WONJU SEO


ARTIST BIO

Wonju Seo is a Korean American textile artist born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, where she received her BFA in Fine Arts Painting from Hong-Ik University in 1988. She currently lives and works in Bergen County, NJ.  After graduating from art college, she worked as a designer and a commercial silk painting artist. In 1998, she moved to the U.S. to continue her career as an artist. After her marriage, Seo started creating geometric abstract textile art, which utilizes the traditional Korean sewing method that retains the aesthetics of color and shape of Korean traditional wrapping cloth called Bojagi with a modern twist. She has taught Bojagi making at many schools, museums, and organizations in the U.S. and South Korea. Seo’s works are in the permanent collections of the Newark Museum, NJ and the Charles B. Wang Center, Stony Brook University, NY.

 

ARTIST STATEMENT

“Tradition meets modernity as a geometric abstraction”

Wonju Seo's work is influenced by the Korean textile tradition, Bojagi. Bojagi is a Korean patchwork wrapping cloth made out of colorful scraps of natural fabric used for making traditional Korean costumes called Han-bok. Her inspiration also comes from the history of women’s lives and their artistic inspiration in ancient Korea. Bojagi was made and used by all classes of women, who lived between the 14th and 19th Centuries. It was used for wrapping, covering, and transporting everyday objects.  

To create her abstract geometric textile artwork, Seo combines silk painting and mixed media collage techniques with the skills of Bojagi making, such as hand sewing, folding, and embroidery. She revisits the pure geometry constructed in antique Bojagi forms and reinterprets it through her artistic view with contemporary concerns. Seo imports Korean natural fabrics, such as silk, cotton, ramie, and hemp from South Korea, and creates her own colors by overlapping two or more pieces of sheer organza of different colors or painting on silk using water-based silk pigments. She adapts her technique not only for installation pieces but also for functional art, book art, etc. 

Her works visualize her process of redefining her personal and cultural identity asking questions like “Where am I from?” “Where am I now?”, and “Where am I heading towards?”. She revisits her childhood in a patriarchal society and her current adulthood in Western society. The exterior shapes of her work “Through My Window” symbolize a window through which Seo observed the outside world as a child. The window meant both freedom to explore the unknown world and also a boundary of comfort and safety. Additionally, the window represents her dream and desire to explore the world, much like the dreams and desires of many Korean women who grew up in the traditional Confucian culture. 

The dynamic geometric lines and powerful contrasts of colors represent herself as an active, creative, and contemporary woman. Finally, the patchworks in “Wrapping with Blessings” convey her best wishes for her viewers, as the stitching of small pieces of the fabric means a blessing of good fortune and longevity in Korean culture.

INTERVIEW WITH ARTIST

Hello, Wonju. Thank you for taking the time for us. To start with, please tell us what is ART to you?
Art to me is visualizing specific images saved in my memory through my sensitivity and rationality, leaving a record of them, and sharing with others. Most of the images are related to many events in my life or to my dreams and my world of imagination. So, my experiences in the diverse cultures, in schools and society, my life as a teenager in the patriarchal society, and my current life in the western world all have become the background for my creative activity.

So, when did you start to get more involved with art? Were you interested in art from your youth? What events led you to become the artist that you are today?
The word “art” was becoming a more complicated and heavy subject to me when I was an undergraduate student in art school. Things started to become more difficult when my questions shifted from “What do I draw and HOW?” to “What do I draw and WHY?” I graduated from the university not getting an answer to the questions like “Who am I?” and “What is my correlation with art?” Instead of choosing the path of an artist, I joined a major company and started my work as a package designer. Ironically, I started to find my answers to the question, “What is an art to me?” as I was meeting many people outside of the art world and experiencing small and big things in life. And I started to ponder about the life that I wanted to live - creating every day, and the desire for such life grew deep inside me.

So, even though you were trained as an artist in college, your journey as an artist hasn’t started until later.
Yes, it was 18 years after graduating from an art university that I started to walk the path of an artist. What became the biggest motivation to become an artist after getting married in the U.S., was a patchwork relic that I had seen in a gallery in Seoul when I was still working at the firm in 1989. I was deeply captivated by the patchwork wrapping cloths which are one type of Bojagi (Korean traditional wrapping clothes). It required an extensive time of needlework joining leftover pieces of colorful clothes from making the ancient Korean clothing. Leaving out the descriptions like “relic” and “traditional”, I saw that structurally, the patchwork wrapping clothes were made with lines and planes. It felt like a color-field abstract or geometric abstract that uses fabric and thread in place of paint and brush creating clear boundaries with lines and filling the planes with colors.

I further thought that the patchwork wrapping cloth has an infinite possibility for creation embracing the beauty of both the East and the West and not being restricted by genre, materials, and techniques as modern art. I realized that a complete paradigm shift happens when an object is seen from a different perspective away from the existing perception. It is said that Van Gogh started to paint to show people how beautiful the sky and wheat fields are. Similarly, through my artwork, I wanted to share with people in the U.S. the impression I felt when I first saw the patchwork wrapping cloth. I think creative thinking and flexibility of thinking is an important asset for artists and their creative work. In addition, I think it is important to have a heart earnestly striving to give the best to every part of life.

It’s fascinating to hear about your journey on how you got your hands on the patchwork wrapping cloth and to see how innovative your work is. I assume that you had ups and downs transitioning from non-artist life and living as a full-time artist. Last question is, what were your happiest and most difficult moments as an artist?
The happiest moments as an artist are getting opportunities to share with other nations the beauty of Korean traditional patchwork sublimated with modern esthetics through my creativity. And also contributing to establishing Bojagi that once used to be a daily necessity in ancient Korea as a modern art piece. In contrast, there were difficult moments as an artist like learning new techniques for the project in a short period of time or finishing a big project on my own with limited time. Thankfully, learning basic computer design and new media technology in a community college a while ago has been very helpful. Being able to use a variety of computer design programs is vital in planning and designing big projects like installation art. Lastly, the biggest challenge is to find a balance between work and daily life. Time with family is very important to me because my beloved ones are the biggest motivators for living a life as an artist.