Artist Jennie Jieun Lee’s story: pain, creation, and the art of survival.

We sat down with artist Jennie Jieun Lee in her awesome Brooklyn studio. To say that Jennie eats, sleeps, and breathes art would be accurate: Jennie literally lives where she creates. Amid her vast array of ceramic supplies and creations, there is a bed and a kitchen. Jenny’s career is on fire, with an upcoming show in Paris and two in New york, but it wasn’t always a happy career. In her exclusive interview with SHK, Jennie talks about her passion for art and how she overcame the obstacles that stopped her from creating.

Cosmo

“Cosmo”

SHK: SO YOU STARTED YOUR CAREER BY HELPING YOUR MOM IN YOUR ATTIC STUDIO. DID YOU ALWAYS WANT TO PURSUE ART AS A CAREER?

Jennie Jieun Lee: Um I think so. I don’t think I really had a choice because my mom was an art schoolteacher in Seoul, Korea and when we moved here, she started giving those classes in her attic. And I was her assistant right away so it was something that I was born with and I wasn’t very good in school, academically, so I was kind of a fantasy addict all the time, so I think it fit really well with that. But yeah, I almost don’t remember there being a choice, like we always made things. We weren’t allowed to buy cards for birthdays, we had to make them, and I thought it was extremely embarrassing at the time, but yeah I think art was embedded into me and my sister’s DNA very early on.

YOUR MASKS ARE AWESOME. WHAT GOT YOU STARTED WITH MAKING THEM?

Oh the masks started when, many years ago I used to be agoraphobic which is the fear of going outside, I was going through a really hard time, just dealing with life and I found that the longer I stayed inside the more grotesque and just distorted I felt when I looked in the mirror, and it made the fear of going outside, it grew, it made it greater, so it was a really scary time for me and it took a few years to get out of it. When I started making these masks that’s what I was thinking about. Like what did I see myself as and it came so easily, its kind of subconscious when I make these. I made a bunch for the gallery in Paris and another 10 for this gallery in Amagansett for a show on June 7th. So maybe like 20 in the last 2 or 3 months. I like making both the masks and vessels, I love throwing on the wheel. Because when I’m throwing on the wheel it’s like all time is lost and I don’t really have to think about anything so it’s kinda like meditation or listening to a song. It’s really nice too, I like escaping from life, so I can do it on the wheel, and also making the masks, but definitely on the wheel it’s kind of a meditation.

IF YOU HAD TO DESCRIBE YOUR ART IN THREE WORDS, WHAT WOULD THEY BE?

I guess one would be grotesque. Another would be gooey. And… third would be… heavy.

WHAT WAS THE INSPIRATION BEHIND YOUR EXHIBITION “SMILE PURGATORY” AND WHERE DO YOU DRAW INSPIRATION FROM IN GENERAL?

I was also working as a casting director for a casting company and, we were doing a casting for a large department store and each model has to get in front of the camera for about a minute and they tell the camera where they’re from and their name. They do a little, not a skit, but they walk back and forth and look at the camera. It was for a holiday commercial so it was upbeat and smiling and I found that in that one minute, they were trapped, their smile was trapped. And there was this one guy doing it that I could tell that he didn’t want to smile, but he was kinda caught, because he was there for a job, and this is what he did, that he was caught in a smile purgatory. And I thought that that had a good segway to my masks because I remember when I was stuck inside and I was looking in the mirror, there were times when I would try to give myself a face that I wasn’t, like I knew that I was really depressed but I would smile just to see if my face would do it and I think it’s very interesting when we look a different way on the outside which is a completely different way than we feel on the inside. Oh, and I draw my inspirations mostly from funny things that happen during the day, um, things that my friends say, many times, definitely difficult personal experiences from the past and the present, it could be anything from having a problem to getting on the bus to something my housemate has described, has happened in her day.

YOU CREATE ART IN A LOT OF DIFFERENT FIELDS (CERAMICS, PAINTING, AND PHOTOGRAPHY) WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE MEDIUM TO WORK IN?

I would say for right now it’s ceramics. I studied ceramics at the museum school in Boston in the 90s and, I really loved it. I started ceramics very early on when we first moved to New York from Korea, my mom brought me to a ceramics class and I actually made a mask and it broke. When I returned to doing ceramics a few years ago I was actually trying to recreate that mask. But, probably ceramics is definitely my favorite thing because for some reason it’s just really easy I think there’s something very inherent about touching the clay and grabbing and I don’t know maybe in a past life I was, some time of worker, that made little bowls or something like that. But maybe, maybe because man has always been making things since the beginning of time but , I just find it just translates my feelings and my fears and everything very easily, the ceramics, working in clay.

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