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Pushing the boundaries of being meaningful in art and design with Janice Suhji
Meet Janice Suhji, a Korean-American artist, designer, and ceramist based in Brooklyn.
Meet Janice Suhji, a Korean-American artist, designer, and ceramist based in Brooklyn. Janice shares how her creative journey started around figuring out what “meaningful” art was to her and blending that with finding answers to questions in her life. We touch on her role as a designer and how it differs from being an artist. Plus, how her upbringing and experience of being Korean-born in America has opened her worldview. Lastly, she shares a bit about how some of it relates back to her work as a ceramicist.
Interviewed in November 2020
This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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Tell us a little about yourself and your creative journey. I went to grad school to study fine art, where we were taught to make meaningful art. There’s this taboo against “pretty art,” so people look down on pretty photos, paintings, crafts that didn’t have any “deep meaning.” And…I love pretty things! I felt creatively suppressed during art school. And you’re in such a creative space and paying for a creative degree! Exactly.
During grad school, I had a boyfriend who was my subject. At that time, I lived in San Francisco, and he lived in Los Angeles. I used to visit him, but I would pay to stay at a motel because I didn’t want to stay at his place with his parents. But it was always very cheap since I was still a student. And whenever I stayed in them, I felt so guilty and shitty. Why? Because I am Christian and it felt very bad and sexual to be there. And so, the only way that helped me feel a little better about it was to do a project around it—to get something out of it. It became fun because I would want to find the seediest rooms to take photos in! I would pose my boyfriend, do the lighting and all that. After grad school, we broke up. (laughing) …so that project ended. For a whole year after that, I didn’t do any art.
What stopped you? Both the breakup and also what my art school defined as good art. It’s so stupid, but I felt very jealous whenever I saw my classmates doing art that felt free. Perhaps I felt that way because my classmates kept producing work, whereas I was stagnant. After all, my last subject was too emotionally triggering. I didn’t want to see art anymore because it reminded me of [my ex]. It also meant that I had to start something new. It would have meant I needed to find something meaningful to say again. I didn’t have anything meaningful to say except other than that “I’m really sad right now?”
It sounded like there was a bit of processing at that time. You just graduated, went through a breakup, and suddenly had more of your own way approaching art. I’m assuming here, but your professors were telling you what to do. Then that’s lifted. Yes!
After grad school, I was finally free of academia and free to do whatever I wanted. That’s when I started making art that I liked. One of the projects I created is called Máscara Contra Máscara, based on the Mexican Luchador masks. I found mask symbolism interesting, specifically in how different it is in men’s vs. women’s history. In this particular type of luchador game, Máscara Contra Máscara, the winner gets to take off the loser’s mask. The action of having the mask removed is shameful. And so, I wanted to make these masks that symbolize power.
Specifically, I made the masks and had my female friends pose in them. And they were very pretty since I love pretty things. But it also wasn’t just pretty—I intentionally coordinated the colors between the subject, their mask, and the surroundings. I wanted to represent the unseen struggles women live through, so I wanted my subjects to blend in with the background. But, if you look carefully, you see this powerful woman who is ready to fight. That was the type of work that I felt was true to what I liked. I was almost at a high point in my art career with the positive reception of this project.
So how did you go about researching for the project? Obviously, the internet! (laughing) I was mostly interested in the mask itself, so I started thinking about the different masks we wear as women. We think of them as oppression but also protection. For example, the wedding veil is supposed to be about innocence and purity, whereas makeup makes you beautiful but hides your real self. But, many masks in men’s history, whether in wartime or wrestling, symbolize power. So I wanted to reclaim that for women.
Initially, I jokingly made a mask and played around with it when I went on a trip to Yosemite with a friend. For the test shots, my very shy friend was so bold in her posing because of the anonymity. So I started making more masks. It was also interesting where I began learning this traditional craft of sewing, which women began doing. In fact, I bought a sewing machine for the project itself and asked my friend in fashion to teach me how to use it. The whole process itself was meaningful to me.
Meanwhile, I was also working at a tiny startup. I would go to work, come back, sew masks, schedule photoshoots on the weekends, and apply to shows. I was going to shows, interviewed by Marie Claire—it was all really cool! And then, I went to work at Uber.
And then? It felt like I was transferred to Harvard. (laughing) I didn’t study product design, and I somehow got recruited to work at the company. I felt weird because everyone was from Google, Stanford, etc. In contrast, I went to UC San Diego and studied poli-sci in my undergrad and then went to art grad school. I was always interested in human rights and how injustice affects the world and wanted to talk about those injustices through my art.
Anyway, I started at Uber and was super intimidated. I knew I had to work hard and that it wasn’t a job where I can just come home and do other things since I was exhausted. So, I stopped and said to myself, “I’ll pick back up later.” After all, [Uber] was a job that I got to make money so I can do art. But that didn’t happen, and then I met my husband, Scotty!
