Meet Artist Sunjae Lee
Sunjae Lee (@eugenesunjae) was born in Boston, MA, trained in Portland, OR, is currently based out of Seoul, Korea and specializes in traditional Asian brush watercolor paintings.
Interviewer Mark Gelband (@markgelband) is Ello’s Chief Marketing Officer, an expert in container home construction, a long-time writer, and a local everywhere he goes.
On your website, you have the fermata symbol in classic Sumi-E — Japanese Brushstroke — style. you state: a fermata is a musical notation symbol that tells the musician to hold a note or a pause for an indefinite amount of time. In this modern world, full of definitions, distractions, and noise, fermata allows us the space to breathe and grow. How has your art practice grown from Sumi-E and this notion of fermata?
It all started from calligraphy classes, an elective in the course of study of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine in Portland, OR. I was drawn to the starkness and simplicity of the brushstrokes. Then it was a natural transition to traditional Oriental painting, and I started with the "four gentlemen"-- bamboo, chrysanthemum, orchid, and plum blossom (although in truth I only got comfortable with 3 out of 4). I was struck by how in this style of painting, so much could be expressed by so little, and how oftentimes the empty space was the most important part of the painting. About a year into it, when I felt the need to brand myself, I retrospectively chose Fermata, which I felt was the musical analog to the visual aesthetic I was pursuing.
You have a diverse background of music, martial arts, and science. How do these intermingle in work — art and as a holistic health practitioner?
I found the core principles always boiled down to the same things; especially in the learning process. So it was relatively easy to teach myself painting after spending the time doing both martial arts (Taekwondo) and music (Jazz saxophone), about 15 years each- ultimately it always came down to the balance between interior and exterior, process vs. product. There is always a cycle between the two, and learning where one stands on the spectrum, and how to push towards one end or the other when necessary seems crucial. The tendency that I have (and I think we all do) is always to be more exterior, product oriented, and I found that trying the opposite approach generally yields better results in the long run.
As an example, during the learning process as a painter- let's say you're trying to learn how to paint bamboo. There's a version on the page of the book you're learning from, then there's an idealized version in your head, and then there's what you put on paper. The product oriented approach tells you to focus on what is on the paper, and if it turns out badly, then you fail and stop. The process oriented approach tells you to compare your painting to the idealized versions, find the differences, paint another version, and repeat. This is the exact principle that I was taught in my time doing Taekwondo; we would see an idealized version of a kick performed by a blackbelt and just gradually refine our awkward, gangly kicks over ten years until ours became like theirs. So I just found that the act of acquiring vocabulary and synthesizing it effectively in any practice was that of repetition, using your failed iterations as stepping stones rather than obstacles.
You were raised in Boston in what seems like more of an academic, classic western upbringing, and have for 10 years been practicing in Seoul. How does being a US expat practicing in your family's native home impact your work and ideas?
It's been a pretty winding and circular path, starting with my parents leaving Korea to go to Boston over 40 years ago, and then my growing up in Boston without the slightest interest in anything related to my roots, to suddenly discovering an unstoppable curiosity in all things Korean, to falling in love with Korea's traditional side during visits (including my Korean wife), to finally moving here and yet settling into a decidedly Western part of Seoul where my job involves managing a sports medicine clinic where I interact with mostly people from the States.
The most recent impulse that brought me here was that I needed to run away from Western society and reclaim my roots, as they say. I figured that when I moved to Korea, I would absorb the Korean language by osmosis instantly, attend family gatherings, take part in ancient shamanic rituals, etc etc. That happened to some extent, but maybe around 5% of what I had expected. What I found when I came to Seoul was the Korea of the present day, which is itself incredibly Westernized. To be connected to your roots here, even as a Korean, is sadly rare, but I do feel that there is a certain baseline reverence for it that I didn't feel back in the States.
I think my paintings reflect this same amalgam of traditional roots vs. Western modernization as well. I've learned a tiny bit of the traditional technique (the people who have really studied traditional painting generally spurn my work as laughably amateur and without proper foundation), but I prefer not to stick to the traditional approach, and try and incorporate any new visual motifs I see either in other modern artists work or in nature, regardless of whether it fits the traditional themes or not.
There's a certain playfulness of color and composition in the Bubba the Fish paintings. Can you talk about where that comes from?
When I was studying acupuncture, I had a roommate who had a huge 20-pound orange cat named Bubba (may he rest in peace). He was an ornery old cat that had meowed so fiercely at other cats in his youth that by the time I met him he was only able to squawk out hoarse throat-clearing noises at us. For this and many other reasons, I loved him, and at the time I was both painting fish and was also taken by orange as a color in general.
Thus was born the "Bubba the fish" series, where I used a single orange fish alongside a school of black or blue fish in various shapes to portray whatever events or feelings were going on in my life at the moment, using Bubba as my proxy. My art titling was mostly influenced by an artist named Chris Chou in Boston, who would have whimsically specific and mundane titles alongside abstract paintings. Some previous Bubba titles have included: "Bubba the fish moves to Korea and leaves all his friends behind". "Bubba the fish wonders about the possibility of World War III erupting on his doorstep". "Bubba the fish enters the real world and realizes it's harder than he expected it to be".
I believe that artists should always try to portray something relevant either in their lives or something in society at large. I imagine a time when the profession of artists was more revered, as they might have been one of the main conduits for people have a greater emotional or spiritual experience upon receiving the art. I know this is definitely the case now for some famous artists, but by and large, especially with the institutionalization of art, I think that the connection of artists with society is mostly severed- society doesn't support artists, and artists respond by creating art that is disconnected from society.
In any case, I don't mean to be so long-winded; just trying to say that Bubba is part of my effort for self-expression, especially because the title format allows me to fit a lot of information into a run on sentence.
It's as though you've taken some of the whimsical formality of Sumi-E and melded a hodgepodge of technique, cultures, practices, and influences. Can you talk about some influences that have not been mentioned or what those mean to you in your artwork?
I think the main one that I haven't expanded upon yet is that of my jazz background; I've played jazz saxophone for most of my life and out of the various pursuits I've had, it's closest to my heart, probably because of how long I've been doing it compared to other things. Jazz is about improvisation; taking a few principles and then running with it, stretching them to the limits until they become ugly, and then coming back into the boundaries. My harmonic approach in music is to always strive for that spot- right in between the ugliness and the beauty because I think that's where the most interesting things happen.
This is mostly about rules; I forget who said it, but some big jazz guy said something like, first you learn the rules, and then you learn how to break the rules. That is definitely one of the guiding principles behind my paintings as well; I love learning the rules and then breaking them, rebuilding them and finding the spot between technique and abstraction.
Oh, and of course-- my profession is that of a Natural Medicine doctor (I'm a Naturopath and Oriental Medicine Practitioner), so there are plenty of principles from Eastern philosophy that seep into the paintings as well, such as the 5 movements, yin-yang, etc. But to be honest, I think it is a secondary influence on my paintings compared to my jazz training.
You were an early adopter of Ello. Can you mention a few things you like about the Ello creative community and how you see differences from other, more mainstream platforms?
Ello has been very kind to me and I am very blown away by the support here, which has been unlike that of any other platform. I attribute that to the fact that it feels like nearly everyone here is an artist or appreciator of art! That is not something that I think any other social media platform can come close to claiming. The minimalist social framework and focus on content I think weeds out those who are only interested in social hierarchy, while the layout attracts artists who are pleased with the large and flattering displays of their work. I hope Ello continues to thrive, not only among artists but everyone else as well!