Five Questions with Haejung Lee

Five Questions with Haejung Lee

Recently I had the pleasure of hosting ceramist Haejung Lee during her three-month McKnight Artist Fellowship at the Northern Clay Center. Born and raised in Seoul, Korea, Lee came to the United States in 2005 to pursue her Master of Fine Arts in ceramics at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. While in school, she met her husband, Daniel, and now Lee maintains a studio practice in Baton Rouge, that is, when she is not traveling to teach or participate in exhibitions and residencies.

During her visit to Minneapolis, I asked Lee to take part in our Five Questions series, and here's what she had to say: 

Can you start by describing what you make?

In general, my installation work is based on my current experience facing cultural differences, and the adjustment of my Korean background to life in America. I usually combine objects and concepts from both countries in my work to create architectural pieces based on my own stories.

Being at Northern Clay Center as a McKnight artist, I created work based on my interpersonal relationships. To present these, I used knots, flowers, and rice to express both the joy and difficulty in connecting with others and building relationships. Korean culture in particular is highly influenced by Buddhist principles. One basic Buddhist idea is that people will reconnect in their current life if they had met so many times in their previous life. So, considering this idea, creating and keeping relationships are important to me bearing in mind that we are all connected. 

In considering my interpersonal connections, I used knots to symbolize the building and maintaining of relationships which bring happiness, frustrations, and difficulty to us all. Some knots are easy to undo but some are easier to cut off than try to undo. Moreover, sometimes entwined knots create more complicated entangled knots.

What was the highlight of your experience as a McKnight Fellow at the Northern Clay Center?

Being a McKnight Fellow at the Northern Clay Center, I met a great variety of artists. While I was there, the American Pottery Festival happened, so there I was able to see new works and get to know visiting ceramists. Since I focus on more sculptural work, it was an especially good chance to get to know potters. The experience also made me think about extending my work style.

Much of your work has to do with place and your experience as a Korean citizen establishing roots in America. How are these experiences as an outsider conveyed through your work?

It may not be easy to understand my concept as a form of my work. However, it is important to me to attract people’s attention first and foremost to the style of my work. Once people become interested, they usually try to find out what stories are behind the work. Also I usually put some details such as patterns or some hidden icons in my work, like hide and seek. I share my story through these items, and others with similar stories relate through the piece. So when people see the situation through my eyes, it helps them to understand the concept. It also helps me be able to share my stories with audiences.

How is ceramic practice in America different from that in Korea? How is it similar? 

Korean education is very competitive compared to that of students in America. In ceramics, technical practice or leaning direction is similar in both countries, but (in my opinion) the approach to conceptual directions seems a little bit different.

I cannot say nowadays if Korean education is the same as what I experienced because things change fast, and I have been out of Korea for several years. Based on my experiences, Korean ceramics are technically well-crafted and American ceramics are conceptually well-crafted.

Also, the Korean ceramic education system is concentrated more on ceramics history and contemporary arts, while the American ceramic education system is more concentrated on arts in general. I have benefitted from both educational systems.

What’s next for you?

As far as the forms of my work, I am not sure exactly what I am going to do next, but I will probably keep working on installation projects based on concepts I am presently pondering. Recently I used several small items to create architectural objects such as stairs, doors, fences, blinds, and bridges. I will keep working and experimenting with this, as well as create spaces with my work to illustrate my thoughts. I have an upcoming exhibition in March 2014 at the NCECA Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, (as a project space artist) and will have my 11th solo exhibition at Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. I will also be participating in a few group shows next year.

Five Questions is a brief Q&A about books and craft, with people who love and use the American Craft Council Library.