Steph Rue and Dave Young Kim met through mutual friends, years ago in the (San Francisco) Bay Area. Both are Korean American artists and immediately bonded through their shared commonalities. The way Steph explains it, both were doing parallel things, but their work is strongly centered on their Korean heritage.
She makes hanji, Korean handmade paper, which is woven from the inner bark of the mulberry tree. Steph also makes bojagi, a traditional Korean wrapping cloth, which can be decorative or used for carrying or storing objects.
Dave’s work includes paintings, murals, mixed media and sculpture. He is inspired by family stories, personal experiences and cultural history.
Both are committed to social justice and are trying to teach and model their beliefs to their young children. After George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent protests and rallies last summer, Steph noticed a lot of Instagram activism among other artists. She was inspired to act, but wasn’t sure what she could do from her home with two young children. Then she ran across a fundraiser organized by Japanese Americans for Justice, and donated some of her own art work towards that. She began searching for similar Korean American-led efforts run but didn’t find any.
So she reached out to Dave— the only other Korean American artist she knew. Together, they developed a network of Korean American artists, leading to the Korean American Artist Collective. They raised $10,000 through an online art auction benefitting organizations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Last fall, they raised another $10,000 to support voting rights efforts.
When the a shooting spree in Atlanta took the lives of six Asian women this past March, Steph and Dave’s reactions were strong. Four of the eight who were murdered were Korean women. From that, grew Jeong: A Portfolio by and for Korean American Women. It features work by 23 Korean American artists and writers. The crowd-funded community project and fundraiser will benefit organizations AAPI women and families.
Difficult to translate, into English, “Jeong” (pronounced chong) is described as “feeling, love, sentiment, passion, human nature, sympathy, heart.”
Dave says conceptualizing this project was a journey.
“In line with our emotions, we came up with the theme of Han first, which was anger. Which was easy. Hard to translate but it’s almost the opposite of Jeong. It’s that passionate and emotional state, specific to the Korean culture.
Then we decided it was not about anger, but really about bringing people together. We thought about including all genders. But then landed on it being for women by women. That made more sense in the end, as well, because of the specifics of the event,” he says.
They also tried to include as many Korean voices as possible — Korean, Korean American, trans, adoptee and biracial.
“We’re constantly thinking about what it means to be Korean American, so we wanted to be very inclusive and trying to reflect the diaspora as much as possible. I think we’re constantly being surprised by what the diaspora encompasses. I think we all have our own notions. For me, I was born and raised in L.A., so being Korean American to me is very specific. It looks a lot like me. When in reality, my mom is Korean American, but I never thought of her as that. Also to think about gender issues and being inclusive that way as well.”
Steph hopes the project has provided an outlet for participating artists and others to express their own grief and anger.
“In the midst of suffering and processing pain and fear and all of that, I think it’s been amazing to see AAPI organizations rising up and artists too. At the same time, it puts a lot of pressure on Asian Americans who aren’t in a space to make things. They just need time to grieve or just need space,” Steph says.
Steph and Dave spoke with Snapdragon about their art and the Korean American Artist Collective and its role in their own healing and social justice efforts.
Learn more about the Korean American Artist Collective here.
Steph: From a young age, I was always drawn to the arts and creative expression. I used to play the oboe and piano. I always loved doing art work. The thing about playing the oboe that I always enjoyed was making reeds, which was kind of like a craft form itself. Carving these reeds, being very precise and using tools.
I went to Stanford after high school, not doing anything art-related. After college, I ended up being an editor in San Francisco. We got to take a class every semester, so I started taking printmaking and book arts and got more and more into it. Eventually I decided to go to grad school at the University of Iowa in 2011. I was, like 30-years-old at the time. It’s one of those fields that I feel like people discover later in life. It’s not like painting. It’s kind of an eclectic, inter-disciplinary field, but I felt like I fit right in. It was sort of like I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life kind of thing.
