Ke-Sook Lee
Tokyo Note, June, 2004
by Brent Hallard

The heart is full of need, as is memory -

Ke-Sook Lee's recent exhibition 'Stitches in her Garden' at Snyderman Gallery, Philadelphia, part of which first traveled to SOFA, New York.

When I received an invitation to the Philly show I noticed a demon error on the surface. The image had Ke-Sook sitting calm, in process, adding final stitches to a work. At first all seemed in si-tu with the serene, it was an e-postcard--a typical art image with a figure (Ke-Sook), a work, all shot in the white cube. But also in the background, or should I say 'on' this electronic postcard was a huge retinal glitch, not in size, but in its magnitude as it increasingly sped the mistake. I had almost lost sight of the image of Ke-Sook in gentle state stitching away her work and began to focus on this small black blotch that now had reached the very front of my mind. The horror then came--it was after me. Immediately I went to pick it off the screen like you would a spider that was getting too close. I wanted back a calm, at least a gentle menace--a safety within the cosmic of a Ke-Sook stitch. I wanted all-expanse evaporating into light. I did not want dark mass so sharp that like a sword that if I had kept focus much longer would have pushed through my eye to twist and rip inside. I escaped, and wrote back asking if the black spot was new, not telling of the strange event. Ke-sook replied it was. She said, "It just did came out so easy and naturally, I felt my work needed this so I let it be". Again, I returned mail and suggested writing a small piece. It was something almost I felt compelled to do. It was a few weeks before I heard back.

Early this week Ke-Sook mailed images of her two shows. From the jpegs I found further shock in that there were more black dots coming at me. It prompted me again to think whatever were the reasons for this horror.

Holes are not new to Ke-Sook's work, nor, in fact, is the color black--she has used black stitching before, as well as ink on brush. Here, though, this addition was clearly abnormal. The spare positioning of black dots stitched upon apron and quilt of heraldry size swung the space not to vortex but pushed so hard against the retinal that my eyes began a metaphysical bleed. One work, an apron, oozed damp with musky smells--it too had a dot. Next to the ooze a quilt checkered to court the look of Carl Andre's industrial plates, though had two black birds ready to peck. Here the seesawing emotional effect of pure turbulence amidst dank musk, against the high velocity razor-dark mass, wasn't getting any easier to balance. Each jpeg was still not getting identified right. And I needed to know why this new work was having this affect. Once more I mailed and hinted at some help. This time Ke-sook returned a rather long mail, and after reading, despite English being her second language, the flow picked up the new work and gave me full sight. There was no longer any need to balance a teeter-totter. With the full picture speeds and pitches while not alike are let to go their way. The dots eventually passed through me. Once again I could see the calm, and a women busy stitching the last bits. Ke-Sook kindly granted me permission to publish her letter. I thought you have to stand way back to take this one in.

Ke-Sook writes:

I was born in Seoul Korea in 1941. During the World War II, our family retreated to the family's country estate, Haejoo, (after the war it became territory of North Korea) where my father owned rice fields so we wouldn't go hungry. It is then when I started to remember things like sharing a room with my grandmother and great grandmother. Often I would awake to the rustling sounds of hand sewing early in the morning. They had many things to sew. They did not know how to read or write just like most of the women of their time in Korea. But my grandmother embroidered red flowers on my traditional Korean socks, Bosun, wishing that I would grow up to be a beautiful woman. I think I have learned to express my thoughts through embroidery from them.

Our family escaped from North Korea to Seoul, South Korea after the war and Korea became independent from Japan. Afterwards, I entered grade school learning Korean language and knowledge. Sharing a room with grandmother helped me to learn sewing as if it were a necessity of life and as important as writing or reading. I enjoyed watching her sew and making clothes for my doll. I also learned how to mend cotton socks in our classroom at high school. I was at a coed school but the girls' class had to have home economic studies where we learned embroidery, sewing with a sewing machine, and cooking. We did not have nylon socks at that time and the cotton socks wore out easily. Women of the house gathered in the evening under the lamp light to mend socks for family members.

During the Korean War, our family retreated to the southern part of Korea, Pusan, where my father was disabled from a stroke. I was twelve years old, and just about to enter high school. After the war, we returned to our home in Seoul, but my parents had to be separated. My mother, younger brother, and sister were no longer in our home. I shared a room with my grandmother until her death. I was fourteen but became a woman of the house (where my father and older brother lived}, taking my mother's place while going to school. My mother, successful enough with her business, was able to send all four of her children to college. After earning my BFA from College of Art, Seoul National University, I worked as a graphic designer at Yu-Yu Pharmaceutical Company. By this time people were wearing custom made cloth and had nylon socks. I was busy making art, exhibiting designed object, and designed table etc...

I married and came to the United States of America with my husband in 1964. I continued to study art in University of Missouri, Columbia MO and worked part-time as a graphic designer at the Illustration Department at University Medical Center, until my son demonstrated his wishes not to go to the baby sitter's home, after which I became a full-time homemaker for about 16 years. During that time I did lots of sewing, expressing my creativity in embroidery, crocheting, sewing my dress, making quilts, blankets and gardening. After my sons learned to drive themselves, I went back to school and earned second BFA in painting from Kansas City Art Institute in 1982. Since then I searched for the media that I could feel comfortable to reflect my experiences from Korea as well as in America.