Hi Angela. Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell me about your childhood and how art played a part in that?
I remember reading tiny words at my dad’s office for hours upon hours when I was just about seven years old. The room would always draw me in with the smell of hundreds of old books, all of which were owned by my dad. The book that was often held by my little hands was one of the top 10 best-sellers in Korea, written by my favourite person, my dad. I rarely saw him since his actual office was in a different city and he would only come home on the weekends. But even then, he often had to travel around the country to be interviewed or attend book signings. Most of the time he was writing, thinking about his storyline, and generally creating magic on his old laptop. He was my muse. Sometimes I would grab a pencil and a notebook to write a novel myself, dreaming of becoming like him one day. Our family never had so many digits in their bank account and my dad never seemed prouder. With his huge success, we were able to immigrate to Canada soon after, for a new and a better life.
Back in my motherland, my friends would often ask me for my dad’s autograph, which didn’t fail to boost my confidence, but in Canada, my dad seemed so small. His mastery in speaking/writing the Korean language had made him a star there, but in Canada he had lost his language completely and couldn’t even form a basic sentence. Even though he continued to write in Korean, his confidence was no longer there. And not only did my dad lose his language after leaving the country, but I did as well. I started losing my attraction to language and I stopped reading and writing altogether. Instead, I doodled on a piece of paper all the time. After getting bullied by so many kids at school, I would come home to my best friends, namely my pencil crayons and my notepad, to draw things that I wanted to say. My language had changed to a visual one. That’s how my relationship with art began.
I’m not sure if I was born with this gift of art, but I was good at it from an early age. My art was always displayed in the principal’s office or the hallways of my high school, and it could even be found in magazines. I was receiving a number of awards even though I never had any proper training or education. But my dreams never included art, mostly because I didn’t want to end up like my dad. He had once tasted fame and success, but it had disappeared all too quickly. In my realistic knowledge, art could never be a career.
One day, my dad came into my room, and said “I want you to fulfill the dream that I failed to achieve. Consider being an artist. You have a gift that nobody has, and I know you can do it.” That changed everything. I never questioned anything else and I went straight down the path of being an artist.
It’s great to hear that you were supported early on. What happened next as you began to pursue art professionally?
I achieved a degree of success in my early adult life and cultivated a good amount of steady collectors who always came back to my paintings for their collections. I also established good relationships with independent galleries where I was exhibiting my artwork regularly. My work was even displayed on billboards at Dundas square and other public places. Curating multiple exhibitions and festivals became more frequent, and I was often invited to judge when there were art competitions or juried exhibitions.
I started posting my paintings on my Facebook page for the first time and my followers jumped from 800 to over 4000 within a year. It was an unexpected treat and it was delicious. I had a taste of social media and I felt like I was validated as an artist. People loved my art, which boosted my ego, and I began to gain confidence and pride like my dad had done in Korea, but it also came with immense pressure.
So after all this initial success and pressure, what were some challenges you faced?
I didn’t want to lose that spotlight with the speed and in the manner that my dad had. I became obsessed with “keeping the fame” and my art became a tool to prove to myself that I was worthy and good. I was observing what people liked about my work, and based on their favourites, my subject matter often changed, despite how I personally felt. I was creating for people and no longer for myself. Art became confusing to me at some point because the relationship between my art and myself was not the same anymore.
It can be tough, especially when you are starting off, to let go of all the noise. You use the word “was” a lot. It sounds like there was a eureka moment in your life. Could you tell me about that?
This unexpected pandemic came and flipped the world upside-down. Not only were people across the globe dying from this virus, but we were also hit hard by systematic racism, absurd politicians, and global environmental disasters. I was just getting more and more disappointed by humanity and I couldn’t digest any of the nonsense that was happening in the world. It was consuming me. Fear crept into my life and depression kicked in again. As usual, I hid from the world to focus on myself and my painting. I turned off my cellphone and social media and I cancelled all the noise that was coming from the outside. Instead of talking to people, I spent time with the animals in my backyard and my studio courtyard. I tried to find inspiration from nature, which was painted by God. I kept on creating whatever was in my mind, just like when I was doodling at the age of 9. For the first time, I was free from the “rules” that the art industry had created, and I was painting for myself. With COVID and all, it made me realize that life in this world could be very short. So I focused on what I wanted to paint as if it was my last painting in this world. And that led to my current series, “Pile of Garbage.”
