Archives for the month of: February, 2015

My first apt_ptg
This is a painting I made in October 1998 of my first apartment in Seattle. I had left the East Coast for good, having dissociated myself from my immediate family, and resolved to start from scratch in a creative, progressive city. I was working two jobs, six days a week, and putting myself through night school in Desktop Production at the Art Institute of Seattle. The painting shows what I had back then: a camping cot to sleep on, cardboard boxes as tables, and some secondhand furniture I’d either picked up in the alleys of Capitol Hill or borrowed from my uncle, who lived on the other side of town. The floor was strewn with used books and paintbrushes I’d brought with me from Washington, DC. The painting itself was created using the five tubes of paint I owned (the primary colors plus white and black) on several small sheets of paper taped together.

It was a devastatingly lonely autumn for me. I rarely saw my uncle’s family or my one friend who lived at the far end of the city, and was disconsolate or exhausted—or physically sick—most of the time. On top of that, it rained for almost 90 days in a row, and the residents of Seattle smiled but nobody ever wanted to talk. Every day I could feel the city wearing me down like a carrot peeler would, shaving off fine slices of myself.

A self-portrait from 2000 called Quarter Life, done in that same apartment

When I think back on how hard I’ve worked for something, whether it’s attaining artistic recognition or carving out a life in this city, I get emotional. It’s hard to forget all the solitary evenings filled with bottomless longing and racked with self-doubt, the agonizing creative dry spells where nothing gets produced, the rapacious hunger for recognition and secret fear that it will come with its cruel, unforgiving gaze. You know, the typical life of an artist.

After the Wing Luke Museum solicited a piece of my art for their Korean-American show last fall, I found myself looking up one evening at the window of my first apartment in Seattle—a ramshackle Victorian building on Capitol Hill—and dissolved into tears. Trembling, I gripped myself in disbelief, feeling equal amounts of ecstasy and grief at the uphill battle it’s been.

Now a dream I’ve had since June of 1999 has come true. I finally have a solo show at Zeitgeist Coffee, a well-respected coffeehouse and arts venue in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square neighborhood. The Wing Luke Museum was a game-changer; I had professional business cards made and summoned up the gumption to invite the owner of the coffeehouse to have a look at my website. I was floored when he offered me the show. It had taken me 16 years of doggedly developing work—often spending years on a single painting—and paying my dues as an artist to get to this point.

During my lunch hour a few weeks ago, I went to Zeitgeist and picked up a cellophane-wrapped block of postcards promoting my show. My eyes grew damp as I held the stack, solid as a brick, in my hands. There, printed in the familiar template used by the coffeehouse, was my name and my work. It felt like this was what I was waiting for my whole life. In the in-between light of a Seattle winter day and the squabbling of seagulls in a historic part of the city, I felt elated and strangely light-headed.

Z postcard 1 Z postcard 2

Needing to return to my office, I hopped a bus that wound its ponderous way through downtown Seattle. Seated by the window, I caught glimpses of my former workplaces and apartments—all touchstones in my creative and personal development.

There was the Seattle Art Museum, where I’d started out in Seattle as an unhappy gift shop clerk (one of my two jobs back then); I met my husband at the loading dock in 1999 when we were working as museum security guards. Years later, he and I lived in an apartment across from the museum during its expansion and didn’t sleep for two years. The abstract paintings I’m showing at Zeitgeist emerged out of this time of insomnia and constant noise.

Zeitgeist blog post_SAM

Up the road was the Art Deco–era Seattle Tower, where I spent close to seven years working as a copyeditor at a design and branding firm while creating the bulk of my abstract work. During the recession, the firm hemorrhaged people, dwindling from almost 60 employees to around 8 by the time they laid me off. I sublimated a lot of my torment and fears into my paintings.

Zeitgeist blog post dwgs Sea Tower

Then we passed the hatchet-shaped Times Square Building, where I had reluctantly answered phones and poured coffee as a perennially malcontent receptionist at an architecture firm. It was there that I initially developed the visual language for the paintings in my show.

