Thursday, May 15, 2008

Art Space Talk: Aimee Lee

Aimee Lee is an interdisciplinary artist working across performance, installation, and book arts media. Aimee is interested in personal storytelling. Her work has covered topics of human intimacy, internal defenses, and the isolating properties of language. Because her work thrives in moments of vulnerability, its manifestations occur subtly and often go unnoticed: a survival kit buried in the ground, a sound recording of whistles tied to a football goalpost, a book whose prints darken and fade to mimic the life cycle of a bruise. She has stated that she relates to what falls between the cracks, and that she searches for quiet sanctuaries to process the outside world and how humans participate in it.

Aimee earned an MFA in Interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts from Columbia College (Chicago) in 2006. Since that time her work has been exhibited at the Lux Arts Center, Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago) and several other venues. Her work was displayed at the Bridge Art Fair in Chicago (2007).

Hunk, & Dora (2006). Handmade paper brick tower: upwards of two thousand handmade paper bricks made from premium abaca, pigmented abaca, unbleached abaca, cotton, and linen; wood, monofilament, tyvek, buttons, sand. 14-foot tower, 6-foot doorway.

Brian Sherwin: Aimee, you studied at Oberlin College and Columbia College. Can you tell our readers about your academic years? Did you have any influential instructors? Do you have any advice for students interested in those programs?

Aimee Lee: I've always been the kind of geek that adored school and being a student. That said, my undergraduate experience at Oberlin and my graduate experience at Columbia were universes apart. My time at Oberlin was an incredibly challenging, fulfilling, and high-growth period where I started to map the borders and territory of my own self. I explored the varied subjects and media that interested me, and had a major that let me combine music (I was a violinist), dance and choreography, philosophy, creative writing, art history, and studio art. My teachers inspired and nurtured me in a myriad of ways: advisor and art historian Pat Mathews, dance and bodywork instructors Karen Allgire and Deborah Vogel, violin and chamber music coach Andrew Jennings, visiting poetry instructor Myung Mi Kim, and painting professor Sarah Schuster are some of the many.
The most transformative in my final year were Nanette Yannuzzi-Macias and Johnny Coleman. Johnny was my drawing teacher, and showed me not only HOW to draw, but THAT I had the innate ability, as does everyone. He was devoted to music and the combination of media - he had synethesia and talked about hearing light - and class requirements included things like seeing Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band perform. Nanette was my sculpture teacher, and the first installation artist I had ever met. I developed my intensive sketchbook process. She taught an artists' books class that rocked my world, and started me on my path in book arts almost ten years ago. Nanette also gave me a short list of graduate schools a few years later when I was ready to return to school for graduate work. Based on the interdisciplinary nature of the program, Columbia College was my first choice.
My transition to Chicago after working in New York was difficult, but the Chicago arts community was unwavering in its generosity, which buoyed me during my three years in the Book & Paper MFA program. Though there were departmental classes in many disciplines, I was disappointed to find that my peers were uninterested in that aspect of the program. But through opportunities at Columbia, I met people like Julie Laffin, a performance artist and curator, and Greg Allen, the founding director of the acclaimed theatre company, The Neo-Futurists, who supported my work and gave me venues to show and perform.
I found intellectual rigor with art historians Debra Parr and Mary Kennedy, and spiritual rigor with performance instructor Joan Dickinson. Andrea Peterson introduced me to papermaking, which rocked my graduate world, and my advisor Melissa Jay Craig was the best teacher I had and the top reason that I stayed in the program even when I wanted to drop out.

For prospective students of Oberlin, I would advise an open, wholehearted approach to an education that will be rigorous, well-rounded, and exhilarating. It offers extraordinary teachers and resources - take advantage of everything you possibly can because it holds a richness and humanity that is hard to find elsewhere. For Columbia, I would advise networking as much as possible, because the teachers are active, well-connected artists who have a real sense of the art world. They are also incredibly generous and open to artistic collaborations with students. As a large art school, it has resources that might not be immediately apparent. I have found allies in the galleries, the marketing team, and the portfolio center. For both, remember to follow your instincts and fight for what you need as a student, and stay close to your teachers, especially once you leave.
PAPER (2007). Sample books of handmade paper from plants found in North Central Wyoming: sagebrush and cattail. 6.5 x 5 x 1" closed, 60" opened.

