Aimee Lee works with traditional Korean papermaking techniques to make two and three dimensional works. After receiving her MFA from Columbia College in Chicago, she studied hanji papermaking in Korea on a Fulbright award and now teaches it all over the U.S. It is important to her to keep this ancient technique alive both through her teaching and in her own work. Lee’s works gain from this historic craft, both visually and intellectually.
The following interview took place by email in March, 2012.
1. Your time learning hanji in Korea had a huge effect on your future. Did you go there with the intention of bringing back the skills to teach hanji in the US? Did you know this trip would be so important?
Yes and yes. I was not necessarily sure of how much I would find, but my intention was to learn as much as possible in the hanji realm to bring back to the U.S. My concern was that hanji was not doing well in Korea, and creating awareness and interest here would help revive hanji, or even create a space for it to flourish in case it disappears in Korea. It goes without saying that Tim Barrett’s work with washi was a huge model for me. In fact, he was kind enough to coach me on my Fulbright application. I still remember the phone conversation we had, when he asked what my dreams were. I tried to wriggle out of that one by saying, “They’re not realistic,” but he insisted that I had to first identify and articulate them, before I could write a compelling proposal. It was a scary thing to do, but so important, because I had to say honestly, to myself, that I really did want to teach.
I knew this trip would be of huge importance to me personally and as an artist. I was born and raised in the United States and whenever I travel, I feel like an American through and through. But I am also part of the Korean diaspora, which has had a huge role my life, whether I liked it or not. My experience as a Korean American also informed my artwork, so having the opportunity to do extended research in Korea, on a topic that was important to me both as a person and as an artist, was indeed a once in a lifetime chance.
2. Are the other techniques you learned in Korea equally important to you both as a teacher and as an artist, like joomchi and spinning paper?
Are you asking if joomchi and jiseung are equally important as making hanji? Or are you asking if joomchi and jiseung are equally important when I teach and when I make art. If it’s the first question: making hanji will always hold the heart and root of what I do, but learning what to DO with this paper was certainly very important, or else I could not make a good case for preserving traditional hanji. If it’s the latter question: I use jiseung and joomchi in my work a great deal as well as in my teaching, and find them invaluable in both the studio and classroom. In general, I am grateful for all of the techniques and tools I learned in Korea because they helped expand my vocabulary in paper manipulation, and I likely could never have learned them elsewhere.
3. Setting up the hanji studio at the Morgan Conservatory looks like an amazing experience. Congratulations! What kind of effect has this experience had on you? Are you happy with how the studio is functioning?
Thank you! That project was a BIG deal for me. It taught me that I could fulfill any vision I had as long as I could see it clearly and work hard towards it. I know that sounds cheesy, but I have learned that long-term goals are worthwhile investments—even ideas that seem outrageous at the time are possible given the right combination of time, people, and resources. Another big effect was that I was able to meet a wonderful community of people in Cleveland and develop friendships while working together towards something that everyone felt invested in. I suppose I’ve also learned that I could do it again if I had to, and know what I’d do differently in those cases. Most importantly, now there is a facility to practice making hanji. The studio works fine, but I haven’t yet designed a way to live in the area (my home base is the NYC metro area) or have extended stays to properly train people to use it when I am not there. I was so busy trying to build something that I didn’t factor in how useful a studio is without someone to run it. But I also don’t think the book is closed on this matter, and eventually I will figure it out.
Lee has since moved to Cleveland to expand the hanji studio into a facility that encompasses more Asian traditions. The Eastern Paper studio is the newest addition to the Morgan Conservatory.
4. I really love your Native Intelligence series from 2009. Did you make these works just after returning home from Korea? Is the imagery from there? Are these works a series because they evolved out of one another or are they all meant to be seen together? Is your preferred method of hanging them away from the wall like you have Stray Bandits?
Yes, I made the work in August after coming back from Korea in July 2009. The imagery is more from my internalization of the landscape there, not necessarily a direct representation of Korea. I think of the work as a body, not a series, though a few pieces were a small series. They are not all meant to be seen together, though I definitely made them all for the same exhibit, and they worked very well all together. Almost all of them were hung away from the wall, and I always prefer to do that for the ones that need to be backlit. I liked the feeling of a gallery within a gallery that I could create by hanging everything away from the wall, giving every piece more breathing space and lighting options.
