Transplanted from Seoul, South Korea, to the San Francisco Bay area, textile artist Youngmin Lee recalls thoughts of home by bringing a contemporary perspective to the hand stitched art of bojagi, practiced by her ancestors for hundreds of years. Youngmin finds the peaceful practice meditative and shares it with others through exhibiting her art and teaching.
What inspires you to create?
I get inspired by everyday life. Inspiration is like air and always there, but when I find it, I get motivated and encouraged. On a walk with my dog, I might see the most beautiful sunset and those colors are imbued in my memory, quietly beckoning me until I am ready. Then I can channel those beautiful inspiring sights.
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Do you think that creativity is part of human nature or is it something that must be nurtured and learned?
I think everybody has creativity in them, and people feel or express in their own unique way.
Why textiles? Why bojagi? How did you get started?
I studied textile and clothing in college, and fashion design in graduate school, then worked as a fashion designer for a few years, so textile is a very comfortable subject for me.
After I moved from Seoul, South Korea, to the San Francisco Bay Area in California, I chose bojagi as my creative medium so I could maintain ties to my heritage and culture. I appreciate the beauty that results from the long and slow process of hand stitching. Bojagi work is comfortable and natural to me because it connects my native culture and my adopted culture.
Can you share a brief history of bojagi? Are there different types of bojagi, and do their uses differ?
Bojagi were used as wrappers, covers, or storage for objects in daily life, on special occasions, and in religious rituals. Many bojagi were made for practical reasons with specific purposes. The act of making bojagi also carries wishes for the well-being and happiness of its recipients. This labor of love and prayers imbues bojagi with a memory of affection.
During the rigidly Confucius society of the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910), women were restricted to only the inner court of their house. Making bojagi was one of the few creative outlets they were permitted in the house, so women poured their artistry into stitching to create beautiful pieces.
Jogakbo, patchwork bojagi, embodies the philosophy of recycling, as the cloths are made from remnants of leftover fabric. Well-considered arrangements of shapes and colors in bojagi show modern and abstract composition, as well as Korean women’s creative sensibility.
So many tiny stitches! How many different ways are there to join seams? Is the technique difficult to learn?
There are several stitch techniques and seam techniques for bojagi making. Even though tidy stitches make people intimidated sometimes, bojagi is made with combinations of very basic hand stitching techniques. I am working on stitch samples and technique projects right now, and hope I can share with people soon.
What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?
My work started from very traditional and functional aspects and gradually moved to express my thoughts and ideas. Bojagi is my interpretation of my cultural heritage and tradition, and I can carry that with me when I wear bojagi-inspired clothing I have made. Eventually, I started to demonstrate and teach bojagi to people – this helped me feel more of a connection between my past and my present, my native culture and my adopted culture.
When you begin to create, do you visualize the finished piece? Or does the work evolve?
My bojagi creating process is very organic. I choose one element from material, shape or color. I initiate the process by putting small fragments together, then work as I go along. Sometimes the piece grows as I planned, but at other times, it grows as if it has its own intention. I just enjoy the rhythm of stitching, with the result beyond my control. I appreciate the beauty that results from the long and slow process of hand stitching – a meditative act that creates an unexpected and spontaneous result.
Do you have a dedicated space for creating? If so, what does it look like?
I have a home studio, which is a room in my house with good natural light where I can spread out all my materials and work. I made one wall into my design-wall so I can put my pieces up and take a step back to look and make decisions for the next steps.
What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?
My seven sewing friends, needle, thread, ruler, scissors, flat iron, small iron and thimble, are always with me. I also use a bone folder (hera marker) to make creases on fabrics, and a rotary cutter to cut along lines.
Do you use a sketchbook or journal? How does that help your work develop?
I have a small sketchbook where I write and draw ideas. This helps me visualize my ideas and capture my moments of creativity. Sometimes I find myself starting from just some doodling of prompt lines and ideas, then I finish the project with a totally different result. I love this organic process.
What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? If so, what kind?
Sometimes, I listen to music or audiobooks. When I am trying to put my good wishes and intentions to my work, I work in silence. It feels like meditation for me.
When you travel, do you stitch on planes and in waiting areas? What is in your creative travel kit?
When I travel, I pack my small travel kit which has small cuts of fabrics and sewing tools. These are usually very simple and repetitive pieces just so I can keep my hands busy.
How many projects do you have going at once? Or do you focus on one creative project at a time? Tell us about a challenging piece. What were the obstacles and then how did you get past them?
I have several small clear boxes in my studio where I keep my ongoing projects. This is how I can work on multiple projects while keeping my mind and studio organized. When I’m stuck on a challenging piece, I put it away in a box and wait until my thoughts are clear and ready to start again. Most of the time, this method works for me. When I am frustrated or stressed, I need to keep my distance from the source until my mind clears.
Where can people see your work?
People can visit my website, www.youngminlee.com or Instagram, @youngminlee_bojagi to see my work and projects. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco has two of my works in their collection.
Tell us about your website. What do you hope people will gain by visiting?
My website, www.youngminlee.com has information about Bojagi (wrapping cloth), Maedeup (Korean decorative knots) and Korea Textile tour. I enjoy sharing textile art, connecting cultures, and providing resources that people can learn from.
Do you lecture or teach workshops? How can students/organizers get in touch with you to schedule an event?
I offer lectures and workshops about bojagi and other Korean traditional textile art. You can reach me at [email protected] to get more information or schedule an event. I love to travel and teach and now I offer virtual/online/Zoom programs, too.
Do you plan to revive your textile tours to Korea? What can someone expect on one of these adventures?
Yes, I had to postpone this year’s tour to next year due to the COVID-19, but my participants and I are looking forward to our adventure in 2021.
South Korea is an amazing country that manages to include an extraordinary variety—everything from the fastest internet connections in the world and innovative architecture to the preservation of cultural heritage, as well as world-class artisans.
Participants and I will visit museums and galleries (for traditional and contemporary arts and crafts), palaces, traditional Korean houses (hanok), temples, artist studios, workshops as well as fabulous markets (shopping for textiles and other treasures you won’t want to go home without).
Interview with Youngmin Lee posted August 2020
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