Zeitgeist blog post dwgs Times Sq

Just up the road, I could glimpse that first bleak little apartment building on Capitol Hill. That was where, as a nobody in this city, I resolved to stay and make a life here, no matter what it took. And, disembarking near my office, I remembered the first two solo shows of my work that were held a few blocks away, and how one was even reviewed in the print issue of The Stranger, a Seattle weekly paper.

Zeitgeist blog post dwgs Morris

The bus ride was a retrospective experience that made me realize how far I’ve come. But it also reminded me of how ephemeral art shows and public recognition are. When it comes down to it, the act of creating is what empowers and drives an artist forward. So once this upcoming show has passed, I’ll soon be laboring over the next piece of creative work. But hopefully there’ll come a time when I can look back again and feel a deep, almost debilitating, tremor of gratitude.

Here’s information on my upcoming art opening. If you’re in Seattle, I hope you’ll consider stopping by.

Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race—abstract paintings by Yoona Lee
1st Thursday, March 5, 2016, 6:00PM – 8:00 PM
Zeitgeist Coffee
171 S. Jackson St., Seattle, WA 98104

Show ends April 1, 2015.

UPDATE: My next show, Run Race Ragged: Three Takes on Racial Politics in America, opens at Ghost Gallery on May 12 and runs through June 5, 2016.

UPDATED UPDATE: My art made it into Sotheby’s NYC, and will be on display in the AD ART SHOW on Feb. 22 through Feb. 25.

Arguing couple

Even on their wedding day, you could tell my dad’s parents were not a good match. My six-foot-tall grandfather Lee Dam (whose name sounds like an emphatic curse in English) towered over my grandmother Cho Ah-Young, who stood at barely five feet in her slippers. Together, they looked lopsided and ill at ease—an obvious arranged marriage.

My grandparents were matched in one thing, however: their fearsome tempers. My grandfather Lee would bawl at his wife in the herky-jerky accent of Korea’s Deep South. She would bellow back in kind, in the same dialect, using even dirtier words. You might say they could finish each other’s sentences.

In their youth, grandparents were both radical student activists. They had each organized a student-led revolt against the Japanese occupation at their respective high schools. On the train going back to Seoul after the protests, my grandfather was arrested and ordered to kneel by the Japanese police. He naturally refused and had his nose broken. Coincidentally, my grandmother happened to be on the same train and witnessed the savage beating he’d received. She had no idea that within a few years they would be married.

My grandparents also happened to be eccentrics. As a young man, my grandfather had run away and joined a touring carnival until his father dragged him back to Korea. My grandmother was a fiercely independent poet and visual artist. Unlike most women of her generation, she pursued her art with a steely ambition, and my grandfather couldn’t tolerate it. He figured that if his wife could put all her attention into brush painting, he could just go find a concubine. With his wealth and debonair mien, he lured one in—a young woman whose beauty, many have said, illuminated the room when she walked in. She birthed three anemic children who were forever barred from my grandmother’s house.

Sadly, my grandparents’ similarities only made them less compatible and more violent. They fought extravagantly, throwing everything in sight, including food, antiques, furniture—even the entire dinner table—at each other. (Traditional Korean tables are small and portable, but they still make a huge mess.) My grandfather would beat my grandmother until she’d scream and hide in a closet or a corner of the yard, where she’d hatch her next plan to get him back. Then she would lie in wait for her husband and dump the contents of a chamber pot on his head or avenge him some other way.

They hate each other.

The children of my grandparents were no better. My aunts would pull each other’s hair and fight with scissors in the courtyard. My father and his younger brothers unleashed their aggressions at school, using whatever object they could find as weapons. My uncle wrenched off the top of a school desk and caused major damage to a classmate’s head. My dad set fire to a salvaged plank to appear twice as dangerous to his adversaries.

