can do when working with clay.” She would, however, soon find the perfect medium for her later work. She would learn of Oamaru stone. But first there was some more traveling to be done.
Back in Korea
She made her way back to Korea via Paris, where she worked as a potter at the Le Noir studio for one year. Once in Korea, she was receiving commissions such as the interior design and murals of a Japanese restaurant in Taejon, Korea and the LG Khai Mobile Promotion Party at the Dmitri Restaurant in Seoul, Korea. For the LG party she designed the total layout, the “Gypsy Party” logo design, all of the murals and ornaments, and a Dong-A fashion TV stage design. In 2004, Jin Lee began running the Solar Art Studio.
“I have always wanted to start my own studio,” she says with a smile. While running the Solar Art Studio, she held “The Tropical Dreams” silkscreen painting exhibition at Puccini in Seoul, Korea. She also met her future husband, Doug ****.
Another Year, Another Country
So what does any young woman in love, who has already lived on three continents, do when her soul mate is transferred to another country? She goes with him, of course! This time she would land in Nuremburg, Germany. Her stay in Germany lasted from 2005, when she was a member of the Tatort Atelier until the end of 2006, when she was an instructor for the Stone Sculpture workshop, International School in Nuremburg.
During this time, she also participated in the GOHO Group Exhibition at the Gostenhofer Atelier und Werk Stattage in Nuremburg. And also during this time, unfortunately, her mother passed away. At the end of 2006, Doug was transferred back to Korea.
One of the first things Jin Lee did upon returning to Korea was take a trip to New Zealand, to speak directly with Bob and Linda Wilson, the owners of Parkside Quarries. “I had been sending them emails, but wasn’t getting any responses, so I decided to go in person. They [Bob and Linda Wilson] weren’t sure what to think when I showed up on their doorstep, asking about purchasing a 3-ton block of Oamaru stone. They didn’t think I would be able to handle the project.” But she was able to convince them otherwise, and they even ended up letting her stay with them and work on her sculpture in a paddock next to their extensive garden. “They treated me as a part of the family. Oamaru will (always) be my true home town in my heart.” During this time, Jin Lee learned that the initial miscommunication between the Wilson’s and her was due to the fact that another company had previously contacted Parkside Quarries about the Oamaru stone, wanting regional exclusivity in Korea. So the Wilson’s had been deferring all correspondence to them (the Korean company). Jin Lee maintains regular contact with the Wilson’s, referring to them as her “second family.”
Present Day – Solar Art studio
In January 2007, Jin Lee’s dream of having her own studio became a reality. She opened “Solar Art Studio” limestone sculpture studio with the receiving of the now 2.1 ton Oamaru sculpture, Aotearoa as she has named it. Jin Lee and her father share the space. “My father seemed very lonely after my mother died, so I think it has been good for him to have family members around everyday.” Working with her father has been just as rewarding for Jin Lee. “He has been such a great help with setting up the studio. I would not have been able to do it as quickly or smoothly on my own.” Jin Lee feels that she will have Aotearoa completed in the next five-to-six months. She considers the works of Antoni Guardi, La Pedera in particular, as having the most influence on her present-day work. Jin Lee is now concentrating on taking co-operative and private commissioned works for sculpture gardens and other outdoor sculptures. She feels that there is a good market for this because of the building codes in Korea. Each new construction is required to allocate 1-2% of their overall budget on artwork.
The journey has just begun
The founding of Solar Art Studio has been a life-long dream for Jin Lee, and it has taken a will as strong as the Oamaru stone that she now works with for her to realize this dream. Jin Lee considers the never-ending support of her family as the determining factor in achieving her goal of opening her own studio.
“I see photography as a treasure hunt – you never know what you are going to find. This is also my philosophy of life in general. It is what fueled my desire to move to New York City after graduating the University of North Texas, skydive, and work on a cruise ship for six months. This love of adventure is also what brought me to the Korean peninsula. It is what inspires me to pick up the camera each morning and look for the subtle back-beat of every day life.”
“My skill as a photographer is the result of working as a Director of Photography and Gaffer on independent films while living in New York City. I also have experience working in the audio/visual markets in the Houston, TX area. I am now working in South Korea, and very excited by the new directions I can explore with my photography.”