Dave: I was hyperactive. I had ADHD as a child. I think my mom tried to mitigate that by putting me in every activity possible. I was physically uncoordinated, so sports never worked. Was not musically inclined. So art was something that worked for her because it kept me occupied and something that I clung to. It was just something I was constantly doing my entire life. Through different phases of life, my interest waned just because I was getting into trouble in high school or partying too hard in college. But I did my B.A. at UC-Davis and then I did my MFA at Mills College at Oakland.
Art Guided and Shaped by Korean Culture
Both Dave and Steph were born in the U.S. after their parents’ migration from Korea. Steph’s family settled in the midwest, while Dave’s family was drawn to the west coast.
Dave discusses Korean migration to the U.S. and how Korean history and his parents’ memory of Korea shaped his own personal and artistic journey.
Dave: “A lot of Koreans immigrated to the U.S. because of the relationship with the U.S. during the Korean War, which resulted also in huge amounts of adoptees. The mass migration of Korean Americans to this country is more recent — 60’s and 70’s, and most resettled on the West and East coasts. My parents immigrated here. I was born in this country. There’s a whole group of Korean Americans around my parents’ age who spent most of their lives in Korea, then created culture in this country. Whereas, people in my generation, grew up more American.
One interesting thing that I realized later in my life — when my parents immigrated over, they brought with them a frozen culture. They brought with them Korea from the 70’s. That’s what I grew up with, a very conservative Korea. So imagine me going back to Korea, and I think of Korea as being a very conservative country and try to engage with it that way, but it’s not quite working, because that’s not what it is.
Korea is a very modern country that’s kind of distancing itself from its history. Myself and a lot of Korean Americans that I talk to, especially the ones who were born here, we’re constantly looking back to Korea, constantly looking backwards into the history because we’re trying to find identity, and we think it’s embedded somewhere in that history — somewhere in that culture. A lot of my work is all about that history, actually.
It’s funny, because I went to Korea, met some Korean artists, and then came back home and on Facebook, I posted a painting I did of traditional Korean New Year’s, because that’s what was meaningful to me because it was meaningful to my mom. Then someone responded and was like, ‘that’s actually not how we celebrate New Year’s right now in Korea.’
People don’t wear hanboks (traditional Korean dresses) and swing on those swings and see saw. It’s very modernized. It was a learning experience, but it was interesting. It further illustrates the difference between Koreans in Korea and Korean Americans.”
Steph returned to Korea through a Fulbright scholarship to study traditional Korean book art. While there, she also discovered the art of bojagi. Bojagi is a wrapping cloth used to carry things. It encapsulates the idea of giving, compassion and community, Steph says. It’s why art sold through the Jeong project is wrapped in bojagi.
Steph: “I visited a lot of museums, and I happened to come across the national folk museum. There was a big bojagi on display, and I just fell in love with it. It was a very humble, simple piece. The description talked about this concept of jeong, which was kind of like my first encounter with this idea of what jeong is. It was kind of a clumsy translation because I think jeong is just hard to translate (into English).
I was really taken by this caption and by the piece itself. I had all this paper from the paper mill that I was studying at. I had this huge stack of hanji, and I wanted to learn how to make bojagi myself, and eventually I wanted to make it out of paper. So I sought out a bojagi teacher in Seoul and started taking lessons with her.
When I came back to the States, that’s when I started to make them out of my own hanji. The ones I make are not practical or used as they are traditionally used. The ones that I make are more decorative, wall or window hanging type pieces. I just really was drawn to the process. It’s a very slow, methodical process that mirrored what I was attracted to with bookbinding and paper-making to begin with. When I was in Korea through the Fulbright, I was there with my husband, and I was pregnant with my first child. I don’t know why, maybe subconsciously I was feeling this need to do something more domestic. It has been actually very peaceful. It’s one of those art forms that you can pick up or put down. You don’t need a ton of equipment or space. I feel like it’s very conducive to early motherhood as an art form.”
The Connection Between Art and Healing
Steph: “I’d say right now the way that art-making has been healing for me has been just in allowing me to be present with what I’m doing and making with my hands. In the midst of my current life stage, and not really having time to make a lot of art or to think about art, I think it’s in those moments that I’m able to focus and engage in the process that I’m able to look at, and kind of just sit with myself and have that space for myself.
