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Interview with So Yoon Lym
18 March 2014
Author : julia-silverman
When I initially saw New Jersey-based artist So Yoon Lym’s series of intricate cornrow paintings, entitled “The Dreamtime,” I was immediately struck by the complex beauty and artistry of the hairstyles she depicted. After learning that the series was inspired by heads of teenagers in Paterson, NJ, a town only 20 minutes from where I grew up, I was bewildered; how could I have overlooked these incredible hairstyles on the heads of people around me? Lym seemed to be documenting an ignored craft. An art educator, Lym has been on sabbatical for the past year, operating out of the Lower East Side Printshop in Manhattan and creating a CMYK silkscreen print series of Paterson’s landscapes entitled “Alone Together.” I recently caught up with the artist for a discussion of her work, life, and their intersections.
I know that as a teenager, you studied with famed sumi-e painter Ung No Lee in France. What lessons stuck with you from that experience?
Ung No Lee taught me three important art lessons: first, that the essence of art is about “nature,” Second: one doesn’t need to constantly be sketching or drawing to make art. He would tell me that I needed to observe carefully, study and memorize, so that when I painted, I would understand what I was painting from memory.
When I studied with Ung No Lee when I was 16, I didn’t understand why he and his wife had chosen to live in a tiny studio in the poorest neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. I used to think that he could have easily sold off many of his paintings and live a more comfortable lifestyle, but Ung No Lee didn’t want to devalue his paintings by selling his artwork for quick and easy money. This is something I didn’t understand as a 16-year-old, which I very much understand now as an adult artist. Meeting Ung No Lee at the beginning of my art life and knowing him as an 80-year-old artist made me understand that making art could and would be a life-long, enriching endeavor.
Can you talk a bit about your series “Bloodlines” and “My Mother’s Name”? Both are so visually intriguing…
The series, “Bloodlines” was an exploration into monotype printmaking. At the time, I was reading Bruce Chatwin’s book called “The Songlines,” which are natural land markers, remembered and explained through stories and song as a way of mapping land without borders or boundaries. I decided that “Bloodlines” would be my modern interpretation of “The Songlines”.
As corn-row hair braids were fading as a hairstyle in 2011, I noticed that many of the Latino teenage boys in Paterson were getting tattoos of their mother’s, sister’s and daughter’s names on their forearms. I thought that the solar plate process was perfect [for depicting these tattoos] in that the technique has similarities to the technique of tattooing, where an image is etched and inked into skin and in the case of solar plate, where the image is etched onto a printing plate, inked and printed onto paper.
In your work, there seems to be quite a bit of play with medium. For example, you used silk screens to depict Paterson, NJ, “the silk city,” etching to depict tattooed skin. What’s the process of choosing a medium for you?
Aesthetics, process, materials and actions are all important components in the making of any series. The silkscreen CMYK print series titled, “Alone Together” was the perfect medium to document Paterson, a production center for silk during the Industrial Revolution, as Paterson today is still called “Silk City.” Paterson is the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution.
For me, the labor of the art-making process is as important and significant as the artwork itself. In a CMYK silkscreen print, four separate layers of colors create the composite image. The CMYK silkscreen print series of Paterson is also a reference to the layers of history and the labor that went into building this historic American city. The title, “Alone Together,” is borrowed from the album title by singer/songwriter, Dave Mason, which is one of my all-time favorite albums. I still can’t believe that this beautifully written and melancholic collection of love songs was written and performed by a 24-year-old. I sometimes listen to World in Changes in repeat for hours at a time as I paint. My CMYK silkscreen print series of Paterson is a love story to the city that has brought me so much hope, pain and joy. I love this city that doesn’t always love me back.
With “The Dreamtime,” I felt that the visual effect and power of the series had to be painted in such a way that would highlight the detailed labor of the cornrow hair braid pattern designs. I felt that a high level of “naturalism” was necessary to accurately convey not only hair, but also the labor that made each cornrow hair braided pattern. When I look at “The Dreamtime” paintings, I clearly see and recall each brushstroke as a record to the time, memories and labor that took me to paint each of these paintings.
Many of your works look to crafts like weaving, crocheting, braiding, and quilting, and yet much of your work is made from the materials of “fine” art. What attracts you to craft processes, and what separates your processes of crafting (like crocheting) from your art-making? What brings them together?