How did your art and “day job” converge? Did it ever? I always thought of work as a “day job.” And that’s when I started realizing, what is “my job”? I wasn’t doing anything aside from work. I was doing hobbies instead of art, and that made me feel so guilty. Actually, I felt like a sellout! I saw all my art friends working at coffee shops or bars and still doing art. But, I felt like I didn’t have anything interesting to say. I felt that “my life is so comfy, what do I even talk about?”
What about now? You’ve continued to work at Uber and picked up pottery. Do you have something to say about your art, or do you feel freer about how you’re approaching pottery? I definitely feel freer because pottery is more functional and aesthetic but also just being me. And because I grew up Korean, along with all the baggage of Korean history, I learned a lot about the history of Korean ceramics and how much we’ve lost during Japan’s occupation of Korea. That has also made me really excited about reclaiming those things, especially traditional Korean pottery. I definitely feel a purpose in sharing that through my pottery, but I haven’t found a way to do that yet.
For example, there’s a technique called Mishima in Japanese and Buncheong in Korean where you use slip decoration, which is prominent in Korea. The common people wanted to have something that the royals have, so they would use slip to make their ceramic pieces look like porcelain, which is very expensive. We didn’t have a name for the technique at the time. However, when the Japanese occupancy started in Korea, the Japanese took potters from Korea to learn the method and eventually had it exported.
I found these bits of history that I want to bring into my ceramic work by using slip to educate people. But, I also feel very shy about doing that because I notice that not many people care and may think I’m overreacting. We talk about racial injustice here. Whereas we don’t talk about history in Asia. For example, people wear the rising sun on t-shirts here, yet they don’t know what it means—it’s a Swastika equivalent in Asia. I’ve tested sharing these messages with other people, but they don’t have the same fire as I do. So I don’t want to be that person that’s trying to impose onto others.
Usually, all my projects start with a question. Recently, the topic that I’ve been interested in has been this kind of complex that I have… like how I don’t like it when people call kimbap “Korean sushi.” We don’t call dumplings “Chinese ravioli!” Maybe they did in the ’70s or something like that, I don’t know. (laughing) Oh gosh! It’s not something you do if you’re a culturally sensitive person.
Since I didn’t grow up in wartime as my family did in Korea, I kept thinking about this complex and questioning if I have this feeling because I’m sensitive. Or if this is a feeling I share with anyone who has had a history of colonization or occupation. For example, there are many things that I thought I loved about Korea, and then I came to the [United] States, and I had to relearn them in Japanese, such as finding daikon in the Japanese section of a grocery store.
As another example, I talked to my friend, Amritha, about her second-generation experience. She shared that one of her favorite memories was visiting her relatives in India and eating Cadbury Chocolates. And she later realized that the chocolates were British! This is meaningful because the British colonized India for an extended period and the chocolates themselves probably came from this period. That’s when I realized that it’s a shared sentiment for many people who had to leave their country. In Korea, I never had to feel this way because I’m surrounded by the same people. But once I was removed from [being in Korea], I suddenly had this third-person view of how the country is portrayed on the world stage. That’s been the latest question I’m exploring.
I like that the themes in your life and work begin with a question, and then you seek answers for it. Specifically, that you’re using your work to answer more significant questions in life. Has pottery transformed from being a hobby to something more based on an intended message yet? I wouldn’t say it has yet. To me, pottery is still very functional and about aesthetics. I do have this greed to want it to have some kind of meaning. But I also know that it’s not always important. It’s been my practice since grad school to be free of attaching meaning. So I’m just trying to enjoy it for now.
To me, pottery is still very functional and about aesthetics. I do have this greed to want it to have some kind of meaning. But, I also know that it’s not always important. It’s been my practice since grad school to be free of attaching meaning. So I’m just trying to enjoy it for now.
I watched this documentary in grad school about Iranian women artists that I can’t forget. All of the women featured in the film were very political in their work. However, there was one woman who wasn’t. When the interviewer asked her, “How come your work isn’t political like how the other Iranian women artists are?” She said, “me doing art is political.” Mindblown! Yes, and I realize that art isn’t just about putting it on a wall. I did art to spark conversations and ask questions. Questions like “What do these masked women mean? What does this Asian man in a seedy motel mean?” My art is about asking questions that I care about. I’m still slowly finding it. I don’t think I’ve married pottery with my passion for justice and questions yet.
My art is about asking questions that I care about.
Why is the work you’re doing now, in general, important to you? (Big sigh) Having a “day” job makes me feel safe that if I fail in art or pottery, I always have something else to go back to. But, it’s the same way I felt about art. I never felt safe to call myself when I meet someone, like “Hi! I’m an artist!” Even when I was doing full-time art, I never felt confident to say it. It felt so pretentious. Even when I started designing, I wondered, “do I just introduce myself as a …” designer! Yes, but I don’t feel like I am one! I know it’s my job, but that’s not my passion.
