In 1986, Mison Kim entered Janet Parks Advanced Placement art class at Seventy-First High School in Fayetteville. A diligent student who was still learning English, Kim turned in exquisitely rendered assignments that would inevitably draw a crowd around their intricate abstractions.
In February at Methodist University, Kim, now a successful, New York City-based artist, returned to share her work with her adopted hometown in an exhibit entitled “Searching for the Real.”
Getting her start
When Kim and her family first arrived from Korea, she could not speak English very well and did not know many people in the community except for family members who already lived in Fayetteville. When she arrived at Seventy-First High School, Janet Parks, an artist in her own right, was teaching an advanced level art course and accepted Kim into her class.
“There was a lot of precision in her work,” said Parks, who has since retired after 18 years of teaching. She explained that Kim would turn in her work early and the other students would gather around to view her unique pieces. “They were just totally exceptional.”
Together with her classmates, Kim studied not only how to make art, but art history, and visited museums on trips that Parks led. Parks spoke of her husband, Chip Parks, who has passed away, but always supported his wife with her students, including Mison, helping her to find and apply for scholarships for them and supporting her with trips to New York to visit her students.
During this time, Parks learned of and encouraged Kim to submit her work to the Pratt Institute National Talent Search. She won second place and her work was sent with other student pieces around the world.
Eventually, Kim applied to Pratt Institute under the guidance of Parks and one year after arriving in America, she was studying art in New York City on a four-year scholarship.
Arriving in New York City to study art had always been a dream, said Kim who took art lessons for 10 years in Korea. At the same time, it was overwhelming.
“It was a scary time for me,” said Kim, whose father, a former Korean Air Force pilot, wanted to bring his family to the United States for better opportunities and education. She continued to study English, but wasn’t always sure what her teachers and classmates were saying. As a result, she often found herself in the position of having to re-do her homework, working harder and more than her peers.
She challenges the notion of culture with her statement on her series of recent drawings, which consist of ink and acrylic pastel shadows of famous architectural institutions overlaid by twining, rambling veins of ink that look almost alive against the blocky building outlines.
In her statement, Kim notes that although the pieces are meant to be completely abstract, in the sense that they offer no commentary on the institutions they mirror, viewers commonly form an opinion of them influenced in some way through their pre-existing experiences within their own culture.
Techniques of Painting and Drawing
As a student in Parks’ class, Kim’s work was intricate and detailed. Even when it consisted of an abstract study, it included the memory of the object she was working from. “Her color attention was very superior,” said Parks. “It wasn’t totally abstract; you could see what the object was.”
After traveling to Pratt Institute to view shows of other artist, that basic concept began to change. According to Parks, exposure to these other artists “…guided her to reach another level in her own work.”
When Kim works now, she will use a sticky stencil to cut out certain shapes for use in her work. She will also use a sponge to paint, with the goal of not leaving brush marks or other indications of her own process. Her goal is to create a clean product, and partially to erase herself out of her own piece. “When I paint, I just paint,” said Kim. “I just deal with elements of paint and myself.”
She does not try to influence the viewer with a particular point of view or perspective, but rather encourages the viewer to let go of preconceived notions and see different things in the great swoops of color that appear almost like great ballets of stained glass, or the intricate ink twinings of her work. “She challenges herself and has faith in herself,” said Parks. “She’s a searcher.”
Memory as action
“I believe in what I see and experience, piece by piece,” said Kim, explaining some of the philosophy behind her work. She believes that people see only a fragment of things, not necessarily knowing everything that happens as a whole, but rather in the context of their own pieces. “We try to put them together, and that’s life.”
Kim explains that memory is similar to this experience and offered an anecdote to illustrate. She and her sister were sharing a memory about an event that happened in Korea. Her memory, she said, was one piece, but her sister, in remembering the same thing, remembered it slightly differently. That is a different piece. Together, each of these pieces contributed to that memory.
In much the same way, Kim does not have all the pieces of her work sketched out beforehand. When she works, she is not making a decision to paint, as much as letting things happen, she explained.
One of her challenges involved the creation of a work that eventually measured 30 feet long and five feet in height. “I didn’t know what it was going to be,” said Kim. “It excited me.”
At the time she was working in a tiny Brooklyn apartment and could only work on the piece one four-foot section at a time. For more than a year, she worked with an ink pen, covering each section with an intricate drawing before folding it over and beginning work on the next section. Each piece became an experience that she never remembered completely after moving on.
“I wasn’t sure, just working on that moment…trying to be in it,” said Kim, who found herself becoming lost in that moment with just the white paper, the pen and her art. “It was a challenge, but also exciting.”
What to look for at the exhibition
“I’m very happy for her to be able to come back home and share her work,” said Parks. She added that the journey to be an accomplished, working artist wasn’t always “smooth sailing,” but that Kim constantly met those challenges, taking them as a gift.
“The way Kim brings a concept to the viewer…it’s kind of like an inner search,” said Parks, when asked what visitors to the exhibition should look for in her former student’s work. “She will start in a place with a concept in her own self and she trusts that concept.”
Kim noted that she chose the title “Searching for the Real,” because that name reflects what she does when she paints or draws. “That’s my main concern…as an artist,” said Kim. “I believe that art is philosophy.”
As an artist, she feels the need to let go of what she believes, of something stuck in her mind, in order to be open to other perspectives and hopes that others will experience this in her work.
Kim’s work is not a straightforward, linear journey, Parks explained. “She’s on a road of her own design.”
The exhibit, which opened February 13 at David McCune International Art Gallery, Methodist University, runs until April 15.