Wow, it’s great what you were able to find out about yourself through Covid, in addition to starting a new series. You can’t take these life changing moments lightly. We’ll talk about the new series shortly but before we do, what big idea did you learn during this time?
The secret to being a true artist is knowing how to stop the noise from the outside forces and start listening to the voice that your internal self is whispering.
After 12 years of practicing art professionally, I finally stopped listening to people’s opinion to regain my initial relationship with my art.
At the end of the day, even though it took 12 years, your relationship with art was restored. Could you share with us lessons from working on your art during COVID with this new perspective?
- People’s opinions do not matter. Most of them don’t have room to care about you, so they obsess over shallow opinions. People are busy living their lives, so stop caring so much about what they think and focus on your relationship with self and art. It’s so easy to get trapped on social media likes these days and so many are validating themselves through the number of likes they are getting. Stop looking for validation from other people and find the validation from yourself first. If you can’t respect your art, people won’t respect your art either.
- Life is unexpected and it is short. As an artist, we have to stop complaining about how fast-paced this life is, but start documenting this floating history in our visual language. Take every single day as an opportunity to do greater work.
- If you want to be an artist, you have to fall in love with it HARD. Otherwise there will be too many obstacles. Form a relationship with your art instead of following the trends. It is mind-blowing to see how many artists gave up on their practice to jump into NFT arts to make a quick buck. Art is more than that. You are more than that. Let’s not forget about the value of making art.
- Subjects can change over time but people’s emotions don’t change. An important aspect of art is not the subject itself, but the emotion that comes out of the painting through colour, brushstrokes, form, and textures.
- Identity means nothing. I’ve been trying to relate my identity to my art for a long time but I was just so lost during that time. As the world is rapidly changing, people change as well. Embrace who you are at the moment and make the best version of yourself.
Let’s talk a little bit about a day in the life of Angela Kim.
Usually, I wake up in bed with a degree of pressure. I think about my overall series’ and the paintings I was working on the day before. I’m my own worst critic and usually I don’t really say nice things to myself. I ask myself what went right about the painting, what level of connection I’m having with the painting, and what is needed to make the next painting better. When I’m not critiquing my work, I visualize my internal language in colors, lines, shapes, and textures. When I’m out of my thinking zone, I try to get my work-related tasks done, such as responding to emails, scheduling meetings, editing databases, etc. Then I go to my studio after lunch. When I arrive at my studio, I sometimes write whatever’s on my mind, or about my current painting practice. I try to organize my thoughts first in my studio, through words or sketches, then after giving myself some time to brainstorm I jump into painting and I start making my own version of chaos on the canvas. I have been listening to contemporary classical music with the current series that I have been building and music has become an important part of it.
Why do you think you have that instinct to be self-critical and self-motivated?
Oh, I have a very obsessive personality. If I’m obsessed with something, I have to get it and I have to achieve it. And that can be anything. If I want a degree, I will get it. If I need to make an event successful, I’ll make it happen. I think that’s my personality and I tend to get addicted very easily. It can be in a good way or a bad way.
I am a hundred percent obsessed and addicted to making art. It is the only thing that has no end for me. You would think that there would be a measure of satisfaction after so much invested time, but my desire to create better art only ever increases. I don’t think I can ever escape it.
Art is a creative expression but it is also a business. A common thing you hear from artists is that artists are meant to create. They’re not networkers and they’re not business people. How did you deal with the day-to-day business part of the art world? I want to just dive into that first experience of starting off. Could you walk me through what you did to be able to talk to people and network? How did you get over that as an artist?
When I first started painting professionally, I didn’t know how to socialize and how to put myself out there on a professional level. Obviously, I struggled financially because I lacked the true knowledge of how to be a successful artist, but I had too much pride to ask anybody for assistance. There were so many things I wanted to paint but I couldn’t afford the materials to paint them, so I had to sacrifice some painting practices and I had to start looking for a job that actually paid money.
I was a part-time art instructor for seven years since I was a student at OCAD university. I loved teaching. I loved the fact that I could teach something that I was so passionate about, but it just didn’t provide me enough hours to pay the bills, so I tried many different paths such as a law office, a naturopath/supplement place, graphic design office, etc. I became burnt out and depressed. My focus had become surviving at my job and it became all about the money. I wasn’t painting anymore. Physically and mentally, I could no longer hold my brush after a long day of work. I knew that I was getting sick and that I had to stop working to paint again, so I just saved up every penny I could earn and I became a full time painter again in 2017.
