While still a preschooler, Dong Kyu Kim would draw on anything he could get his hands on, improvising art supplies from pens, pencils and the margins of books. When he landed a job in fashion after completing his studies, he moved his home from South Korea to New York City. He continues his artistic pursuits, charting his memories through a paper trail of receipts from American shopping experiences. Stitched together with thread, discarded cloth, old envelopes and used shopping bags, Dong Kyu’s art forms an unconventional journal of an immigrant’s experience.
How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?
Well, I was trained to draw and paint from a young age as a way to get into a prestigious college—the competition for these schools is similar to that in the U.S. So can I say that I’m qualified to be an artist? Haha.
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I have a bachelor’s degree in fashion design from a university in Seoul, South Korea. Frankly speaking, I didn’t have time to create my own things. I was solely focused on my job. However, I can say that I was an art lover who enjoyed going to museums and galleries. After moving to the U.S. in 2007, I found an online club called Drawing Room, a community of people who also loved art. Then one of the members suggested we have our own exhibition. I started to showcase my paintings in 2013 and soon moved to textiles, which was a familiar medium I much preferred.
What inspires you to create?
As part of my job I continually have to expose myself to experiences and resources for inspiration—including Instagram, market research, museums, galleries, and movies. Often, I see something, and then a light switch goes on. I’m very good at borrowing ideas from the others! Usually the inspiration comes quickly and naturally. I don’t spend much time dwelling on an idea once it comes to me.
How did your interest in fashion design begin? How do fashion and art intersect?
During my teenage years in South Korea in the 80’s and 90’s, I fantasized about American fashion and culture. Calvin Klein jeans, Guess jeans and Nike shoes were hot items for my generation, but I couldn’t afford them. I was sad that I couldn’t participate in the purchasing and wearing experience. So I felt left out. It was an emotional experience, wanting so much to belong to the privileged class.
So I really studied and worked hard to get a job in the U.S. Luckily I did and then I moved to the U.S. as a temporary worker in 2007. But I had a problem getting a green card—a really stressful experience. At some point, I began to question my motivation for wanting to stay in the U.S. so badly. I started to explore my relationship to the U.S., the concept of the American dream, as well as how individual lives are affected by transitions in global economic structures through my art.
What is your first memory of needle and thread? How does that guide your current work?
It was a bitter cold winter. I was in first or second grade, walking home on a snow-filled country road. Despite the time of year, my mother was rarely home during the day, so I was cheerfully surprised to find her there when I arrived home. I put down my backpack and watched while she darned the holes in our old socks. She hand-stitched them strand by strand. I don’t recall whether I was sitting or lying on the bedroom floor, or whether I was doing my homework or having a conversation with my mother, but I do recollect her warmth. An afternoon filled with warmth and no worries, next to my mother, watching her sewing away—this is my very first memory of needle and thread.
Are there recurring themes in your work? What is it about a subject that inspires you to continue exploring it?
Growing up in South Korea in the 1980s and 1990s, I experienced the radical reshaping of the domestic economy, as well as increasing globalization. So I became obsessed with the capitalistic ideals of money, fame and success. My work asks questions about the impact of American capitalism on one’s values. It is an examination of my relationship to the U.S., the concept of the American dream, and how individual lives are affected by transitions in global economic structures.
Why do paper receipts play such an important role in your work? Do you use any other documents? What do they mean to you?
When I started to save my receipts after moving to the U.S., I didn’t plan to use them for purposes of art. It was just a personal habit to preserve my memories. Since then, I have collected tickets, envelopes, and documents, as well as plastic and paper shopping bags and stickers. Each item provides a record of my various activities at a particular place and time.
The receipts and other materials represent capitalism, consumerism, and my aspiration for wealth, status, and success. So I believe my collection of receipts demonstrates the changing shopping experience. As Jane Burk, curator at the Denver Art Museum, says, “As our transactions continue to relocate online, receipts themselves are becoming more and more obsolete, like the performative ritual of in-store shopping.” So my receipts and other artifacts of the shopping experience are both personal history and a record of a collective experience.
When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?
I am very much a planner. So I need a purpose for creating my art, such as an open call. I am not spontaneous!
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I create my art in my living space and it looks all a mess. I’m not good at organizing!!
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
The basic materials for my work are needle, thread and Swiffer.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
My collection of receipts is like a journal to me, so I don’t have a typical written journal. I would like to be a good writer but writing gives me a headache! It is the same with drawing. I was trained to draw and paint through my school years as a way to help me get into college. But that intensive training made me lose my interest in drawing and painting.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
I used to listen to art history classes on YouTube and podcasts, but after experiencing a lot of anxiety in 2019, I turned to Korean radio. Funny and simple.
Can you tell us about the inspiration and process of one of your works? How does a new work come about?
I expose myself to a lot of experiences and resources for inspiration—including Instagram, market research, museums, galleries, and movies. Often, I see something, and a light switch goes on. Usually the inspiration comes quickly and naturally. I don’t spend much time dwelling on the idea once it comes to me.
For me, inspiration is everywhere. For example, a few years ago, the Ed Sheeran song, Shape of You, was very popular. I really liked the song title—it connected to something inside of me. When I was creating my year-long performance of shopping at the Supreme store in Soho, New York, I was planning to produce t-shirts with the receipts from my shopping. It came to me suddenly that the title “Shape of You” would be perfect for this new artwork. The title also inspired me to attach receipts to the American flag —sort of a metaphor for American capitalism and consumerism.
What does art teach you about yourself?
This is a really hard question. Through my art, I have tried to understand the root of my desires. What makes me who I am now? When I started to study my country’s history and global economics and politics, I realized just how small I am. My art reminds me of this.
Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people, or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?
I believe some talents are just innate. I don’t know about other people, but creativity has always come naturally to me. When I was a preschooler in the late 1970s, I was often left alone in the house. My parents were always busy with farm work, and when my older brother and sister, who mostly watched after me, went off to school, I would draw in books left around the house. Because of our poor living situation, there weren’t any “art supplies” such as sketchbooks and crayons. So I just drew with pen or pencil on the extra white space in any books I found in the house. Nobody had ever taught me, but I drew princesses, princes, houses and trees. Drawing was something that felt familiar to me.
How do you balance your personal life, work and creative endeavors?
I can’t say my job, art and personal life are separate. They are all mingled together.
I do everything at the same time. Sometimes an idea for my art pops up when I am working or taking a rest.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
I haven’t updated my website in a long time so thanks for the reminder!
Where do you see your art going in the next couple of years? Is there anything that you haven’t done yet that you feel compelled to achieve in the future?
I want to be a full-time artist with my own work studio. I’d also like to build my own brand of clothing and combine it with my art.
Interview posted July 2021
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