PEOPLE Magazine (Korea)
Valerie Won Lee, Ever Roving Revolutionary Artist
Valerie Won Lee is a recently discovered, rapidly emerging artist of note. With her most recent exhibits in Paris, the French-Korean artist’s work is gaining attention for its strongly distinctive style. Standly proudly at the nexus between a number of intersecting personal influences, Lee brings a unique story of the journey of self-discovery and identity to light in her startlingly colourful works. Blending motifs from different era and places, and being of Korean ancestry with a French upbringing, so also her sense of fashion and dress style demonstrate a special blend of cultural influences.
Contributing reporter Julian Warmington finally managed to catch up with the fascinating travelling artist Valerie Won Lee for a few precious minutes amidst her hectic schedule preparing more exhibits around the world. He sends this revealing, intimate interview, finally shedding light on the rising star of the Euro-Asian arts world and her strong opinions on everything from art in the age of digital media through to her interests in fashion and the game of chess.
– How did you become an artist?
I always liked drawing when I was a child. I knew I was drawing strange things, but growing up in the countryside no-one noticed it. Later, when I was older and traveling after high school, inspiration came back again. I took eight months just traveling. I was drawing a lot on the way, especially eyes and faces. I was really inspired by all the unusual colours around me, particularly a lot of blues and greens.
– I heard that you grew up in the French countryside. Where, and, how did you end up there?
I grew up in a small village about 1.5 hours from La Rochelle. I was adopted by a French family at the age of eight months. My adoptive dad came from a peasant family. He worked in a factory. My adoptive mother passed away when I was 1.5 years old.
– Did you ever go back to South Korea? Do you speak Korean?
I did go “back” to Korea when I was 19, and out of curiosity went to see the orphanage where I spent my first days. They told me the story of my background. It wasn’t a painful story as I had already met a few adopted Koreans during my time there. It’s known that in South Korea a lot of single mothers had to give up their children.
I do feel Korean in my genes. I look Korean. When I was in South Korea for a couple of months aged 19 I thought of learning the language, but then I got caught up in traveling again and learned English as it is the international language.
– Was Korea the first country you visited?
The first country I visited was Spain, but when I received the inheritance from my mother when I was 18 I decided to spend it in traveling to Korea, partly also because I knew a teacher there, and he invited me to come. I wanted to get away from France so thought: Why not give it a try?!
– How did you feel in Korea?
When the plane landed I realised it was where my life started. The first thing I noticed was that everyone in the plane looked like me! It made me more curious to see whether I could learn anything about my roots. I started to understand where my strong temper and stubbornness came from! And why I eat so much! But it took me a while to get used to the kimchi! Also, Koreans have a strong sense of attention to detail which may explain some of my artwork.
– Did you stay in Korea or travel much beyond it too?
When I was living in Korea I had a French flat-mate who was always talking about Thailand so I decided to explore it, but when I returned from Thailand I became really ill and almost died. I was suffering from anemia and had contracted dengue fever. This helped me to realise life was just too short not to explore all options and enjoy freedom fully, so, next, I decided to go to Australia. I thought I would always have the chance to go back to Korea again when I would be more mature.
In Australia I just wanted to experience a bit of the culture, but soon enough I was running out of money. Then suddenly one day I won a jackpot at the Melbourne casino which paid for a trip to Bali!
When that ran out I had to come back to France so I traveled and worked in the south before I decided to go to the UK. I had to find a job quickly, but ended up in a very prestigious fashion shop at the time named, perhaps appropriately and ironically for me, “Voyages.” It made me want to become a fashion designer, so I started to draw faces with clothes.
– You have travelled now for almost 15 years in Latin America, the Pacific, and Europe amongst other places. Why do you travel so much?
I have always wanted to go to extremes. That’s really the only reason why I travelled so much. I just wanted to discover as much as I could because I didn’t know whether I would ever be able to travel again.
I was only 19 when I did my first travelling. I understood even then that there are many different cultures to discover. Now I know I really am a citizen of the world. I’m Asian, and I am French, and I’m also a traveler. People tell me that there’s a lot of traveling in my art, but honestly I just paint what I feel.
– How do you choose what you are going to paint? Do you decide much in advance?
I usually have an idea but it never really finishes developing. It’s only an initial idea and I just let my hand go free until I see shapes. When I see shapes emerging from the paint or sketch that’s when I know where the painting is going to go. It is like in life: first you have an idea, and then other ideas occur, and other things come along on the way that influence and improve it.
– In your paintings, a lot of lines appear to me to be links. Are they links?
For me everything is linked. I do often have lines passing through faces and shapes. It just seems to develop naturally. When I finish portraits they have to be linked because the world is linked; everything is linked.
– Are the portraits always of people you know?