I had to approach this art career with a strategy this time. I had to be organized and I had to throw my pride away in order to do this right. I needed to network and socialize as much as I could because without an audience there was no way I could live off of art.
I started going to as many art events as I could. I started painting live when there were charity events and I took every painting gig I could find. I started volunteering at art foundations and not-for-profit organizations to help them out with their art sectors. I was consistent and people started noticing my art more and more as I was doing it. Then the people started coming to me. Collectors were sending me emails to inquire about my paintings and dealers wanted to sell my paintings to their own clientele.
When you first start your art career from ground zero, you have to hustle. Many emerging artists make the mistake of dreaming of a collector, or dealer, or gallerist knocking on their door, but that’s pretty unlikely. Focusing on your art practice and trying to get noticed by the world, by putting yourself out there, is not easy, but it’s necessary for an emerging artist. I believe that the time for collectors and gallerists will follow after.
What advice would you give other artists on cultivating a collector base?
To be honest, there are times when I didn’t get to meet the collectors who purchased my paintings or even got their names since they either wanted to remain anonymous or galleries/dealers wanted to keep their collectors private.
If you want to find collectors yourself, you have to make your work accessible; both online and offline. Having a clean and organized website is very important. If you don’t have an online gallery of your work, you won’t be taken seriously as a professional artist, and there will be less of an audience for sure. Using social media, such as Instagram or Facebook, is a good platform to present your work, but if you didn’t build a website of your own, you should start considering it seriously now.
You have to always be genuine with your collectors. Don’t try to trick them to buy something, or overprice your work because you know they have money. If your work has quality, and if they find value in them, they are always going to come back. If you try too hard to make a sale, you will look desperate. So instead of focusing on making sales or doing heavy marketing, make your work presentable and accessible all the time, and focus on the quality of your work.
Maintaining a good relationship with your collector is key. I sometimes give my collectors a preview when a new series comes out, so that they get the first chance to purchase. Sending emails when I have shows is also important, so that they can see the work in real life in a physical space. It’s a good opportunity to talk to them in person and share some refreshments at the opening.
What is your overall goal as an artist? Do you have a dream project that you’re working towards?
I always imagine a future where I no longer exist in this world. My art is still around hundreds of years later and the kids from the future generations are looking at it and talking about it in a museum or gallery setting such as the Gagosian or MOMA. I mean, wouldn’t that be the ultimate goal of most artists?
That’s a serious consideration when I’m making my art. I always think of the longevity of my paintings, which forces me to pick my materials with more thought.
My dream project is making art that transcends people’s previous art viewing experience. I am hoping to create something in which physical space is my canvas and I am filling the entire room with heavy textured paints harmonized with dramatic and colorful lights. The light will dance on top of the textures, creating various types of shadows, with sound flowing in the space. It will be a physical experience that nobody has felt before.
Could you describe the first time you ever experienced great art?
I think I was about 13. I wasn’t really exposed to art before then. I think it was on a field trip.
I remember going to the Vancouver Art Gallery and I was looking at Lauren Harris (one of the Group of Seven). It was the first good art that touched my soul. It was a simple landscape with an old broken tree trunk on an island surrounded by a lake, and there was light from the sky shining on the tree. It looked like it was almost animated, almost cartoonish, with the straight lines and geometrical shapes. As I walked closer to it (I didn’t even know what good art was at that time), my body began to tremble.
I think it was very spiritual, as if the light was covering the cold lonely tree. At that early age, I could see life and death, light and distress, and loneliness and hope, just through that one painting. The closer I looked, the more I realized that it wasn’t the subject itself that moved me, but the brushstrokes, colors, lines, and subtle textures. I almost felt like I could feel his hand movement and I could feel what he was feeling when he was painting it. My heart was beating fast and my eyes were welling up. I stared at that painting for a very long time and almost missed the school bus. It was a unique experience.
I agree that art can be found in a lot of mediums. I’m curious about what you’re currently working on today and where we can find your work.
