Speaking from Paris via Skype and a thick French accent Valerie happily declares: I sold some paintings! She shares a photo of an image with a colourful, bold style that treads a thin line joyfully lost somewhere between abstract and figurative. Participating in September’s competitive art exhibit in Paris was another golden opportunity to gain further exposure for the youthful 30-something artist rapidly finding her feet and forging a new identity at the center of the art world. Part One of a mini series featuring Korean-born adoptees forging new identities through their art in the lead-up to this weekend’s fundraising concert in Seoul by GOA’L, Valerie Won Lee talked to Julian Warmington about her art, life, and identity as a Korean-born French adoptee artist.
What role did art play for you and the formation of your identity when you were growing up?
When I tried to understand why my eyes didn’t look like the other children’s I started drawing them, to understand the shape of western eyes, and then faces. I used to love drawing Asian eyes with blue pupils; I guess it was the symbol of Eurasia, but I was too young to be aware of those meanings at the time.
Asia and specifically Korea have had an influence on my life and art. I was raised deep in the countryside of western France where I was the only Asian in my village so Asia has always been interesting. At the first opportunity when still a teenager I travelled to Korea to discover the place I left as a baby, and I made many more trips to Southeast Asia over the next sixteen years to lands and cultures that had a powerful effect on the way I think about life and art.
Although every country in Asia is different of course, I still find myself attracted to the values and ethics that Asians share.
‘I want very much to meet mothers who took the appalling decision to give up their children. Women are often at the center of my canvasses because they bear responsibility for life and many of its burdens; the impact of change and culture is often written in their faces and eyes.’
What degree of risk do you see of being labeled as that Korean adoptee artist rather than just artist?
If some choose to label me, that’s their choice of course. I hope that most people looking at my art may see it for what it is, and understand that me being an adoptee is just part of the story. I guess every art form and artwork has its potential market; for me, the themes and visions I cover with my work should have mass appeal. Certainly, I aim to connect rather than divide, and hopefully this will have its own logic in the way in which the art is appreciated. When I exhibited Les Années Folles (The Roaring Twenties) collection last year, I was asked whether I might be limited in being perceived as that Twenties artist; I think that the Asia collection shows another aspect of my art and demonstrates that labels are transitory!
Do you have any plans for an exhibit in Korea one day?
Earlier this year the Korean NGO GOA’L (Global Overseas Adoptees’ Link) approached me to mount an exhibition in Seoul provisionally entitled Motherland to address themes raised by the incredibly large number of KADs (Korean adoptees) sent abroad from the 1970s onwards. Though the exhibition is still seeking funding, I
found myself asking how the western and the Asian can, and does connect. And what did KADs take west, and what did the west give them that could be brought back? What potential was lost that could return? I coined a new term: Korean Returnee.
I want very much to meet mothers who took the appalling decision to give up their children. Women are often at the center of my canvasses because they bear responsibility for life and many of its burdens; the impact of change and culture is often written in their faces and eyes.
Though sensitive and at times painful, I believe it’s a mark of Asian fortitude that such subjects can be addressed and discussed publicly. I hope very much that GOAL will succeed in finding the necessary sponsorship to go ahead.
What have you noticed of Korean art, artists, and culture in Paris?
There appears to be two conceptions of what it means to be Korean and a Korean artist, which seems to necessarily involve projecting art that identifies with a Korean spirit. The first attitude which I have unfortunately encountered in one Korean government institution, appears to be the belief that anyone of Korean ethnicity who does not speak Korean is automatically disbarred from qualifying as a Korean artist.
The second school of thought, which I’m happy to report I’ve encountered in Korea itself, acknowledges the potential and richness of the Korean diaspora, not all of whom, of course, speak the language. I very much hope the narrow mindedness of the first group does not succeed in impeding the strength and dynamism of the second.
I have noticed some very traditional, almost untouched Korean art and it is really beautiful. I am always amazed by its detail. So far, the exhibitions of Korean art I have seen in Paris were of traditional art, sometimes it was more conservative than traditional.
I am still wondering why today, in the international era of Gangnam Style, similar forces in art are woefully underrepresented in public spaces using government money. By contrast, I find it interesting that a French government institution, the Mairie in Paris, has a very open and welcoming attitude.
Are you aware of other Korean adoptees’ art of any type? Do you have any favorites?
Yes, I have met a few Korean artists during my travels, including a great Dutch hat designer I met in South East Asia last year.
Do your paintings express your inner self, or are they more reflective of the world you see around you? How do you select your subjects?
The subjects I choose really vary. I painted Monks after meeting Burmese monks in Cambodia, and Cucumber Dance is a representation of the E-Coli story that I had just heard on the radio. As I starting preparing the canvas for another painting the radio people were speaking about killer cucumbers; it was some row between Spain and Germany. Then Womtych is a follow up of the twenties collection, as you can see; their hairstyle is more focused on the thirties style. Womtychs is a portmanteau of the words Women and Tych, the latter from the word Triptych, or set of three paintings. Interchangeable Triptychs and Tetraptychs have been this year’s revelation for me; they have been my advance towards a more developed form.
Visit Valerie Won Lee’s online gallery at: vwlart.com
Visit GOAL online at: goal.or.kr
Come and join in the GOA’L Now You Know concert this Saturday, 19th October, 22.30 until 2pm in Freedom, Hongdae, Seoul.
- 10,000 KRW cover includes a free drink
- proceeds go to G.O.A.’L to continue overseas adoptee support services
For more on the event check out the Facebook page.