“I wanted to make sure I was in a grad program where I felt safe and comfortable expressing things I believe in, and have them be met with some degree of understanding,” says Lee, one of 14 second-year MFA students at the Stuart Weitzman School of Design.
She was also drawn by the diversity of the faculty, she says. Particularly supportive, she says, are artists Michelle Lopez, an assistant professor of fine arts, and Ken Lum, the Marilyn Jordan Taylor Presidential Professor and chair of the Fine Arts Department.
“We have that common knowledge of being an Asian artist in the U.S. right now,” Lee says. “They help me to think about how to fight against the bias we face and that really helped me focus on being an artist.”
Witnessing hostilities against Asians around the world during the pandemic, she says has not felt safe, a “terrifying feeling” that she poured into her artwork and research, resulting in her new series, titled Hellscape, that features female Asian bodies.
“Kay is making very strong work,” Lum says. “I have nothing but high praise for her. She has what it takes to succeed as an artist.”
Lee was born and raised in Seoul and she went to high school and college in the United States, graduating with a fine arts degree from Washington University.
“Kay is a great student: smart, articulate, excellent writing skills, resourceful researcher, and always diligent,” says Lum. “The present challenging context has been a source of motivation for her to continue to work.”
Being an artist, Lum says, is always in part about learning how to survive as an artist. “It’s hard to always believe in art. There are a lot of things in the art world that are not pleasant. One’s ego and desires are always tied the ideals of art—the reason why people become artists,” Lum says. “There are moments of disillusionment where the circumstances are extremely stressful. Such moments can either debilitate or focus an artist. Kay is always very focused.”
Lee usually works on large-scale paintings but started delving into a variety of other materials before the pandemic. Last spring, she was completing a large-scale sculpture, covering canvas with sourdough starter that created a cracked, textured surface. Abandoned when the Morgan Building studios closed due to public health guidelines, it had collapsed when she returned last fall.
“It was so sad to go back to my studio to see the work I had built was ruined,” Lee says. “But that’s the risk in working with organic material.”
Choosing to create a studio in her apartment during the pandemic, she changed both the size and the subject of her artworks. First, she turned to animation, and then to pencil drawings, now creating works that are about 8-by-10 inches that incorporate her Asian identity.
“I refused to use that as a subject matter for the longest time, but right now I’m working on a series of drawings and paintings that deals with Asian bodies,” she says. “I am making drawings and paintings that consist of multiple clones of myself—Asian girls encountering chaos and havoc in this natural setting.”
The Hellscape series, she says, is “mostly expressing my discomfort and dissatisfaction with spaces around me, spaces around my body, my culture, my religion. It helps me process all these things going in my head.”
Lee plans to continue the large paintings when she regularly returns to the campus studio, but in the meantime she says she is “using this time to try new things I’ve never done before.”
Throughout her studies at Penn, she says, the Fine Arts faculty has been encouraging her to try various artforms. Professor Joshua Mosely, she says, led her to animation. Professor Sharon Hayes urged her to experiment with video and performance. Lopez supports her work in sculpture. Lum suggested public art is her calling.
“I have thought of myself as a painter for so long,” she says. “I have never done any of these before, but they are always encouraging me to try something new. It is incredible to see how this program encourages you to fail and to learn from that and take that to another place.”
Lee will be teaching Drawing 1 to undergraduates this semester, which is the first class she took in fine arts: “It is just full circle.”