I’m working on a series called Pile of Garbage, that’s made with encaustic, oil paint, and lots of raw organic materials. With this series, I’m changing the way of painting. Unlike the traditional painting method that uses a brush or a palette knife to paint on a canvas, I melt the wax and damar resin crystals with pigments, pour the mixture on a wood panel, carve them, torch and burn them, add more pigments, remove them, then pour the wax mixture again, and repeat. I’m making art that’s in between sculpting and painting, and it definitely requires more physical labour than traditional painting. Since I’m using grey as a base for a lot of my painting, I try to make my own black pigment, as dark as possible, and grind it by hand. It’s just a personal touch that gives it a bit of today’s history.
I’m also continuously painting things that are on my mind, aside from the series. When my mind wanders around the forest, I paint it. When I feel suffocated, I paint an abstract that portrays my mind. I try not to be dictated by my current series and I let my creativity flow. Not tied to a style or subject, I’m trying to be free as a bird, at least when I’m painting.
The new series and new work of mine will be released on July 13th at HEIMAT Art as a virtual exhibition. And it will available at my website, www.angelakim.ca
How do you feel about the dominant online art market and using these new technologies like VR, AR, or NFT in your practice?
If I had a choice, I would choose to exhibit in a physical place because there are certain experiences you can’t get if you are not viewing the work in person. Especially in my current series, colors on my artworks are rather neutral and muted, and the textures are more highlighted, which the screen can’t really define.
I believe there is good and bad when you link art and technology together. Using technology in this day and age is necessary, especially in times like this where people can’t go to galleries anymore. The world is constantly advancing and I find that you can’t omit technology from anything anymore; we can only accept and embrace it. While it’s true that technology has given so many artists an opportunity to showcase their work with platforms such as social media or online shops like Saatchi and Etsy, the downside of it is that art now has become too much of a product on the online market. Nowadays, people rarely spend time looking at a piece of art. Instead, they just scroll down through hundreds of pieces of art to pick their favorite as if they are shoe shopping. I find art is becoming less sacred overtime. Even looking at NFT art, it really astounds me to see so many artists abandoning their practice to jump into NFT to make some quick cash. I just have lots of mixed emotions when it comes to technology. We will have to wait and see where it takes us.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received and the best advice you’ve given yourself?
To be very honest, I’m not the type to take advice since I can be pretty rebellious and self-centered. I always learn through experience, and the advice has to come from within in order for me to absorb it. Of course I’ve gotten a lot of good advice but there’s nothing I can think of at the moment, which probably means it never got through to me.
I don’t know what the best advice given to me was, but the most recent advice given to me was “It’s okay to be you”. Don’t change the way of who you are because society demands you to be a certain way. Don’t be apologetic for who you are and respect every part of you.
What advice do you have for humanity?
I started visualizing people as piles of garbage not too long ago. The piles of garbage I’m seeing are not necessarily dirty, smelly or useless things. I see it more as a stack of things, formed like a mountain of garbage. Like a sculpture almost.
If you think of the past, life used to be a lot simpler and available information was limited without the internet. But now we are seeing and consuming an immense amount of information whether we consciously want to or not. Skewed self images are being created by social media and we are constantly distracted by endless media and opinions that keep us confused. Our capacity is maximized and we are on the verge of collapse.
Many of us live with a victim mindset, blaming people from the past or present. We all live with expectations and if they are not achieved, it affects us with disappointment. I was living half of my life blaming others, my past, and society, but when I realized that myself and everyone in the world are piles of garbage, in that we are all carrying baggage with burden and confusion, I could see the world with empathy rather than bitterness. Some people turn into a monster at some point because all they stacked up was cruelty; some people were fortunate enough to gather what was beneficial to them. There’s nothing to expect from people and all we can do is to acknowledge the weight on their shoulders. I believe reconciliations can happen then too, and we won’t take every single thing they do personally.
We are all artists in some way. We are creating self-sculptures daily. A good craftsman will know what to burn and what not to burn, what areas to highlight, what to remove or duplicate, and what colors to put in their life. Some people will choose their self-sculpture to be minimal by emptying the majority of things out, and some will choose to be a grand but solid sculpture that takes more time and effort to build. If the sculpture is no longer an uncontrollable mountain anymore, and if it is shaping to be as we desire it to be, we will know how to pick up a sliver of happiness from the tender breeze.