Baltimore, MD. April, 2023
Heejo Kim is 2023 graduate of MICA, receiving her MFA from the Hoffberger School of Painting. Heejo’s paintings investigate human relationships, loneliness, and interactions with interior spaces. Heejo came to Baltimore from Seol, South Korea, and here she talks about the invigorating and sometimes isolating experiences of moving to a new country for the first time as well as the unexpected draw of Baltimore. You can see Heejo’s paintings at Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore in the exhibition Summer ’23, that opens July 13.
The artists in this interview exchanged studio visits in April of 2023. Heejo Kim and Julia Gould both currently lives and work in Baltimore, Maryland and both are interested in using the figure, color, and light as visual investigations into their own personal experiences. You can read Julia’s interview, conducted by Heejo, here.
So Heejo, thank you for having me over at your studio. Could you tell me a little bit about how your experiences growing up brought you here to the MICA Hoffberger school?
HEEJO: I was born and raised in Seoul, the capital city in South Korea. I started to paint when I was in elementary school, maybe around eight years old. And gradually… I don’t know, I was so obsessed with painting, especially oil paintings. So I asked my mom to let me go to arts middle school but my parents refused me saying, “You can’t survive there.” In our family there are no artists, we all are like technicians or someone who studies in law and something that, not in the art field at all. So my parents couldn’t understand anything about the life of artists and didn’t want me to discover an unknown field alone. So they didn’t want me to go there but I insisted, so I got into art middle school and art high school and gradually went to art university in Korea. The university name is Hongik University. I graduated from the painting program there and then right after my graduation, my father pushed me to go to grad school because he knew that I wasn’t going to do anything after my graduation, I just wanted to paint. So I went to grad school, the same university, Hongik University but with the MFA program. I was there for a year, but it felt so weird at the time because I realized that I couldn’t fit into Korean society. I don’t know why I felt that way, but maybe because Korea still has some patriarchal feelings. All the people that I’ve met, what they’re saying sound like, “You’re a girl. You can’t do it this way. ” I literally heard someone saying, “You are so different from other girls in a bad way. I was thinking, “Oh. Okay.” I was so tired. I just wanted to stay somewhere to start my life again. So I withdrew from that grad school, but then COVID hit. So I stayed there for more than two years without going to another grad school. But I worked as an art instructor there. It was really good for me, I met a lot of students and we had a good connection together, but somehow I heard a voice from inside of me telling me this is not right. I think I had depression a little bit and a lot of my best friends also struggled with mental illness. Seeing them and myself, I felt, “Yeah. Okay. This could be a time to experience something more or something new that may change my perspective.” So I decided to come to the U.S and I applied to some schools.
I came to MICA, in Baltimore around two years ago, 2021. It was really crazy at that time, honestly. It was my first time moving out from my family, especially moving out of the country. Everything was so new and I couldn’t hang out with my friends that much because of my culture difference or language barrier like that. So I kind of struggled a lot at that time.
J: Your answer also raises another question. You talked about issues of gender, your experiences in Korea, and the feeling that your paintings weren’t reflecting you. I’m wondering how the almost genderless forms of your characters play into that?
H:Yes, I recently finished my thesis paper and in it I addressed gender issues. I want to talk about gender fluidity in Korea vs what is happening here in the U.S. In Korea, we don’t have that much knowledge about gender. We consider only biased gender thoughts such as female and male, that means Korean society is not open to other gender types. Of course, there are some movements trying to open it more, but it’s still not great. I was shocked at seeing so many different types of genders and how many people can choose their gender preferences when I came here for school because I had never experienced that before. After experiencing all of this, I started to focus on myself – What my gender is, how I feel, sometimes I feel like I’m female, but also I don’t want to be female. I don’t know, learning about myself is not easy for me!
When I learned about gender fluidity and I thought maybe this speaks to me, but I’m still trying to figure it out. In my work I’m talking about gender fluidity but also it kind of relates with Buddhism theory (but I’m pretty close to an atheist). So there’s the Buddhist belief that my father used to tell me, Its name is Dependent Arising, but in Korea we call it Inyeon-sull, Yeongi-sull. So, this means we deny the reality of the self but offer proof of ones existence through interacting with others and surrounding objects. So I was thinking maybe I am refusing the reality of myself and trying to figure out my existence by the surrounding things and people around me. So with these two concepts, I’ve developed my figures in the paintings in a kind of a genderless way.