5. It seems the Joomchi works are related to Native Intelligence but something different is also happening. The paper is allowed to fray and there are more embellishments, yet they also feel much more about landscape. Would you talk about how this series is different for you.
The work in the joomchi section of my website was all made at different times and in different places, but I group them together because I use the same technique. That’s the relationship to Native Intelligence, and of course some of the work followed that work directly in chronology, since I came back from Korea and had four solo exhibits to mount almost immediately. Again, these are not all pieces I consider in series, but the first batch, which I did for an exhibit in upstate New York, was made from hanji I had dyed with my natural dyeing teacher in Seoul. I wanted this show to have a lighter feel from the Miami show with all the dark inky work, and was also interested in attempting, again, to work without words (which was very challenging for me). It was an exploration of fragmented language and landscapes, and I don’t know how successful all of the pieces are, but it was an important way for me to push myself away from the written word, as an experiment and learning experience.
6. Columbia College seems to encourage an interdisciplinary approach. Were you working with installation, performance art and object making before you went there? Or did going there inspire that varied approach? Did you go there to work with handmade paper or was that a wonderful and unforeseen plus?
Yes, I was working with all of those media before I went to Columbia, and I chose it deliberately because it was an interdisciplinary program, and I thought that I could then continue to work across media while also focusing on book and paper arts. My initial attraction was to the book, but in a very different way from the tradition: my first book arts class was at Oberlin, and it was more like a class that taught us to explode the definition of a book. We did not learn any bindings in class, but were rather charged with the task of conceptualizing art that used the book as a vehicle for our ideas. Even then, I made books that were not traditional books at all. One was a hanging installation of huge sheets of acetate covered in full-sized body prints coated in spices, another was a doll with rubber body parts.
When I went to Columbia, I thought that I would go straight into bookbinding and the artists’ books class. But papermaking was the first studio class of the first semester, and it was instant love. The second semester was bookbinding and letterpress printing, but I actually had to delay my binding class to my second year because I insisted on taking a performance class instead. It was frustrating at the time not to be able to bind the way my cohort was, but it also gave me the space and time to work paper into my performance work without being distracted by how books and performance could combine (the latter had been my objective entering the program, but I had a hard time making it work. Paper with performance was so much more natural and effective, though I almost always kept aspects of writing on paper in my performances).
I had no exposure to papermaking prior to grad school, so that was not just a wonderful and unforeseen plus, but a wonderful and unforeseen gift, or destiny or karma, whichever way you want to see it.
7. Is your work created in your sketchbook, or from reading and experience? Does the process come before or with the ideas? Does the process change the work or content?
I used to work purely from ideas and considered myself a conceptual artist, but the more I learned about certain materials (mostly through papermaking, and what it leads naturally to, like textiles) and techniques, the more I shifted towards a different balance. Sometimes I have materials I have shaped or manipulated, and I don’t know why. They can sit for years before I understand what they’re supposed to become. I like to strike a balance between process and concept, but inevitably some pieces will weigh more heavily in one direction than another.
I think the process of making a piece can change it, and sometimes the ideas behind it change, but I don’t think there is a formula or any way of knowing until you are in the work.
8. How did your experience working at Dobbin Mill with Robbin Ami Silverberg affect your work and your working methods? Was there anything specific you learned there that you are still using?
I had no idea how influential Robbin was to my life until years after I first met her. I have to thank Andrea Peterson, my first papermaking teacher, for having the foresight to see that I could benefit from being Robbin’s intern. On my first day, Robbin asked me what I wanted to learn from her, and I said, “I want to see what it’s like to be a female artist in the world.” Did I learn! Because she works in a studio that is connected to her home, and her husband does the same, there was a wonderful flow she was able to follow. Yet at the same time, it sometimes made it harder to balance with the rest of her life and raising her daughter, since everything was so intertwined. She was the first person to show me shifu samples from Asao Shimura, whom I eventually contacted and has since helped me immensely in my work. She also gave me invaluable technical help with my thesis—her mill was where I developed my brick prototypes. Her studio was where I really learned to edition books, and these were not easy books to edition.
