After eight years of photographing the hairstyles worn by the boys and girls walking through the hallways in John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, New Jersey, artist So Yoon Lym began to paint them. (The hairstyles, not the students’ faces.) She paints what she sees, employing an aerial perspective to portray her models. We see the complex geometry of the braids, and her meticulous portraits exude a religious gravitas. I recently caught up with So Yoon Lym to discus her life and work.
Hi So Yoon. Tell us about yourself. Who are you and what do you do?
I was born in Seoul, Korea, but lived in Uganda and Kenya for 7 years. My parents were both surgeons working in Uganda during the time of Idi Amin. We came to live in northern New Jersey when I was 7.
That is such a difficult question to answer: “Who are you and what do you do?” I am still not completely sure who I am. Through painting, I think I find out who I am. I’ve done many things over the years, but right now I am trying to be a full-time artist.
When did you begin to paint and draw?
Growing up, art had always been my favorite subject in school. And I was lucky to have been able to take art every year that I was in elementary, middle and high school. During my junior year in high school, when I was 15 and told my parents that I wanted to go to an art college, they encouraged me to go to France for the summer to participate in the Parsons Pre-College to Dordogne and Paris two-week Painting and Drawing program. Following the Parsons program, I stayed on in Paris for a week and then went to Normandy for another two weeks to study traditional sumie painting with one of Korea’s greatest painter, Ung No Lee. My parents helped arrange all this for me. I will always be grateful to my parents for their encouragement and support in my interest to be a painter. To this day, all my artwork hangs in their house, in every single room and hallway.
I got my BFA in Painting from the Rhode Island School of Design and my MFA in Painting from Columbia University. After Columbia, I worked as a textile colorist and designer in New York City for 7 years. I then became an art educator in Paterson, New Jersey for 9 years until I was laid off last year in June 2010.
How does painting enable you to learn more about who are you are and what you do? Is it the act of painting which provides this uncovering or is it the end result? Do the insights hit you like a thunderbolt from the sky or do they reveal themselves slowly, overtime?
I have always wanted to be the kind of artist that can just start sketching, drawing or painting anytime and anywhere. It still takes me a really long time to mentally prepare to sketch, draw or paint. This is what the whole process of grinding one’s ink in sumie painting is about. I have to straighten up my surroundings and clear all the physical as well as mental clutter.
I think the learning more about who I am is really about coming back to what I already know about myself, which is something I forget from time to time. By that, I mean that I love being quiet and working on whatever it is I am working on and not looking for or chasing things, events, opportunities or people. This might sound odd, but even after 30 years of painting, I still can’t believe when I am just about to put the last brush stokes down on a painting. After I finish a painting, I always step back, take a huge breath, and feel grateful that I am able to see something I’ve made. I think a lot about painting even when I am not actually painting so, I would say that all my insights about what I want to work on come slowly over time.
I love your Dreamtime series. I first saw the work online and then had the opportunity to see a selection of the paintings in the Hair exhibition at the Jersey City Museum. Tell us about the series. What is it, and why is it important?
I started photographically documenting hair and braid patterns and hairstyles I saw on students from 2001 until 2010 at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, New Jersey where I had worked as a full time art educator. But I didn’t begin painting this hair and braid pattern series until the summer of 2008.
The hair and braid pattern paintings didn’t become titled, The Dreamtime until 2010. The Dreamtime was the title for my Paterson Museum solo exhibition in October-November 2010.
I wanted a title that would reference many different layers of meaning to what I felt the hair and braid pattern paintings were about. The Dreamtime is a reference to the Dreamtime of pre-colonial aboriginal Australia.
These paintings are important, at least for me, because they were all based on actual hair and braid patterns as worn by actual students that I knew at Kennedy High School. When you ask why are they important, I can’t say why and if they would be important to the viewer and to which viewer.
I see these paintings as portraiture. However, you chose to utilize an aerial perspective, opting not to portray the model’s face or body. What led you to this decision?
I chose an aerial perspective for several reasons. I was taking pictures of students while I was employed as an educator at a public school. For legal reasons, I wanted to obscure students’ faces. I had thought that these hair and braid patterns were like fingerprints and wanted to present a painting series of designs, patterns and symbols seen from a vantage point that would not readily identify these paintings as ‘portraiture’. I also decided that painting from an aerial perspective would highlight and showcase the hair and braid patterns in the most abstract and contemporary way.
Your aerial portraits present men and women who wear cornrows, a traditional style of braiding hair close to the scalp. Each portrait presents a single model, who has a different pattern of braiding. The hair is braided in parallel rows, complex geometric patterns, swirls, zigzags, and curves. The depiction is objective, detached, and clinical. When you present the series in its entirety, it is reminiscent of botanical illustrations. Did you have this approach in mind when you began the series?
The hair and braid patterns originated with the wearer. And I want to point out that they are really of young adults, teenagers for the most part. This is where the second layer of meaning to the dreamtime comes in. Having experienced life as a teenager in an American public suburban high school and then having worked as an educator in an American public urban high school, I recognized that this was a “dream-time”, an unreal time period of learning, as if what is taught within school is all real and true.
The hair and braid patterns I painted from reference photographs were chance photographs. They were taken because I was attracted to and interested in the design that the wearer already had, without my interference or decision-making. And so, I feel that I am finding that which already exists in nature, much like how Karl Blossfeldt documented botanical plant life through his microscopic photographs.
