Anabaptist World: How did you become an artist? SaeJin Lee: Understanding and accepting myself as an artist has been a journey.
As a child, I simply remember spending a lot of time creating — drawing, painting, making paper dolls and clothes, singing, etc. In my teenage years, my family immigrated to the United States from Korea, and when speaking in a new language became limiting, I found art as a method for self expression and acceptance. These were probably the years that I first thought about what it means to be an artist, taking every art class and other extracurricular opportunities offered at my high school (Bethany Christian Schools).
I entered Goshen College to study pre-med, but by my second year, I realized I was enjoying drawing lab apparatus much more than the labs themselves and really missed engaging art on a regular basis. I began understanding myself as an artist, not because I was making a living out of it, but simply because I accepted that making art made me feel most alive and present to my relationships. By my third year at Goshen college, I switched my major to Art and Bible/Religion/Philosophy, and cherished integrating the two fields in life.
Following college, I entered a long period of tending to and seeking healing from my personal wounds from growing up, something that I became aware of during seminary studies. When words alone could not fully express what I was going through, art became an important vehicle in helping me articulate and integrate the process. I learned that seeking healing from past wounds is a practice in deeply trusting the body, and my body desired to make meaning of past difficult experiences through art.
Accepting art to guide my healing eventually led me to where I am now, pursuing graduate studies in Art Therapy and Counseling through the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I am growing each day as an artist/art therapist, currently working at a behavioral health hospital for my internship and interacting with a diverse pool of patients as they walk their journeys. Reflecting on the original question of how I became an artist, I think art found me as much as I found it, becoming my most trusted companion over the years.
AW: You’ve worked in handmade paper, pencil, watercolor, and paint. You’ve even done liturgical installations. Can you describe your journey with different media? SJL: Finding my way into different media has been much like finding my way into art itself — organic, serendipitous, at times, and a process of trusting both my desire and the context that invited me to engage it.
Pencil, watercolor and paint are materials I worked with freely and comfortably while growing up. They were materials available through school, and ones with which I probably spent the most time just playing.
Handmade paper is a new medium I encountered this past summer as I took an intensive course on making paper from raw natural materials. The class was truly eye-opening, bringing together my desire to care for the earth and to create as an artist. My work in paper-making tries to explore the theme of ‘relationship’ within the natural world, honoring the interconnectedness of humans to the rest of creation, remembering that we are dust and just one small part of the created order.
My work with liturgical installations came as an invitation. In 2015, I was asked to create an installation for a public worship service of lament and confession in response to the sexual violence perpetuated by John Howard Yoder and the church’s ongoing complacency over the years. I was asked to create a work that honored the survivors’ experiences, and, while not entirely the same, my own experience of trauma from the past informed my creation. The task involved deep listening and a radical slowing down to be present to the pain of the survivors. This taught me to honor the process as much as the product, perhaps even more so, trying to represent the non-linear, asymmetrical timeline of trauma and healing. Since my work with the lament service, I have done other liturgical installations within the Mennonite Church, including Women Doing Theology Conference for Mennonite Church USA and Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Pastors and Leaders conferences.
AW: On your website, you group your artwork in categories (“Art for Church,” “Process Art,” “Doodles and Musings”). Do you work on only one project at a time, or do you have several projects going at once? What does a day look like in the studio? SJL: My website is mostly a repository of the breadth of work I’ve created throughout the years. In general, I tend to work on multiple projects at once, unless there is a single project that has a specific timeframe for completion and requires more of my undivided creative energy.
“A day in the studio” sounds like a wonderful luxury that I wish I had but don’t at this point in life. I am, foremost, an art therapy and counseling graduate student, finding small windows of time to make art while juggling internship, classes, and a couple of part-time jobs. Whenever I do make art, the works are often a reflection of how I am going through life, like a visual journal, if you will. I probably create these types of process art on a weekly basis. I also make art for school assignments and test out art projects for my internship.
AW: You have a piece depicting the peaceable kingdom in Voices Together, the most recent church hymnal. How does your identity as a Mennonite inform your work? I also notice “Life is an Egg” has Korean writing in the title. Are there Korean influences in your other work?
SJL: My identity as a Mennonite and as a Korean are all a part of who I am and cannot be separated from how I create my art. This is because both of these identities are not discrete from each other, but manifested in me as a collective whole. Mennonite faith, as I understand it, is grounded in discipleship, community, and peace, and is at its core embodied; it is a way of life rather than something you are because you sing hymns, eat certain foods, or draw particular subject matter. Similarly, my work is Korean not because I create “Korean subject matter,” but rather because I am Korean and I make art. As such, I guess you could say that all of my artwork are, in some way, “Mennonite” and “Korean,” because my faith and my cultural/ethnic identity is simply a part of me at all times. I am never an artist aside from those two identities being integral to me.
AW: What do you hope people will learn or take away from your art? SJL: Mostly, I want people to have some kind of an encounter with my art. Whether it be a resonance with the joy and pain of being human, a question about their own identities and faith, or simply a feeling of wanting to play more. I want people to experience something real within themselves when interacting with my art.
See more of SaeJin Lee’s artwork at her website: saejinleeart.com.