I have always loved all craft forms from around the world. After graduate school, I took 3 courses at a local college in the Fiber Arts and Textile Department to try to put together portfolio as a textile artist, which I did for 8 years. So I have always had a great interest in textiles and fiber arts, which are often categorized “crafts.”
I think nowadays the distinction between “fine art” and “craft” is blurred. I have come to learn of many craft artists whose works I very much consider fine arts, despite being presented as crafts: Elena Rosenberg, a wearable fiber artist; Zoya Gutina, a beaded jewelry artist and Carol Barton, a book artist. I feel very fortunate to have met all three of these artists and in loving their art, been able to collect it.
With so many of your works documenting the body, there seems to be an interesting tension between your role as an observer and a participant. On one level, you see something so interesting in things that other people find quotidian (like cornrows). And of course, there is a type of social separation between you and your subjects. At the same time, you are depicting the images you draw from your community and your works, especially “The Dreamtime,” are almost collaborations: showcasing the everyday “crafts” you observe. How do you conceive of your role as an artist? Are you a documenter, a translator?
As a visual artist, I feel that it is my job to be a “Visual Artist”: to present, re-present and re-contextualize that visual matter in a new way. I have always felt that anything that could be interesting, like nature, could easily be found in the everyday. I’d like to think that through my chosen medium, I also transform that which may be considered quotidian. For example, I don’t think “The Dreamtime” series would have been as interesting as a pure photographic series. The sheer fascination of this series is in the diverse array of cornrow hair braid styles that I was able to document on real teenagers that I knew, combined with their reinterpretation and transformation into highly detailed paintings.
When one photographs another human being, it is collaboration. When one allows his or her picture to be taken, trust is given to the person who is taking the picture. My works are not pure documentation because, with “The Dreamtime” and “My Mother’s Name” series, there was quite a bit of artistic intervention, not only in the choice of medium and presentation, but because the actual photo documentation involved my posing and staging heads and hand positions in several different ‘unnatural’ positions as I visualized composition for future use. I never thought of an artist as being a translator, but I think that word describes what an artist essentially does. I “translate” what I see and re-present what I see as accurately and as truthfully as I can, but through the lens of my particular interests and sum total conceptual, aesthetic choices and decisions.
Has the overwhelming response to The Dreamtime changed your view of how they work as artworks? If so, has the response to this project helped you learn more about your goals or viewpoints as an artist/maker/creator?
The response to “The Dreamtime” made me realize that I can make art that interests and reaches a diverse, worldwide audience. Ten or twenty years ago, my dream (in terms of exposure) was to be picked up and/or to be affiliated with a “blue-chip” New York City gallery. Today, I am living out an even better dream scenario, one that was not a reality 10-20 years ago when we were not living in a globally internet-connected world. Even having been asked to do this interview was the result of you, Julia…stumbling across my work online. How amazing is that!
To me, The Dreamtime is a political work. When I was growing up in New Jersey, Paterson was painted as a scary place. “The Dreamtime” and “My Mother’s Name” depict signs that are often associated with a particular community and class, a social class that is often marginalized and ignored. I have never taken the time to observe the hair of people when I walked or drove around New Jersey, and your works have definitely been a revelation in showcasing that beauty. There are so many ironies in this work: the association of these beautiful, skilled and intricate braiding patterns with a “rough” lifestyle, and the irony of needed to see these hairstyles within the context of fine art before realizing their beauty. Can you talk about this a bit?
My father used to make house calls at all hours, all over Paterson when he worked as a Physician and sometimes I would follow him. I never grew up being fearful of Paterson.
This past summer, I was at a stop sign in Paterson that was taking forever to turn green. For some reason, I turned back to look at a street corner and saw 3 young African American males with the biggest smiles on their faces staring straight at me. As I looked closer at all their faces from afar, I realized that they were all former students from all different years. I rolled down my window to wave. One of the former students yelled out, “Yo, Ms. Lym, we spotted you! We spotted you!” I wanted to quickly snap a photo of them as a souvenir, but the lights had changed and I didn’t have my camera ready. Their smiles stayed on, as I had to drive on. I can’t begin to describe how special this memory is for me.