I have a great love of things that are handmade, handcrafted and all natural. All these hair and braid patterns were handcrafted and designed by women and girls that the wearers knew and not necessarily done in a commercial hair salon. There were many hair and braid patterns that I saw that I did not choose to document or paint. Every work of art is in some way a personal self-portrait, whatever the nature of the artwork. Each work of art is the sum total collection of decisions and aesthetic choices of a particular artist. So, in this way, I don’t feel that the depiction is objective, detached or clinical.
The cornrow patterns are as beautiful and intricate as the markings on butterfly wings. Actually, the grid arrangement of these portraits reminded me of the placement of preserved butterflies within glass collector cases. Does that association resonate with you? Do you feel that your subjects endangered in some way?
The hair and braid pattern paintings are a documentation of a moment in the time span of the wearer’s life. It is a passing glimpse into the part of the whole of the infinite range and variety of hair and braid pattern design possibility. These hair and braid patterns exist as designs that are chosen and often altered by the wearer depending on their cranial structure, length and quality of hair, personal design preference, craftsmanship of the braider, etc. There were many students who dramatically altered their hair such as getting a close-cropped haircut, never to wear a hair and braid pattern again, at least in high school. I don’t understand that question about the subjects being endangered in some way. Hair design and hair styling will continue as it has continued from the beginning of time.
The grid arrangement you are referring to is from the brochure/poster layout that I had commissioned by Everythingstudio in NYC. The printed brochure/poster, which included text by Rocio Aranda-Alvarado was meant to serve several functions. It was the text accompaniment for The Dreamtime exhibition, an instant portfolio, a collection and archive of the paintings in this series as well as an art poster.
The braids have a presence, physicality, and weight. As soon as I saw your paintings, I wanted to sink my teeth into them as if they were plump ropes of licorice. Is there a particular response you are hoping to provoke in the viewer? Or is it about something else?
Painting for me is a spiritual practice. The act of disciplining my mind and quieting my thoughts while painting gives me direction in the larger scheme of life. I don’t really think about the viewer when I make art, which is not to say that I don’t have a vision in mind of what I would like to achieve with a series. As I have gotten older, I see that the appreciation and also response to art is very much a subjective experience. I don’t think it is healthy to have expectations as far as how people will respond to your work. I think this has parallels to daily life, and not having expectations with events and/or with people. This is something that I have to re-learn daily and painting helps me to do this.
With this particular hair and braid pattern series, I envision that the viewer will see the hair and braid pattern paintings the way I do. The quiet and bowing heads are like heads in meditation or benediction. There is no race identification, but a recognition and eternal connection to humanity and timeless nature. That is what I understand to be the pre-colonial aboriginal Australian way of life and their belief of The Dreamtime, before the Aborigines were colonized, subjugated, defined and viewed from the outside. A passage that I think of often in life and while I paint is from the William Blake poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
From Cold Crush Brothers to Eric B and Rakim, Eazy E to Snoop, hip-hop artists have worn cornrows since the genre’s inception. What is your relationship to the art, music, and culture of hip-hop?
I feel that there is something overly trendy and commercial in relating cornrows to the culture of hip-hop. I view the hair and braid patterns more along the lines of crafts in a global sense. It is every culture’s love of pattern, design and of making things. Cornrow braiding has been documented on Greek and Roman art from 490-485 BC, while the modern origins of cornrow braiding originated in West Africa and pre-dates contemporary hip hop and rap music.
Hair braiding and cornrow braiding exists around the world for many as a daily beauty ritual much in the way women and men all over the world and throughout time have tended to and styled their hair. But in this country, it also has a history that spans the beginning of slavery to the Black Pride Movement and onward to a hairstyle, that today is most closely associated to urban American music, style and culture. The voices coming from rap and hip-hop in America have re-directed meaning and re-contextualized how cornrow braiding is perceived and understood.
I believe that when stylistically related elements in art and music are presented together, insightful observations can be made on commerce, contemporary trends and interests as well as on ‘culture’ at large, although this is not necessarily an interest of mine with this particular painting series.
Who are the subjects portrayed in the series? How did you get them to sit for you? What was the relationship between artist and model?
Some were students of mine, some were friends of students that I would allow to hang out in the art room and some were students that I saw in the hallways. I just simply asked students if I could take their picture and they allowed me to do so. Since I was always either teaching or prepping for a class, I had to take these pictures often within the span of a minute as I didn’t want to take time away from what I was supposed to be in school for: teaching art, not collecting reference material for personal art projects. Plus, I was always concerned about being questioned by administration, so I tried to be as quick and discreet as possible.
I am curious about the models’ reactions to your work. What do they think of it?
As far as subject matter, they have seen it all and more. My hair and braid pattern paintings, imagery-wise were not that unusual to them. They lived it and saw it everyday and everywhere in their daily lives. Most people automatically think that my students would be extremely interested in my artwork. Aside from the naturalistic or detailed quality of the hair and braid pattern paintings that they may have had some interest in, the paintings themselves were not anything “new” to them. They are pretty straightforward as paintings in composition and technique. They are what they are. It is only in one’s imagination that they might become more.
What is next for you?
I would like to paint 10 more of these 22” x 30”, acrylic on paper braid pattern paintings then close this series. I am currently doing research, organizational and preparation work now for a new body of work that I have been thinking of working on for the last 15 years years.
Now that I am not teaching full time, I will be able to build this body of work both as a recent Lower East Side Printshop Keyholder resident and in May-June when I go to the Vermont Studio Center on a full fellowship award. But, I would like to continue to exhibit my hair and braid pattern series that I am calling The Dreamtime. I will have a solo exhibition of these paintings at the Target Gallery in the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, VA this August-September 2011. And will have another solo exhibition of this hair and braid pattern series next year in April 2012 at the Hall of Fame Gallery at Bronx Community College in Bronx, NY.