The Artist in Bloom
Ke-Sook Lee has an affinity for the garden in mixed media exhibit
Kansas City Star, September 14, 2001
By Kate Hackman

With "Stories From the Garden," Kansas City–based artist Ke-Sook Lee has reached a new high point in an already impressive career. For several years Lee has employed the garden as a metaphor, developing an expressive vocabulary of forms and materials that equate her personal and artistic development with organic growth. The increasing complexity and refinement of this formal language, as evidenced in her tightly packed exhibition of new works at Dolphin gallery, testifies to Lee’s assured hand, unique vision and many stories to tell.

Ke-sook lee was born and raised in Korea, then immigrated to the united States, settled and raised a family. In 1982 she graduated from the Kansas City Art Institute and in 1999 won a Charlotte Street Fund Award, a local grant rewarding outstanding artistic achievement. It is her multifaceted nature of her identity - Korean, American, wife, mother, woman, artist- that Lee addresses in her work. But it is her ability to convey this exploration through images both formally gorgeous and symbolically accessible that make her so successful.

Pieces at Dolphin assume a variety of formats, form large, quiltlike grids of rice paper panels stitched together, to small, improvisational mixed media drawings on handmade paper, unframed and mounted on the wall like slates. Throughout Lee manages to achieve a fine balance between intimate, surface detail and striking overall composition, such that the objects unfold slowly as one looks closer.

Each object is loaded with variety of associations. Rice paper refers to Lee’s Korean heritage. Pigments and clay, dug from her garden, provide an organic palette of pale blue, brown, black and white. Bits of fabric, lace, stitching and formats loosely approximating pillowcases or hand towels connote the tasks and objects associated with domestic work. These various symbols are dexterously woven into integrated wholes, which operate at once as journallike autobiographies and richly evocative abstractions.

Lee has begun cutting into the surfaces of her pieces, creating windows that expose or veiled by intricate pieces of lace, colorfully embroidered silk, or bits of white tarlatan, often embellished with tiny black or white stitches. According to the artist, this incorporation of sewn elements is a tribute to her grandmother who "did not know how to read or write, but was able to express her thoughts and creativity through her sewing."

In the context of Lee's work, these inclusions introduce another strata of history and personal biography, as well as satisfyingly tactile means of mark-making. By layering these sewn elements underneath or on top of her primary surface, Lee engages a dynamic of revealing and concealing, which furthers the idea of identity as multifaceted and constantly in the process of being redefined.

Another recurrent element Lee uses here to great effect is intricately cut paper snowflakes, akin to those we make as children. The stunning "Awakening in Her Garden II" features an all-white grid of 25 squares in which snowflakes alternate with painted seedlike forms. The radiating patterns of the snowflakes echo the outwardly gesturing lines of the seeds, and overlaying spirals of pale stitches reinforce the connection.

Emphasizing a progression of growth and opening up throughout, Lee extends her garden metaphor to embrace the sky as well as the soil. With this exhibition, she proves her ability to transcend the metaphor entirely and to speak in universal terms.