BS: Aimee, you are an interdisciplinary artist working across performance, installation, and books arts media. Your work tends to focus on topics like human intimacy. Can you go into further detail about your art and the thoughts behind it?

AL: My art has always been rooted in a long history of introspection and interpretation of personal experience. Because of my own personal ethics, I have been reluctant to appropriate other people's experiences and prefer to focus on my own, since I have full authority to allow that. I believe that getting down to specific details creates a universal context for other people, that the tiny pieces of my life have resonance with strangers, because the human experience is so similar in the small ways. In terms of subject matter, I am endlessly fascinated with the ways that people survive their lives and the nature of being human in this particular world. My incessant tunneling into my own mind must be a way to satisfy my curiosity about what is going on in other people's minds.

Five years ago, I decided to focus on human intimacy, which came out of my experience with a close childhood friend who was dying from cancer. During my studies in anatomy, bodywork, and spirituality, I had been moved by the power of human touch in the healing process. I asked my friend a month before she died about how often she was hugged during the day, since I knew that people were cautious around her because her bones were so fragile from her medication.
At the same time, I was in a residency with British performance artist Aaron Williamson, where we did a lot of spontaneous improvisation. I did one where I covered seated people's heads with fabric, and then removed the fabric, held their heads in my hands, and kissed the crown of their heads. It only lasted a few minutes but still resonates with me today. From that improvisation, I created an interactive performance in two parts.
Part One asked participants to fill out a survey that asked about the quality and quantity of human touch they received in a given week. Part Two asked them to apply lotion to a performer (myself) playing "How Insensitive" on the violin in a bikini. In retrospect, it wasn't a terribly elegant piece, but my way of mapping the idea of human contact in both safe (filling out a survey) and unsafe ways (touching a half-naked stranger).

Regarding the physical manifestation of my artwork, I have consistently preferred beautiful and inviting surfaces. I love beauty, and you can interpret that however you like. Since I often handle difficult and sensitive subject matter, like abuse and violence against women, I create non-threatening surfaces to draw people in. I use a tactile approach where I make objects, installations, and performances that make people want reach out and touch. Eventually, through handling my work, the content reveals itself.
Listen to what you've been carrying for a long time (2006). Spun, knit, and dyed handmade paper, thread, typewritten sestina; 6 x 67" opened.

BS: What are the social implications of your work? Is there a specific message that you strive to convey to viewers within the context of your art?

AL: I used to be committed to political work that was hot, very angry. But through my life experiences, I've come to see that such an approach doesn't fit my personality. People see me and don't expect a firebrand, so I've learned to play into that assumption, and shift the hot parts of my work below cooler layers. I think that the implications of my work are aligned with the old adage that tells us not to judge books by their covers.
I'm not looking to convey a specific message - I want my work to trigger motion inside of people, whether it be mental activity, a visceral response, or an emotional one. Outside motion like dialogue with others is great, too, but I want to create objects and spaces that enable people to go inside. I would love for my work to create a larger awareness of the similarity of the human experience and a way for people to relate to each other to reduce violence and intolerance, but that is something that acts more like a constant backdrop in my consciousness, not what I focus on as a goal.

BS: Aimee, you utilize a variety of mediums. Can you discuss why it is important for you to branch out in so many directions? Do you prefer one medium over the others? Or would you say that they are all of equal importance?

AL: I used to believe in a heavily conceptual practice, which came from a need to lay a strong intellectual foundation for myself as well as a fear of craft. But as I strengthened my ideas, I needed more tools to articulate them. And as I learned how to use each of them, new ideas arose. Like language, being open to constantly expanding my vocabulary is crucial to the vitality and utility of my work. I've always feared the "dilettante" and "dabbler" labels, but have embraced the idea of being resourceful, of being a bricoleur - creating something by gleaning from whatever happens to be around me in the moment. If I have __(fill in the blank)__ inclinations and talents, why not use them when appropriate?
As for why I branch out in so many directions, it's just in my nature to do so. I've always been a "why, why, why?" kind of questioner, and that kind of grasping leads me down lots of paths. Also, living in a world where the ceiling on choices and information retrieval have exploded makes it impossible to ignore everything but one medium. Besides, they're all connected.