My dad still shudders when he recalls the constant commotion in the house. As a young boy growing up in the 1940s, he often fled to the train tracks, where he would watch the enormous locomotives slowly roll by in the rain. To this day, he still watches VHS tapes of nonstop locomotive footage (there must be a niche market for this), perhaps gaining some long-lost solace from them.

My mother, who was forced to live with her in-laws for years, sighs and recalls, “It was a battleground.” She was a terrified 23-year-old bride when she entered the house of the factious Lees. By the time she had her second child, my mother had dwindled to 84 pounds from the constant upheaval around her. Her wedding ring would barely fit the finger of an adolescent girl.

My grandmother wrote a prolific amount and came to be recognized in certain literary circles for her poetry. Her first book of poems was called Seul-Peun Dong-Gyang, which can be translated to something like “Melancholy Yearning.” Her husband was so ashamed that his wife, a married woman, would have these feelings that he burned the original manuscript. By that time, the book was published and was eventually released in a gold-embellished second edition. My grandfather died in the late ’70s, and his widow lived on to be nominated as a National Treasure of Korea for her poetry and brush painting. Diminutive in her silk hanbok, my grandmother would narrow her eyes with self-pride as she held up another published book or arts award. She’d say, “He never respected this, that bastard. Who has the last laugh now?”

Grandparents' wedding
My grandparents’ wedding in Seoul, 1931
(I think they had my grandmother stand on something to make her seem taller)

When you grow up with a dad who’s probably the only surgeon in America who threw an amputated leg at his boss, you’re bound to have some pretty interesting experiences. I’m happy to finally see a sitcom about an Asian-American family on TV (only took 20 years), but if the network really wanted melodrama, they should have just filmed my family. If I had my own TV series, one of the first episodes would feature an experience I had growing up that is forever seared into my psyche.

But a little background first: My parents had emigrated from South Korea to the US in the late ’60s like many others of their generation. I grew up in a suburb of Washington, DC, in a solidly middle-class family. I had two older sisters, who were 10 and 12 years older than me (I was apparently a mistake that happened in South Carolina), and a mom who tended house. My dad was a vascular surgeon whose rounds had him driving all around the Beltway. By the time he got home, he was a twelve-pack of carbonated Psycho Korean Dad Whoop-Ass that was shaken up enough to have a cataclysmic effect when opened.

My dad used to constantly yell at the top of his lungs at my sisters and me when we were growing up—even for the smallest things. Each time he did, it felt jarring and sickening, like my innards were sliding out of my body. Given that upbringing, it was no surprise that I developed my own temper. Unlike my dad, I knew when to hide it, at least in front of him. But one day I didn’t hide it and I’ll never forget what happened.

One afternoon, I came home from high school in an agitated state, furious after yet another wasted afternoon of sitting in detention (my home away from home). To my relief, the house was quiet. My mom was out of town, and my dad was still at work. Confident that nobody was home, I launched into a lengthy, profanity-laced tirade, screaming in that empty house until my ears rang and my throat was raw.

Then I heard a toilet flush somewhere upstairs and my heart stopped. A few seconds later, my father came stomping down the stairs, his face a frozen mask of outrage. He had gotten home from the hospital early and was relaxing in the bedroom. Clad in only a cotton undershirt and briefs, my dad’s plump, ovoid shape made him resemble a gigantic, white aspirin capsule, but he was still terrifying—even more so because he was uncharacteristically silent. Bracing myself, I muttered any apology, which felt as effective as shielding myself with a Kleenex in front of a smoking volcano.

The Vesuvian eruption I anticipated never occurred. Instead, my father looked strangely tired and spoke in a subdued tone I didn’t recognize. It sounded almost like defeat. “Yoona,” he sighed and paused for what seemed like a full minute. “I grew up with my parents fighting. They fought like the cat and dog. My sisters would also scream at each other. So much yelling in that house.” He looked away and shook his head. “When your sisters grew up, I thought the famous Lee temper had skipped this generation. I was so thankful. But then you came along.”