J: I think that talks about a tension between the intimacy and the distance between the figures, when they appear in pairs. Even though they’re together, many of your paintings do feel very lonely. And some of them feel very affectionate, so they also seem to be about love. So, can I steal your question from yesterday And ask you how you’re defining it for yourself and how it’s impacting your narratives?
H: Well, to be honest, I didn’t realize that I’m talking about love through my paintings, but I recently noticed that I’m talking about tenderness. Intimacy between figures or with all kinds of relationships. It’s really difficult for me to figure out how to understand fully because love has so many different types. I also don’t feel like I’ve experienced that much to understand all different types of love. So I mostly just focus on tenderness, like how we care about others.
I read about Fragments of Love Discourse by Roland Barthes. And he talks about tenderness is a metonymy of love and that’s because tenderness is trying not to seize anything right away compared to sexual love, and tenderness exists everywhere and permanently exists and it inspires me a lot because I feel like all of my love styles are also really close to tenderness, this kind of love. But after thinking about this, I realized that my love is only one type of love. You know what I’m saying? I believe tenderness also comes from just staying next to the person without saying anything. Just stay next to the person and spend time together without any questions, no conversation. Just staying next to that person is also showing your affection. So I guess that’s why I paint my figures in that way. They’re all staying together but they’re not directly touching each other.
J: Yeah, you’re talking a lot about comfort and feeling at ease- and that being the kind of environment that you’re describing in your work. I’m thinking about your painting titled, “Since I am Greedy I Made Three Wishes Last Night “And I was immediately struck by the title. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the spaces in your work?
H: I’m rendering a space in my painting for my figures and also a part for me. I just wanted to put my figures in interior spaces, so that they can stay there and spend their own time. For my thesis paper, I describe this space as a dreamy memory space, maybe because I paint from my imagination or memories. Sometimes I feel some disconnection between memories and some moments in real life. So I paint that moment, put my figures in there and try to add more tenderness in it so that they can change that moment to be more comfortable moments. Does that make sense? So that the memory of my memories changed to their memory to be more comfortable and more loving!
J: Do you think of your works as portraiture, as depictions or capturing a moment or more so about fantasy or longing?
H: Wow. That’s a great question. Well, last year I thought all of my figures really looked like me. I could project myself onto my figures a lot, but recently I feel they could be me or not. They could be others or they could be someone else or my friends. Maybe because I don’t paint specific features on the figures, especially the face part, I only paint noses or ears.
One of my classmates told me maybe I’m painting a Utopian place for the figures. I kind of agree with that, but also not because there are some clear, sharp movements in my paintings. Especially with the car piece, I paint that car window in a really clean way. So I was thinking that a clean, sharp way to paint the window could be like showing in between spaces, reality or Utopian places like that.
J: Do you make paintings about things that you want for the future or are these more about the past?
H: I guess I’m not trying to fix that moment. I feel I’m trying to add more in that moment so that the moment can be read as a different narrative especially with the table piece, the cup on the table, there was a moment that from my memory that I had a huge argument with my father and that memory just intertwined with some guiltiness or loneliness that I can’t communicate even with my family or mixed with a lot of feelings in it. But by putting some rainbow reflections on the table coming through the cup, I tried to switch that moment to something more mystical and so that the painting doesn’t look just like loneliness or such heavy feelings. So that with these reflection elements, the painting can be read in a different narrative way.
J: When I was looking at your website, I could see a shift – from working with your monochromatic palette. How do you decide on your colors and how they interact with the spaces now?