I also think that learning new ways of articulating my work helps me meet and understand more people. For example, growing up as an aspiring musician, I surrounded myself with musicians. Within that set, I knew the most about violinists since I was one myself. Expanding outward, string players and pianists. Then, the rest of the orchestra. After a while, jazz and rock musicians. Composers. Conductors. Musicians on the fringes of the mainstream. And so it goes, in an ever-widening circle. I do the same in my visual work, most recently accepting a scholarship from a printshop to learn intaglio techniques.
I had never been around printmakers beyond the letterpress shop at grad school, so I wanted to get familiar with the mentality of a printmaker. Not necessarily because I consider myself one, but because printmaking is so intimately connected to papermaking and book arts, which are two media that I use consistently. Next month, I will travel to Maine on a scholarship to take a fibers class at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, so that I can apply these techniques to my papermaking practice, and meet artists in a whole new genre.

Depending on when you ask, I will always have a preferred medium - whatever best communicates my thoughts and feelings in a given moment. But it always changes, depending on my studio situation, the content of my work, and the resources I have at hand. I would never say that there is one dominant medium - I don't see it as a competition, and I don't see them as separate things when I'm working. The reason I talk about them as different media is because I function in an art world and a culture that needs those kinds of delineations. I'm good at categorizing and filing, so I'll do it, but I'd prefer not to spend all of my time doing it.
Treehouse (2008). Intaglio on knit bamboo paper yarn, 5.5 x 4.25".

BS: You have described your art as a "living document". Can you go into further detail about that?

AL: Books are documents, as are most of the objects that I make. They mark a certain time and thought process in my life, and are usually pieces that need to be activated and used. I like the idea of a static object having an active life. My bookbinding teacher, Melissa Jay Craig, taught us that books are "living, breathing things."
I have a photographer friend who reminds me often that the same idea applies to all of my artwork whenever I get carried away with trying to control my work and make it do exactly what I think it's supposed to do. It's important for me to respect the life and boundaries of the things that I make, so that they can have a life on their own and continue without me by their side. I feel like I'm a parent talking about a child, but I think that the same kind of respect and freedom needs to be given to a piece or it just becomes an unwieldy prop for an artist.

BS: Aimee, you have had exhibited widely in the United States and you have been involved with exhibits in Spain and Japan. Do these travels influence the direction of your work? In other words, would you say that the experiences add to your visual language?

AL: Though I have exhibited widely, I don't get to go to all of the openings! That said, I have traveled a good deal in the past two years on artist residency programs and personal trips, which definitely influence my work. Because so much of my work is about my interior landscape and experience, it shifts as I shift. And there is no way to avoid change when traveling, living in new settings, and meeting new people.
Throwing myself into foreign settings helps me re-evaluate my ideas and the way I communicate them, and reminds me that the world is both much bigger and much smaller than I think. Traveling gives me chances to make my work accessible to more people, as I see different responses in different locations. Also, it re-invigorates my own practice when I see that I can successfully communicate across geographical and cultural differences with my work.
My travels definitely add to my visual memory and internal landscape. There are more places to dream about! And that also adds to my visual language that I use externally with others.
Abundance (2006). Letterpressed poem on handmade paper, lining a handmade box covered in handmade cotton/kozo paper.

BS: Can you tell our readers about other influences? Are you influenced by any specific artists?

AL: After life itself, reading is probably my number one influence. The bulk of my positive childhood memories lay beside me on the living room sofa, buried in books. Reading and writing have been a constant in my life. As I've matured as an artist, I've learned to read more. It's like photosynthesis, except that reading is my sunlight and artwork is my oxygen.
I used to be a total non-fiction junkie, and still love it, reading Bell Hooks, Ken Wilber, Alberto Manguel, Robert Coles, Michael Pollan, and Barbara Kingsolver. Through meeting contemporary writers, I've overcome my childhood aversion to new fiction, and have been delighted to read Junot Diaz, Don Lee, Susan Choi, Sandra Cisneros, Sherman Alexie, and Julia Alvarez. I also adore good poetry, and have been taken by work by Cathy Park Hong, Li-Young Lee, A. Van Jordan, Ravi Shankar, and Theresa Hak Kyung Cha.

