With departure of Ke-Sook Lee, KC’s art world loses a dynamic talent
Kansas City Star,, June 28, 2013
By Alice Thorson

This month, artist Ke-Sook Lee and her husband, Kyo Rak Lee, a radiologist retired from the University of Kansas Medical Center, packed up their Overland Park house.

A decade ago, their architect son, Charles Lee, transformed the interior into a modernist dream, including a light-filled studio for his mother on the second floor.

Now the house has been sold, and the Lees have left for California. It’s a big loss for the Kansas City art world, where Lee has exerted a significant presence with fiber and textile works that explore the challenges of being a woman and her struggle for her own identity.

"She’s right on the forefront of what’s important," former Kansas City public art administrator Heidi Iverson Bilardo said 15 years ago. "She addresses issues that women in everyday life are addressing as they go about the challenges of being mothers, wives and working people."

Lee, an international artist with one of the busiest careers in town, began as a painter but is now known for delicate, embroidered works and ethereal installations. Her development has been a dynamic one, evolving from a core set of ideas rooted in personal history.

Born in Seoul, Korea, in 1941, she could feel her country changing during her years at Seoul National University’s College of Fine Arts, where she earned her bachelor of arts in applied art. As a student she tasted freedom, which made her move to the U.S. as a young bride in 1964 all the more wrenching.

"I was part of a new (post-war) generation in Korea," she said in a recent interview. "In the U.S., I was trapped in the house raising children."

While her sons were small and her husband was advancing his career, Lee took a few art courses at the University of Missouri-Columbia and later at Johnson County Community College, but she focused on raising her family. She waited 15 years before enrolling at the Kansas City Art Institute, where she studied with Warren Rosser and Ron Slowinski and earned a bachelor of fine arts in painting in 1982.

In 1981, Barbara Haskell, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, gave Lee a purchase award in the Mid-Four exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

But after graduation, "I came back to the same old kitchen," she said.

Still, Lee kept making art and finding opportunities to exhibit — in group shows at the Salina Art Center and the Kansas City Artists Coalition.

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Lee created a cycle of large oil paintings that conveyed her feelings of domestic entrapment, including a 1991 work in which she depicted herself with her face coming off as her children watch.

Lee held on to it, and the painting was featured in the couple’s estate sale of contemporary and antique furniture, decorative arts objects and artworks, held just before they left for California.

"I just don’t want to be a happy suburban wife," Lee remarked as she viewed the work readied for sale. "That’s not enough for me."

The 1990s were a period of explosive development and growing exposure for Lee.

Richard Armstrong, then director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (now director of the Guggenheim), included her work in the Artists Coalition’s 1996 River Market Regional Exhibition; Bilardo put her in the gallery’s members show the following year and selected Lee for a 1998 Juror’s Choice exhibit at the Artists Coalition.

Featuring works like "Study of My Face," a series of drawings in which the artist’s face was hidden within a grid of charcoal and graphite strokes, and "A Portrait of a Woman as an Artist," based on her personal journal, the exhibit documented an aesthetic shift to an increasing reliance on drawing.

The seed was planted during her time at the Art Institute.

"I took a writing class and learned to write poems that I adapted to my work," she said. "Images began popping out, and I started to draw."

Lee hit her stride in 1999 when she was recognized with an individual artist’s fellowship from the Charlotte Street Foundation. The award coincided with a key decision to begin translating her drawings into embroidery, a skill she learned as a girl from her grandmother.

"Women had no social life then; they could only be at home working," she explained in a 2009 interview with critic Elisabeth Kirsch. "They had to do all the cooking and make all the clothes. And homemakers had no social status. … Embroidery was the most individual expression women had."

Lee’s contributions to the Charlotte Street Foundation’s annual awards exhibition included quiltlike expanses of stiffened rice paper squares emblazoned with little personal symbols and embroidered pillowcases accompanied by one-line poems.

Next came a "dish towel" diary and huge, filmy aprons, which Lee displayed suspended from the ceiling or pinned to a gallery wall. She enlisted doilies as supports for her own embroidered drawings of seedpods and flowers, part of an evolving visual vocabulary of organic forms connoting personal growth.

Locally, she began exhibiting at the Dolphin gallery, a top venue for Kansas City artists, and in 2003, she had her first one-person show in New York at the George Billis Gallery, the beginning of an ongoing relationship. She also landed exhibits overseas, in Paris (2002), Ireland (2005) and Berlin (2008).

In 2007, Lee exhibited 100 hand-embroidered handkerchiefs in an ambitious installation titled "One Hundred Faceless Women," in the "Pricked: Extreme Embroidery" exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

In show after show, she established a reputation for richly layered works combining innovation with materials, submerged narrative, a dialogue with abstract tradition and cultural commentary.