H: I guess I decide colors based on feelings. Feelings could be from that memory or the feelings from that day that I paint. My first year at MICA was my fist time painting figures in oil – my paintings look so depressing and everyone said, “These desaturated colors are so sad.” And also I was focusing on the concept of misfit because I was thinking about myself and my friends in Korea. I naturally like to build up myself, my body of work as if all my figures are misfits and try to figure out how the misfits can live in my paintings. But after my first semester final critique, I realized that my paintings are not talking about me that much. I realized I’m just focusing on sad and lonely people but they don’t look like me at all. Likewise, I couldn’t find a strong connection with my paintings. Noticing this issue, I decided to change my paintings, which they look more like now, trying to use a lot of colors and rendering my own figures and style completely. After painting in this way, finally all the figures move out from the landscape and move into a city like or domestic/interior spaces. And I feel more comfortable painting them right now, as I am able to render paintings relating to my personal stories. Now I also I really like using saturated colors, but they don’t mix well. I Like putting complementary colors together… sometimes they don’t make sense at all, but somehow they make sense to me- this is my purpose, that these weird unusual colors can be unified into emitting one ambience. Also, colors are suggesting light and shadow in my work. All the small drawings or my paintings from the first semester in the program were painted with desaturated, cold, or dark colors, but like what I said before, I feel more comfortable and can project myself more with my recent paintings. I don’t know the specific reason, but I figured that using dark, desaturated colors would push the viewer to feel the same sad, forlorn feelings I had when I was painting. And I didn’t want to do that anymore, I wanted to open them up more so the viewers can feel different things from my by changing the color palette. I believe that is what paintings need to do. Paintings can be interpreted in different ways and that is what I hope my color’s doing now. Trying to not show the feelings directly, but things are there for viewers to find and discover.
J: How do you decide when your oil paintings are finished?
H: I thought that you were going to ask me that! Well, normally I have some image of the finished piece in my head while I’m working with a painting. So sometimes I try to follow that image, but sometimes unexpected things happen. I think this is an exciting moment to change the plan and see how it goes. In school I have also asked my friends and peers for their advice.
J: You’re talking about your friends and how they influence your paintings. How do you keep and maintain or create an artistic community for yourself? Is this something you prioritize?
H: That’s a really good question, but also a really difficult question for me. Well, I believe community is really important as an artist or someone who is in the art field because sometimes painting alone makes me feel stuck somewhere. Sometimes my one sided thoughts and everything blocks me and hinders me from pursuing it, but having a good community helps me to open up more, giving me really unexpected opinions so that I can start to consider different tracks.
I think this is also a double-edged sword. Sometimes when I listen to many peoples’ different opinions, everything feels overwhelming and eventually I feel lost. So I am just trying to select some good things so that I can absorb well and then develop my own confidence and opinion of my own work. Thinking of my classmates, we are really supportive, love and respect each other and that always helps me. They always motivate me to paint. I know this sounds really corny but I have learned a lot from them.
And so I really want to continue to keep this community, but we are going to graduate soon and there are some students who have already planned to move, going back to their hometown or moving to different states or going back to their countries. Hearing all of this, all of their plans, made me pretty sad at the time. But I’m kind of also excited thinking that I can have different types of community, that I can have more chances, that I can be an artist. So also my professor says, “This is not your ending. This is like your opening chapter. So after your graduation you can do whatever you want” So I’m trying to be more flexible, but I’m a person who is really introverted and pretty stubborn and really shy to talk with strangers, but I believe that attitude is really good for being an artist too. Because while I was in Korea, I couldn’t honestly appreciate different types of paintings. It was hard for me to understand and appreciate differences in the art field such as abstract paintings or illustrations, like cartoony style paintings at that time,but I feel like I have matured and opened up more and now I can interpret and interact with more paintings, especially different experimental paintings.
J: What are your next steps? You just graduated, what are your immediate plans, future plans or what are you looking forward to right now outside of the community, like you mentioned?
H: I briefly talked about this to you yesterday when we first met- I’m trying to get my visa, an OPT visa, then I can stay here for at least a year with a job which needs to be in the art field. So I just finished the application yesterday and I’m waiting for their approval. So if I can stay here, I want to have some experiences of residences because I’ve never had such things and I want to develop the subjects in my paintings since I’ve been experimenting by putting many textures in recently. And also if I can get it, If I can have a chance to stay in Baltimore especially, I don’t know why, but I really like Baltimore, I want to expand my community. I already have a small but amazing community here thanks to my school, but I want to expand it more, so that I can actively communicate with other artists and then learn from them or develop my work like that. I would like to get a studio or move to two bedrooms, so that I can use one room as my studio so I can keep painting and hopefully if that’s possible, then I want to have more exhibition opportunities too! But the one thing that I’m pretty sure is I’m just going to keep painting!