Robbin works hard, has high standards, and always had very strong concepts that were fully integrated into her process. She’s incredibly intelligent and taught herself a lot of things that were available to me in school, like papermaking, that she had to learn on her own because it was not part of the curriculum in academia at the time. I learned more papermaking techniques, some quite subtle, and how to approach the page when cutting it to make thread. I’ve integrated a lot of what I learned from her so it’s hard to say specifically what I am still doing that I learned from her, but mostly it is the faith to maintain the drive and hard work behind a vision, and to always keep learning and being in the world.
9. Hunk, & Dora looks like a beautiful piece. I like the image on your site of you drawing on the spot comics on bricks for viewers and also their leaving you feedback notes. Is this kind of interaction something you still use and see continuing in your work?
Yes. Almost all of my performances are interactive, and books by their nature are interactive. I am still on this long hiatus from performance, but the interaction was almost the heart of all of my work. In some ways, I wonder if it there is any reason to make work if you can’t interact with the audience that is experiencing it. My impulse probably comes from a very strong desire to connect with people, and performances create a space that is unlike other spaces that exist in the world, where it is okay to connect with strangers. But I had to pull away from the performance work because I didn’t know how to temper the giving, so I was losing a lot of energy. Someday, I’ll return to it. I don’t know if the interaction will be as overt then, too, but it’s better that I don’t know. Besides, we can’t know the future.
Hunk and Dora, 2006, abaca, cotton, linen, wood, monofilament, tyvek, buttons, sand, 14’ tower, 6’ doorway, Columbia College
10. "The Book" comes up a lot on your blog. I'm guessing you're writing a book about hanji and your time in Korea? How is this going? Has focusing on the writing changed your thinking of this time in any way?
Yes—I’m in my fourth edit of a manuscript about hanji and my research year. It’s hard, hard work, and at first it was a huge internal struggle to finally pull myself away from my artwork to write (I thought I could do both but couldn’t, and it took a while for me to get over sulking about it). But it is so rewarding to grapple with my own brain in ways that I usually do not get to do. In terms of how it affects the way I think about my research year, I think it’s a combination of the writing and the time. People said things that struck me in the moment as harsh or mean, but now that I reflect on the content of their words rather than their tone, I realize that what they were telling me was a valid opinion. Though I had been thinking about writing this book for years, I couldn’t actually start it until I had more distance from the actual experience.
Hanji Unfurled: One Journey into Korean Papermaking was published in 2012 and in 2013 Lee was honored by the Eric Hoffer Book Award. Congratulations Aimee!
11. You seem to be showing your work all over the world - at galleries as well as universities and libraries. What kind of place do you like to show at the most and why?
I don’t really have a preference. I like best to show in places where the staff are top notch and invested in supporting artists, because that leads to the most positive experience. They make the entire process more enjoyable, do the work to draw an audience, and understand the work enough to advocate for it.
12. Do you have an audience you create for? Or do you create for yourself and hope others will respond? (Is there a gee whiz factor as in, "Wow, that's paper??")
Not in a very specific or defined way—of course, I want all my work to be seen by someone, but I can’t ever know exactly who that someone will be. I make work because it’s something I have an aptitude for, but want to get better at, and am willing to do the hard work to learn how to improve. To me, it’s a given that creating art is a mode of expression, communication, and representation. I have always wanted my work to provoke thought and dialogue, but my messages are not as overt as they were in the past. Because I have a compulsion against storing work and very little space to archive it, combined with a desire to get my work out into the world, I recycle a lot of old work that has been sitting around for a while. Better to be in a new piece than gather dust.
I think that a lot of paper artists make work that surprise audiences, since they are not always aware of the possibilities of paper. But my goal has never been to try to trick people or impress them with the different things I can make out of paper.
13. What kinds of obstacles do you face in order show your work? For example, is showing the work without a frame problematic in terms of dirt, fragility and people wanting the work to be protected? Do you find that the medium of handmade paper has an influence on the people or places who want to show the work?
Certainly, framing becomes an issue since so much of my work is intended to hang freely and move in the air. I have only had one show where there I had to negotiate with the gallery to allow me not to frame my work. I have never been a proponent of artwork having to last until the end of time, so I am less worried about protecting work than people who collect it. I think that working in paper simultaneously closes and opens the possibilities for places to show, and I am fine with that for now. Commercially, paper everything has become very hip, but I don’t know how much the art world will ever embrace handmade paper because of the tiresome art versus craft argument.