Elizabeth Kirsch, Following Narrative Thread,
Kansas City Star,
June 28, 2009.

In her current installation “Thread Whisper”, Ke Sook Lee incorporates many of her favorite leitmotifs: transparent aprons the size of doors; vintage crochet work, idiosyncratic embroidered “drawings” on various textiles; and pigment made from dirt and vegetables from her garden. It’s possible your grandmother’s hankie found its way into this show, now illustrated with Lee’s hermetic, stitched narratives. 

Over the past decade, Lee has exhibited variants of such textiles internationally. But “Thread Whisper” is the first time Lee has amassed, in one room, her complete asethetic arsenal representing a subject she continues to exhaustively investigate: the home and its female householders.  For her, it is a topic both highly personal and of continuing global concern. 

“Thread Whisper” is part reverie and part stage set.  Lee’s installation, which was mounted by her son John Sangjun Lee, literally hangs by threads and pins.  It consists of a four-sided house dangling in the center of the room, and various stages of a garden installed around the periphery. One need not fully grasp Lee’s narrative to appreciate the ghost-like, stitched and stained textiles that float throughout the room and on the walls.  But if one looks at Lee’s forms long enough, ancestral spirits seem to weave in and out of the various settings, whispering stories essentially inaudible.  Lee’s work aims to give them a voice. 

She can do this because her own history resonates with the stories of generations of anonymous women whose lives were limited to the confines of their homes. 

Lee is Korean.  She was fourteen when, just after the Korean war, she was put in charge of the family home.  “I grew up in a Confucianism background,” Lee said in a recent interview.  “Women had no social life then; they could only be at home working.  They had to do all the cooking and make all the clothes. And homemakers had no social status.  The most fun part,”  she recalls, “was doing embroidery.  It was the most individual expression women had.” 

After Lee married, she moved to Kansas City with her husband, Dr. Kyo Rak Lee, who was a radiologist and taught at  KU Medical Center.  Once again Lee became a householder, this time in a foreign country, with two small children. After her sons were older, she attended the Kansas City Art Institute where she received a BFA in 1982. 

Lee has since worked in many media, but ten years ago she began focusing exclusively on textiles. She incorporated vintage, hand-crocheted doilies into squares she stitched together like quilts.  Her fabrics became layered, with multiple openings and hand-stitched drawings, and she created ceiling to floor installations.  Instead of painting on canvas, she made giant gossamer aprons that would give Betty Crocker a migraine.  
Four such aprons form the “walls” of  her house in “Thread Whisper,” each one with its own distinct personality.  Clearly they serve as metaphors for housebound women.  

One is slightly worn. Another has transparent envelopes attached to it. Each envelope contains a handkerchief with one of Lee’s stitched, organically outlined drawing of a person. “Someone has to open each one up and take them out.  They can’t get out by themselves,” she explains.  The two remaining aprons have more images and more openings.  “These allow for more freedom,” Lee says. 

Lee’s  drawing, as she calls it, consists of tiny stitches she painstakingly embroiders to form lines. Each little stitch, she says, “represents a seed that offers hope of personal growth.” 

In that spirit, Lee has created “gardens” in her installation. In one corner, the ground has been “furrowed” with hundreds of minute stitches sewn onto various kinds of fabrics that have been rolled, folded, stitched on, and dyed..  On another wall, dozens of embroidered circles or rings hover on the wall like so many butterflies or bubbles; they represent flowers blossoming and opening up.  A profusion of crochet-work and molded paper shapes formed from doilies explode on a third wall like some giant fabric bouquet.   

“Life is a bouquet – whether hard or easy,” Lee believes. In her art, there is ever a push – pull sensibility. Lee’s house of monster aprons threatens to smother one, yet as “walls” the aprons are transparent and open at the sides. There is a possibility of freedom. And ultimately, endless rows of plain little stitches can sometimes turn into vibrant works of art, just as a garden patiently tended can one day glow with color and life.

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