Dave: “I have a disorder, ADHD. I ignored it my whole life because I could sort of mediate it with art, so in a very actual, practical sense it’s been healing for me. It’s helped me focus.
It’s also personally healing, because I’m constantly understanding my identity more bit by bit with every painting. My work is about my culture and who I am and looking at that history and hearing stories and asking my mom about her childhood or my dad. It’s the research, part of making the work. I’m constantly growing and becoming closer to what I ultimately want to be.
Art and healing through KAAC
Steph: “This was the first project where it was for ourselves (the AAPI community)
I really wanted to kind of make a space for people within our own community, giving artists a chance to address all this stuff going on, or that has been going on in the last year with AAPI hate crimes and Atlanta.
Just for myself, knowing, that the act of making requires a lot of reflection. It requires a lot of time to make something. I felt like it was important to give that to artists in our own community. It’s been real exciting to see the support for, not only the organizations that are doing work in the community, but also the artists.
Dave: “We had a big Meet the Artists event, a big Zoom where artists of the Jeong project talked about their work and presented their work and the whole thing was an emotional event because — just the collective sharing and hearing where work comes from and hearing their stories — it just created this moment that was very unexpected and very special. I think because we’re all Korean Americans — we all come from different places, but there’s some baseline of commonality there. It was really a palatable connection that was kind of real and healing in that space.
As parents of young children, Steph and Dave, do a lot of bargaining in order to balance their home and work responsibilities. Whether it’s bargaining for time or money, both have felt those struggles increase with the pandemic. There’s also the bargaining that comes with being working artists — bargaining for validation, money or even connection with audiences.
Steph: “As a mom, I think so many people can relate to this, especially with so many people working from home since the pandemic. I’m constantly bargaining on multiple levels in terms of feeling pulled in multiple directions and having multiple jobs and responsibilities.
In that sense, there’s a lot of bargaining within myself, I guess. I guess it’s more like balancing, trying to balance multiple responsibilities at once. The other way I could see it is in, a lot of artists, including myself, struggle with sustainability as an artist. Trying to have a career as an artist, while not trying to sell out, but still trying to pay the bills and be responsible. All of that has been on my mind a lot and very much influences my work and how I’m able to approach my work.
There’s literally bargaining with people who are hiring me to do jobs. I think that part of our whole mission for forming as an organization is seeing a need for real, actual support for artists and recognizing that our work is valuable and not something that can be exploited, taken for granted or seen as less valuable than other types of work.”
Dave: “I’m constantly bargaining with my self. I think it’s a part of the discipline it takes to commit and complete projects. This may sound counterintuitive, but painting is for the most part not enjoyable.
I think there’s and initial point when you conceive of an idea and get the details all figured and you’re looking at a mock-up, and it feels good and the potential is exciting. But then pretty much every else about the process is work, physical work, making the thing but also mental. You’re constantly battling internal challenges. For most of the journey of the painting, it doesn’t look good. It looks like a third-grader did it, then goes to a really bad painting. Then, maybe at the end when it starts to look like the initial concept, you gain your confidence back and a fifth wind kicks in that spurs you to get it done.
All during that time you’re bargaining with yourself, telling yourself if you push through this part you get rewarded lunch, or you could check your Instagram messages or get to have a snack, and ultimately you get the benefit of the work being exposed to certain favorable audience.
On top of that, in my current life situation with a wife and three kids, I’m constantly bargaining with them to find ways to make time to get in the studio and do the work.
Although I don’t make work manufactured for easy consumption, I do consider my audience. So there’s a bargaining in that I offer to the viewer a well-considered visual that is pleasing to the eye, but appeals to the human condition, sparks even the tiniest form of curiosity — something that is relatable and rooted in some sort of history that we could learn from.
In exchange, I ask that the viewer do more than consume the image and forget about it after the moment passes, but take another second to consider the piece and think about associations even with their own lives or simply ask a question.”