Artist So Youn Lee finds universal appeal in hope

February 4, 2015
(Courtesy of So Youn Lee)

(Courtesy of So Youn Lee)

By Brian Han

Soon after South Korean artist So Youn Lee completely changed her creative approach, the public couldn’t help but take notice. Art gallery curators contacted her from Italy, Germany, Malaysia among many others.

Collectors started discovering her work online and in galleries attracting a diverse audience ranging from celebrities to college students.

The process began recently when Lee felt restricted by painting with visual references. Her frustration led to a desire to create something that was sourced purely from her imagination.

“I started to doodle and Mango slowly appeared,” Lee recalls. “I started to ask myself why does it have no nose, or ears and why are the eyes so big?”

The experiment became a revealing practice in self-discovery as well as the birth of her primary subject, Mango.

Mango will sometimes multiply and interact with the others "like cells in a body," Lee says. ("Harmony" - Courtesy of So Youn Lee)

Mango will sometimes multiply and interact with the others “like cells in a body,” Lee says. (“Harmony” – Courtesy of So Youn Lee)

“The character Mango told me a lot about myself,” Lee said. “When I first came to the U.S. I spoke no English at all and I realized that I had to observe people very carefully to understand their intentions. I used vision as my main tool just like a cook uses smell or a musician uses sound. This is why Mango’s eyes are so big. There is a lot of detail in its eyes. They represent my curiosity, strength and hope for the future.”

Lee left South Korea nearly a decade ago to find a more nurturing environment for her creativity. Even though she doesn’t travel back there too often, she still holds a deep yet complicated connection to her native country.

When the Sewol Ferry tragically sank last April claiming the lives of hundreds of high school students, Lee, like many other Koreans, felt a wave of sympathy that pulled her away from her usually optimistic demeanor.

“It was so sad and I felt broken emotionally,” Lee said. “I truly care about what goes on in Korea, its politics and its future generations.”

The event triggered a nationwide atmosphere that was simultaneously united in support and filled with sorrow. Anything other than that felt out of place.

"Best Wish" (Courtesy of So Youn Lee)

“Best Wish” (Courtesy of So Youn Lee)

By contrast, Lee’s latest work depicts a world far removed from reality.

There are no remnants of a tragedy. Instead, her paintings evoke a sense of safety and inclusion.

“My art is a reflection of my inner world,” Lee said. “Hope is very important to me and I found inspiration through what happened with the Sewol Ferry. My art reminds me that tomorrow things can get better.”

As for the ethereal setting that is inhabited by the character, the idea came from an artist’s innate desire to feel liberated.

“Everyone should cherish themselves and should have a sacred place to be completely free,” Lee explains. “Mango is set in that environment.”

When she moved to California to study at the Art Center College of Design, she experienced exactly that. An opportunity to be herself, to create an identity that felt honest.

While growing up in Seoul, Lee believed that she was living in an environment that was too heavily focused on status and public image.

Even though her family and friends were supportive of her chosen career as an artist, she still felt something that made her question her approach to art.

“I changed my style last year and before that I was very focused on foundational skills,” Lee said. “I was questioning why I didn’t just draw what I wanted and the answer was because of status. I wanted to be accepted by my peers and be accepted as a certain type of artist that Korea requires based on other people’s values. That was holding me back for almost 10 years.”

After a year since the inception of Mango, Lee has branched out of the hermit-like world she’s created for her subject and continues to do so.

Most recently, she collaborated with artist Hikari Shimoda.

“Meeting her was a fortunate coincidence or even fate,” Lee said. “I was in Los Angeles at my agent’s house and it turned out Hikari was staying there for a show. She doesn’t speak in English that much and I don’t speak in Japanese so we didn’t talk a lot. We used body language,” she said with a grin.

Despite the language barrier, a blank canvas in the room provided a means to communicate.

"First Contact" by So Youn Lee & Hikari Shimoda (Facebook)

“First Contact” by So Youn Lee & Hikari Shimoda (Facebook)

“For my world, everything’s so happy and for Shikari’s it’s very dark and the character needs to be a hero,” Lee explains. “It’s a collision of two worlds.”

What resulted was an impromptu painting titled “First Contact” in which Mango and Shimoda’s character met for the first time.

The piece was then chosen and displayed at the 2015 L.A. Art Show.

Lee plans to continue to try new things and see what she discovers.

“This year, my goal is to make more work for myself and the general public,” she said. “A lot of these shows have some kind of theme or size requirement. I want to paint for myself making larger sized work like murals, use different mediums and reach more international audiences.”

As for her work’s purpose, that will most likely stay the same.

“My intention is that the audience can see the powerful and contagious emotions of happiness and hope in my art,” Lee said. “I just want to make people happy.”


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  2. Monica

    February 4, 2015 at 4:27 PM

    I love her painting that makes me dreaming fantasy world.

  3. Jen

    July 5, 2018 at 8:04 AM

    OMG the painting s above were Lee’s artwork… thats pretty suprized me cuz i thought these are Shimoda Hikari’s art lol
    I really love Lee’s beautiful and emotional characters:)