When I was asked to list artists that I admired during an interview for an art class in college, I broke down into tears because I couldn't come up with any! I'm not sure why I have this block, since it's important to me that I honor my influences, but it's likely because artists and their work affect me subtly, so it's hard for me to come up with names on the spot. I remember the feeling of experiencing art more than I remember names, but here is a random sampling: Eva Hesse, Bill Viola, Agnes Martin, Ana Mendieta, Lee Bontecou, Adrian Piper, Mona Hatoum, Albert Chong, David Hammons, Ida Applebroog, Ann Hamilton, Thomas Nozkowski, Patty Chang, Thomas Struth, Binh Danh, Linda Montano, Arvo PŠrt, and Fred Sandback.

I'm also lucky to have a job directly related to my graduate studies, which is pretty unusual. I work for Robbin Ami Silverberg, an established book artist and expert papermaker. I met her two and a half years ago as her intern. Since then, she has transformed her ground floor papermill and studio to a two-story mill and bindery, alongside her husband Andrös Bšršcz's wood shop and studio.
I worked in the old space, in their home during construction, and now in the new studios. I've been editioning her artists' books, which include everything from papermaking to binding to everything in between: fighting with antique typewriter ribbons, finishing book details on her dining room table, hanging felts to dry in the garden, and installing a professional printer for her digital prints. It's impossible to have such an intimate relationship to someone else's work without being influenced by it: she makes gorgeous paper that carries vibrant colors across the entire spectrum and is famous for its lush translucency.
We share similar beliefs about the holistic nature of making work, and aligning the content and materials thoughtfully. We're both perfectionists and workaholics, making for intense work days, but it has been a real inspiration to work alongside an artist who makes a living from her work and has found a way to live and work in a custom-built space.

BS: What are you working on at this time?

AL: I have just finished printing a series called Private Performance: Treehouse, which are prints on knitted paper that I made on a scholarship from Manhattan Graphics Center in New York City. I had started a series of knitted handmade paper books in 2006 at Art Farm, a residency program in Nebraska, and continued it as I traveled to different residencies.
It has been an ongoing process of tweaking the different forms that I can create out of a very basic idea, but I had been criticized about not having text and content directly on the knitted page. So, instead of sewing on pieces of paper with content, I used the scholarship to experiment with printing images directly onto the page.
Obviously, it has to be a certain kind of image, since half of it is lost in the holes between stitches. I have been using an image from a performance I created in 2007 at Ragdale during an artist residency, and hope to rework the pieces that I have already printed with additional text that I have yet to write.

The other major project I am working on is La InvasiÑn de las hojas, an outdoor installation that will be presented in Mexico this fall. I have been invited to be a long-distance artist for identidades.04, a residency that brings art to public spaces for audiences that are usually not exposed to international contemporary artists. This year's theme is memory as it relates to identity. While traveling to make paper from local plants, I learned about invasive species and considered that botanical concept as it relates to how immigrants are viewed in their adopted countries.
As an American-born woman of Korean heritage, I have strong memories of growing up as the other, and am developing text about these experiences. I will transfer these stories to handmade paper leaves that will be affixed to eucalyptus plants (a major invasive species in Mexico) in the city of Morelia, which is the site of identidades.04. They will hang alongside real leaves and be available for the public to read, take, or move to other plants or sites, setting the leaves and stories on another migration.
Treehouse (2008). Intaglio on knit linen paper yarn, 53 x 9.5".

BS: Will you be involved with any upcoming exhibits?

AL: I am in an exhibit currently at the Lux Center for the Arts in Lincoln, Nebraska, and will have a scaled-down version of a large installation in a traveling exhibit called "Pulp Function" at the Nicolaysen Art Museum & Discovery Center in Casper, Wyoming this summer. This June, I'll have some mail art in a show at Roteiro De Creacion Contemporanea in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. One of my treehouse prints will be part of the Treewhispers project in Naperville, Illinois, for the Chicago International Calligraphy Conference.

Next year, I will have work in two traveling exhibits, both in the US and abroad, and three solo shows. For the solo shows, I hope to show work that I make in Korea on a Fulbright grant, which begins this summer. This is the most exciting upcoming opportunity for me, as I will be able to spend a year in Korea learning the history, techniques, and contemporary applications of hanji, which is traditional Korean paper.

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art?

AL: There's nothing that I'd rather be doing with my life. I have found that the times that I feel most at ease, and have positive productive thoughts, are when I am engaged in neutral, repetitive, physical labor. For me, that means making art or exercising. So I think I'll leave it at that and hit the treadmill. Thanks for asking!
You can learn more about Aimee Lee by visiting her website-- You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--
Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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