How do you think your works shape the way people view Paterson as a city? Do you have specific goals for your works in shaping people’s view of Paterson?
As a Visual Artist, I want to bring forth and share that which I, myself find interest in and appreciate. The reality is that I can only do my work and hope that people will be interested in and understand what I am trying to accomplish through my art. I think that, this is not unlike being in any type of relationship. You have goals and hopes in shaping how the other thinks and feels, but the reality is that you have no idea of what the other thinks or feels until they tell you directly and you have no idea of how you may have shaped or changed how others think or feel until they share their thought and feelings with you.
Has being an art educator affected your work as an artist or your perceptions of art’s purpose?
Ten years ago, en route to a 7:30 am class, my car did a 380Â° donut spin on a bridge entering Paterson. As I lost control of my car, I momentarily thought that I might die. I didn’t hit the bridge or any other car, so I continued very slowly to work, my heart was pounding from the sheer terror of the memory of my perceived near death experience.
The only student who came to class that first period was a junior level art student, who was also my art student the previous year. This student was diligently working on a two-month tissue paper, stained glass paper cutting project. He didn’t like it when I hovered over his work or monitored his progress, so I allowed him to work independently. That morning, I asked him to hold up his project so that I could see his progress from afar.
I saw the Christmas tree that I knew he was working on, but I also saw that atop the tree he had recently added an angel figurine holding a note card that he had cut a design into that read, “To Ms. Lym.” This particular memory makes me so happy as does my memory of this student, because I came to see him not just as a student, but also as the very thoughtful and sensitive person that he was to have had me in his thoughts through an art project. Memories such as this make me realize that through art, we are able to share moments of deep connection in our seemingly disparate lives.
You said that your website shall be the main viewing venue for your work, rather than work directly with a gallery. What is your reason for doing this?
Being affiliated with a gallery is like having a parental figure, which is something that I’m not sure that I want at this point in my life as an artist. I want to be able to choose whom I work with and how I present my artwork without having to defer to some other entity. Finding the right gallery to nurture and promote your work as is not easy to find as an “older” artist. I have also never cared for the 50/50 percent share that traditionally is the understood agreement for sales when affiliated with a gallery. Ung No Lee was never gallery affiliated throughout his life as an artist, but he lives on in name, many years after his death, as one of Korea’s most respected contemporary painters.
Since I am not affiliated with a gallery and I am not always able to find exhibition venues, I told my graphic designers at Everything Studio based in NYC, who designed and maintain my website, that I want my website to be my main art “exhibition” venue. I know other artists feel it’s of utmost importance to see works in person in a gallery or museum, but I am of a different mindset. For me, it is a bonus to see artwork up close and in person, but I love to look at artwork in printed form as well as online and in the comfort of my own time and space.
Lastly, you’ve been doing many interviews as a result of The Dreamtime’s success. Are there any misconceptions about your work that you would like to clear up? Anything that no one has asked yet that you’d like to share?
The most rewarding aspect of having painted “The Dreamtime” series are the many people from literally all over the world who have reached out to contact me and tell me that they appreciate my artwork.
– To learn more about So Yoon Lym and see more of her work, visit www.soyoonlym.com.-
James, Acrylic on Paper, 22″ x 30″, 2010
My Sister’s Name, Solar Plate Etching on Paper, 5″ x 7″ on 11.25″ x 15″ Paper, 2012
Alone Together II: Black & Blue, Two Color Silkscreen Print, 8″ x 10.5” on 11.25″ x 15″ Paper, 2011
My Mother’s Name II, Solar Plate Etching on Paper, 5″ x 7″ on 11.25″ x 15″ Paper, 2012
Alone Together III, Four Color Silkscreen Print, 8″ x 10.5” on 11.25″ x 15″ Paper, 2011
My Mother’s Name, Solar Plate Etching on Paper, 5″ x 7″ on 11.25″ x 15″ Paper, 2012
Jose, Acrylic on Paper, 22″ x 30″, 2009
Alone Together I, Four Color Silkscreen Print, 8″ x 10.5” on 11.25″ x 15″ Paper, 2011
Jhonathan, Acrylic on Paper, 22″ x 30″, 2010