Sometimes they are real people, sometimes I invent them. What I’m usually most trying to express is a feeling; for example the long necks to me are a sign of strength. The wavy arms and legs are movements, or a feeling of motion. It is all in an effort to find ways to show the unseen. For example, when I look at you now we feel all sorts of emotions, but you appear to have a normal physical body. If I want to express emotions I might put a wave on your body to help express the feeling and not express just the oversimplified vision of a purely exact yet bland physical reality.
– Why do you paint mainly with acrylic?
I sometimes also paint with oil but yes I mainly work with acrylic. I find acrylic harder because it dries faster and like I said before about wanting to text the extreme limits even of myself: I want to achieve my best within my hardest personal challenge. Some people think oil is harder, but it depends what you want to do. I don’t choose the paint by theory, but the paint I feel like using for the paintings I like to make; it’s for the feelings I like to express.
– How does it feel to live in Paris as a painter?
Hah! A better question is: What is so great about being in Paris as a painter? Even if Paris is a great city for art and architecture too, my dream is to end up as an artist in the Pacific islands with no pollution around!
– Like Gauguin?
Maybe, but I hope my work will be recognised well before I die.
– Tell us about your latest exhibition in Paris.
Through using social networking sites I’ve been lucky to be spotted by Romuald Canas Chico. He is a very talented artist and an active member of the Academie Arts-Sciences-Lettres in Paris. He gave me the chance to exhibit with him and let me choose the topic. As it’s been long in my mind that the 1920s are coming back as we approach 2020, I also wanted to bring back the theme of artists’ solidarity. As Romuald Canas Chico himself proves to me even one century later, it is still possible to be helped by another artist.
The exhibition named “The Roaring Twenties” was held in the Bataclan Cafe in Paris. It is a very famous cafe which is also well-known as a concert venue. The Bataclan itself is former theatre modelled on a Chinese house.
– You have been spotted via social networking sites. Don’t you think there are already too many artists using Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and so on? And can a professional really recognise the quality of work in an online forum and a digitally reproduced, pixilated media?
A lot of artists like me who didn’t go to art schools or who can’t afford to exhibit in expensive places in capital cities use these networks to get spotted. A lot of places and magazines require the artist to pay to exhibit or be published which I don’t agree with at all.
Why should only the already rich be recognised for their work and poorer but really talented artists be sidelined and forgotten? Some people really are creative. They should get a chance to get spotted and get sponsored to learn to improve their art. Some people who have no creativity had the chance to go to leading art schools, and they get recognition. Isn’t art about creativity first? I got the chance to have my work spotted by a real professional and it just happened to be through the internet.
Using technology as an artist is about sharing; it’s about helping each other as artists. It is a new art world which is building itself virtually now. Whether gallery managers and owners agree or disagree, it is the future of art. When you want to buy clothes on the internet, or books, you can find what you want despite the wide range of choice. Why would we not do the same for art?
Since I started using technology for displaying my art, I have discovered other artists from all over the world and some of them are incredibly talented and creative. If social networking did not exist, I would never have discovered such amazing work and I hope one day, I will have the chance to see their work in person.
Regarding the quality of my own work: I am not worried because a good artist can always learn and improve but not every artist can provide great creativity. I have even started creating my own magazines and virtual gallery so people can visualise my work until they can see it for real.
– What are your future plans?
I am going to exhibit in as many places, and share my work within as many cultures as possible. I want to embark upon a new journey. After having travelled independently for 15 years, I’m now hoping to travel as an artist and learn more from the world and the arts scene in particular. I would love to come to exhibit in Korea, and especially with the 1920s collection because the whole world has been through its own 1920s-era and I’d be very interested to learn about the culture of the 20s Korean culture.
The other current exhibition I’d love to share there would be on chess. Chess has been a good companion during my travels. In downtime when I wasn’t painting I was playing with travel companions or new friends, both local or travellers. It’s a great way to meet people and start to discover new cultures. My chess paintings are very detailed and Asian art is detailed within it. As for my signature piece, I call it Life is Like a Game of Chess. This is to say that life is short and so in order to do the maximum number of things one wants to do in life one needs to be strategic with every day, and every hour. In a lot of my traveling chess has been very helpful; for example when traveling in some civil war areas when decisions needed to be taken quickly they required a lot of analysis and instinct together. Also I learned some chess techniques in Cuba, which made me even more passionate about the game.
– Why is your slogan: “Creating is breaking the rules”?
Well, it’s true! Every great painter had to break some rules to be recognised as an exception to the common standard of the day. Any rule can be broken, whether of colours, of lines, or any other sort. To be honest I’m not sure which ones I am breaking because I never learned them, but I have been told by others that I am a rule breaker. I guess that’s part of what makes me creative.
Writer: Julian Warmington
Photographer: Paul Jenkins