(Yonhap Interview) Artist transcends time and space to define her identity
By Woo Jae-yeon
SEOUL, March 13 (Yonhap) -- In her mid 20s, Lee Don-ah's family emigrated to the U.S., leaving a howling vacuum behind in the heart of the newly married artist. It was around that time when she started delving deeply into Korean Minhwa folk art -- a melancholic reminiscence of her childhood.
She grew up, surrounded by traditional Korean paintings collected by her electrician father, who had gone on a state-funded study program to France in the '60s and later played a role in developing the country's electricity infrastructure.
"When my family moved to America, I wasn't in a very good situation. I'd just had a baby and missed them so much," Lee said during a recent interview with Yonhap News Agency in her studio, southern Seoul.
This undated image provided by South Korean artist Lee Don-ah shows the artist painting at her studio in southern Seoul. (Yonhap)
This image provided by South Korean artist Lee Don-ah shows her painting on prosperity (130x162cm, acrylic and stone powder on canvas, 2014), part of the "Time and Space" series. (Yonhap)
Minhwa is a term from the Joseon Dynasty period (1392-1910) which literally means a painting of the people, or popular painting. Minhwa paintings feature nature, animals and mystical and auspicious figures such as the phoenix, all of which are believed to bring good luck and protect the owner from evil spirits.
Ordinary people at that time bought Minhwa pieces, usually painted by an anonymous artist, to keep or hang in their house in what Lee believes to be a simple yet earnest desire for a peaceful, prosperous life.
"I like the naturalness and high spirit of Minhwa as well as its messages. That the general public hung them on the wall at home to wish for good health, prosperity and peace feels very warm and innocent to me," she said.
Exploring and reinterpreting the folk art has been very helpful in filling in the void by her family's absence and overcoming her loneliness, the artist, 49, added.
This image provided by South Korean artist Lee Don-ah shows her flowers and birds painting (91x72.8 cm, mixed media, 2014), part of the "Time and Space" series. (Yonhap)
This image provided by South Korean artist Lee Don-ah shows her painting on prosperity (162.1x130.3cm, stone powder, acrylic on canvas 2016), part of the "Time and Space" series. (Yonhap)
Lee is credited with infusing traditional forms and styles with the tastes of contemporary art.
She brings lines, space divisions and geometric shapes into traditional folk painting, giving it an abstract and present-day feel to it. Creating illusionary lenticular paintings and videos are another part of her efforts to make her paintings -- and Minhwa by extension -- remain relevant.
Last year, she collaborated with Korea's biggest cosmetics company Amore Pacific for packaging design. In May, her paintings of flowers and butterflies adorned the packages of the limited edition of Sulwhasoo, the company's premium line popular around Asia.
"Time changes. Religion changes. But people's innocent minds and simple wishes for the wellbeing of their loved ones are timeless."
On Thursday, she opens a solo exhibition, "Time & Space," which runs through April 19 at Art One in Wanchi, Hong Kong, her first on the special administrative Chinese island.
"In 2005 when I had an exhibition in New York, Minhwa wasn't a popular genre at all. I knew few artists who were working on it and people often asked me why I was doing it," she recalled.
"I still can't explain why I am doing it, except that I am the happiest and feel most rewarded when I do this and that I like its unassuming style and modest spirit."
This image provided by South Korean artist Lee Don-ah shows "Happiness (72.8x53cm, mixed media, 2014)," part of the "Time and Space" series. (Yonhap)
This image provided by South Korean artist Lee Don-ah shows her flowers and birds painting (91x765.2cm, mixed media, 2014), part of the "Time and Space" series. (Yonhap)