Then his voice changed and began its inevitable crescendo. “If I ever—EVERhear you scream like that again,” and his eyes began to glow, “the next day you will come home from school and you will find me up there”—my father stabbed his finger toward the rafters of the house—“hanging from the ceiling. I will have hung myself to AVENGE you.” He fixed his stare on me for a few seconds longer and turned away. Then the angry aspirin capsule mounted the stairs and retired to bed.

Death threat

I was so shocked that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Once my horror subsided, I phoned my older sisters, who were both remarkably cavalier about the incident. One said, “He’s all talk.” The other reassured me, “Don’t worry. He’s got too much ego to commit suicide.” Suddenly becoming a frightened little girl, I whimpered, “Are you sure? I don’t want him to ki-i-ill h-hi-i-mself,” and sobbed heavily into the phone.

That day I vowed never to show my temper around my dad again—if not out of self-preservation, for his preservation.

Some teenagers get grounded and have to forfeit their allowance or do extra chores as punishment. But lucky me, I get a dad who threatens suicide as a form of personal revenge. But it’s just another day in the life of the Lee family. Now how’s that for an entertaining (and mildly traumatizing) TV series?

(This drawing, published in Philomel Magazine in 1997, wasn’t included–though it could have been, with its themes of gay/interracial relationships and AIDS.)

Last Tuesday, January 27, I presented some of my visual art at the juried Arts & Social Change Showcase, a booking conference that is part of the Arts & Social Change Symposium, in Bellevue, Washington. I was one of nine featured visual artists, who ranged in style and subject matter. In addition, there were 14 live performances, ranging from Guinean dance to Taiko drumming, held in the same room—which kept things lively (and loud). The event was attended by arts professionals, bookers and funders, including members of 4Culture, Washington State Arts Commission and other organizations.

I was surprised to find that much of the featured visual art was created by “diverse” artists but did not necessarily have a clear social message. My pieces were some of the more pointed there—no surprise when you include a drawing of a petroleum conglomerate’s CEO ejaculating oil. Then again, the event was organized around the idea of social change, not social justice. (Further clarification of this kind of terminology can be found here.) So I understand that showcasing artists of different ethnic backgrounds helps inform the public and shift cultural perceptions, which can contribute to social change.

I showed the following pieces at the conference.


Atrocities V, 2001
Compressed charcoal on newsprint
18 x 24 in

The drawing above is part of a series on the ravages of war (which can be found here on my website). This and the drawing below, of BP CEO Tony Hayward, were published in The Slog, the blog of Seattle’s weekly paper The Stranger. You can see Jen Graves’ original post here.

3_BP Wet Dream
BP Wet Dream
, 2010
Compressed charcoal on newsprint
18 x 24 in

The drawing that follows was published as the cover illustration of the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, an interdisciplinary journal that comes out of the Seattle University School of Law. It was a tribute to Robert Frank, whose unflinching outsider’s eye exposed the hypocrisies and existentialism of American life in the twentieth century.

 1_SJSJ cover

The United States of Inequality, 2010
Cover illustration for Seattle Journal for Social Justice, Fall/Winter 2010
Mixed media on paper
8.5 x 11 in

The next two drawings come from a conceptual collage series I created around racial politics and the minority experience. (You can find more here on my website.)


Slippage, 2012
Ink on canvas
10 x 8 in

During production, I poured Sumi ink through a slit in the protective plastic wrapping of a blank canvas to suggest the infiltration of the postcolonial “Other’s” perspective into a previously white canon.


Camp, 2012
Mixed media on bristol
14 x 17 in

Composed of shreds of black paper left on Scotch tape loops, Camp represents containment and internment, compromised identity, and the tenacity of survivors.

Overall, the work I showed at the Arts & Social Change Showcase elicited a positive response from viewers. It helped that the attendees and presenters were already thinking of how an aesthetic medium can be used to produce transformative social change. There are myriad ways to do it, and it will take me a lifetime to figure out the best, most generous way possible. But for now, I am taking one step at a time to get my work out there—both visual art and writings—to help effect some of these changes.