In the December/January 2004 issue of American Craft magazine, writer Sigrid Wortmann Weltge, author of "Bauhaus Textiles: Women Artists and the Weaving Workshop," characterized Lee "as an important artist of our time" and praised her "multilayered yet unified body of work proving the extraordinary power of art to transform the ordinary."

The same year, Lee was recognized with an individual artist fellowship award from the Kansas Arts Commission.

Lee’s work is represented in a range of public, corporate and private collections. Recently she was included in "The Female Gaze," a hefty volume documenting an extensive collection of works by women given to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts by Philadelphia collector, artist and philanthropist Linda Lee Alter.

On the occasion of her mother’s 100th birthday, Lee returned to Korea for her first one-person show in the country of her birth.

"During the Korean War, my father was disabled, and my mother took over the financial responsibility. She supported us to have a good education and was disappointed when I ended up a homemaker," Lee said. The exhibit, "Dream Seedpod," on view at the Artlink Gallery in Seoul from December 2012 to January 2013, "was my way of showing appreciation," she said. "My mother was very happy."

The Korean War also provides the backdrop for "Green Hammock" (2010), a hammock created from a recycled army nurse’s uniform.

Lee was 9 when the war broke out. Seeing the uniform in an army surplus shop decades later spurred her childhood memories. "I heard gunfire every night and saw many deaths in the street and saw the despair of their family members," she related when the work was exhibited in Kansas City.

Heather Lustfeldt chose "Green Hammock" for inclusion in "In the Moment," an exhibit at the Carter Art Center celebrating the 125th anniversary of KCAI, and it was subsequently featured in a group show at the Philadelphia Art Alliance. The Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence recently acquired "Green Hammock" for its collection.

Saralyn Reece Hardy, the Spencer director, showed Lee’s work years ago when Hardy was director of the Salina Art Center. She and Spencer curator Kris Ercums thought "Green Hammock" belonged in the Spencer, Hardy said, "as a statement of our time, but also as a clear expression of Ke-Sook’s ability to nurture and care through art, making her command of the language of textiles through line and material, and her unfailing ability to use materials to share her insights."

"‘Green Hammock’ is a powerful reminder of the medical nurses who wore the uniforms and those injured," she added. "The kind of empathy for all that comes only from an artist with Ke-Sook’s depth of experience and largeness of heart."

More recent works include installations created from pieces of tree bark, collected after a thunderstorm. The fallen bark "recalled a memory," Lee wrote. "I have seen three generations of women in our family, each rooted deep and wide to the ground in order to hold their families together."

Her move continues that theme — the Lees’ sons, Charles and John, are in California.

But Lee’s ties to Kansas City run deep.

"I felt like here, I joined the women’s movement," Lee said, recalling the Equal Rights Amendment literature she encountered on the KCAI campus.

"This Asian woman came and awakened in the United States," she added. "Kansas City has given me tremendous, wonderful support in every way."

Accolades from the arts community

"I still vividly remember Ke-Sook coming into the Douglas Drake Gallery in the early 1980s with her two adorable young sons, who would slide down the bannister while Ke-Sook looked at every show the gallery exhibited. She was in school then at the Kansas City Art Institute. The next thing you know, she flowered into the most amazing artist, doing heartbreakingly personal work that was shown around the U.S. and Europe."

Elisabeth Kirsch, art critic and freelance curator

"Ke-Sook had her first solo exhibition at the Artists Coalition in 1996. Her paintings explored the everyday life of women and her unique voice was evident even then. In the years that followed, it has been a pleasure to watch her push boundaries and explore the interior life of the mind in new ways."

Janet Simpson, executive director, Kansas City Artists Coalition

"Ke-Sook Lee is a truly inspirational artist, a quintessential professional and a wonderful, caring friend. Her work is infused with the beauty of her amazing character and fascinating life experiences."

Heather Lustfeldt,
curator and writer

"It has been a tremendous honor, privilege and delight to know and work with Ke-Sook over the past 15 years, and to witness the extraordinary development of her art, vision and career. She is a quiet force of nature and a great inspiration … a wise, brave, strong, elegant, gracious, humble, deeply committed artist and woman whose delicate, beautiful, honest work expresses all of these things."

Kate Hackman, associate director, Charlotte Street Foundation

"Ke-Sook should be an inspiration to the people who are stuck at home, for whatever reason. Profound art is not always where you think it is. Ke-Sook showed me you can find it in your kitchen drawer, your laundry hamper or scattered in your front lawn."

E.G. Schempf, photographer

"Ke-Sook Lee’s journey as an artist has been inspirational. Consistently imbuing her work with a sense of the personal, she emerged as one of Kansas City’s most dynamic and engaging artists, exhibiting nationally and internationally."

Bruce Hartman, executive director, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art

"She is a very honest maker, digging deep inside of herself. She puts it all out there and doesn’t hide anything. She’s been a delight to work with. She’s very grounded and has a beautiful, quiet confidence. You see it in the work and that’s how she is as a person as well."

John O’Brien, owner, Dolphin gallery