It feels very cowardly where I have both, and they are both my backup plans. It feels like it’s the most cowardly thing to say. I don’t think that! Well, I got criticism from an artist I really respect. What did they say?! She asked me, “why do you have a job?” My answer was that I needed a job, especially since San Francisco is so expensive to live in. She responded,” artists that I like? They are people who are okay starving even if they are not good at art, I will support them 100%. I think you are half-assing it…” by using art as the outlet versus having a day job? Yes. And she said, “I don’t really have respect for people like that.” After that, I went to a friend and cried!
That friend that I went to was also doing photography full time as art and as a way to earn income. He responded, “well, [that artist] made money when she was younger. She made it big when she was in college, and she didn’t have to work after that.” Though, to me, that artist still had a point. It’s not about making money, it was about commitment. Is art my sidekick or my main thing? Maybe that’s why I feel a little guilty saying that even if it’s the truth.
In my mind, I was thinking, “really?” as you shared your story. If we were to reference Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, one needs to have a foundation, and their basic needs met before reaching self-actualization. For me, art is very much self-actualization…but maybe it’s different for others—a good reminder of different perspectives. But perhaps I’m half-assing it!? (laughing)
My parents didn’t want me to do art. But once I started, they were very for it. However, when I started working at Uber, my dad reminded me to “not forget who I am”. When I quit my job before Uber, my former manager said to me, “I want to see you at a museum in the future.” Basically, don’t sell out. I know the expectations of the people I love and trust; they see me in a certain way. I always felt like there was homework that I didn’t finish. And I don’t think my life is that long. I don’t want to feel like I need to do it all at once, but I also feel like my time is closing down.
I know the expectations of the people I love and trust; they see me in a certain way. I always felt like there was homework that I didn’t finish. And I don’t think my life is that long. I don’t want to feel like I need to do it all at once, but, I also feel like my time is closing down.
My dad is a philosopher, and one of his critiques of my work is that it’s not deep enough. He always says to “read more, think more, and experience more” to have more in-depth conversations. That was another pressure for me, and I questioned why is my work so shallow!? (laughing) Then at one point, for some reason, I accepted that…I’m not a deep person right now. What experience do I have? I have a very comfortable life, and I don’t have anything that’s deep. I think that’s okay. I don’t want to fake deepness. I want to make art that represents that. And when I’m deeper in the future, I’m sure I’ll make deeper work.
I don’t want to fake deepness. I want to make art that represents that.
In contrast, pottery brings me lots of comfort and joy, so much because it’s meditative. I don’t have a lot to say right now, but I have many questions. I don’t know if I’m being too generous to myself or making excuses, maybe both? And both are okay. I guess so! It took me a long time to be generous to myself.
Do you think there is any misconception of your work, whether as an artist or designer?
I don’t think there is any because I don’t believe many people care about my work like where I felt they didn’t understand it. I’ve definitely had critiques that are kind of running themes, like “why do you talk about other people?”
There’s also work that I’ve done [in the past] where I interviewed other people about their childhood dreams. That same artist I spoke about earlier [who gave me critique] asked me, “why do you talk about women’s struggles when you don’t have any yourself?” She kept asking, “why is all your work about other people and not about you?” That was something that ran true to me. I think I always knew or thought nothing was interesting about myself.
The rite of passage for most women photographers or artists is a self-portrait. That’s my running theory, at least. Though, I’m sure men do this too. I never did self-portraits, and I never liked it because I wasn’t comfortable with myself or found myself interesting enough to make it into art or my story. This is why I always have questions about other people.
Would you say the misconception for folks who have given you critique assume that your art should be about yourself? Yes! Something that’s “true” and that you’re not beating around the bush, basically. I think that’s an excellent critique because I still don’t know why, but I’m just not interested in myself. I’m more interested in the questions that I have and other people’s opinions about them. That’s always been my type of art.
I’m more interested in the questions that I have and other people’s opinions about them. That’s always been my type of art.
I’m pushing on misconceptions because I believe many people believe art should be one way. Yet, there are many ways to interpret it. That’s how I think we can make art and design more approachable. It can be okay for you to decide what you want it to be, not necessarily what the artist says you need to know to understand. I think that’s true. Now that I’m kind of older and a little removed from the art world, the critiques [about art should be one way] are very old school. Like what you said, there’s no one way an artist should live or one way artists should do art.
What advice would you give yourself when you first started either your career as an artist, your role at Uber, or even starting out in pottery? It still applies to today, but more so then. I just cared so much about what people said. It affected me so much that I hated going to design critiques. I would say, “People who give you crit, don’t know shit!” Just because they are giving you crit, it doesn’t make them above you. I want myself to not give people too much power. This would be my advice to my sensitive little self!
Give us a list of the top 3 things you’d recommend.
Sophie Calle: This is an artist I like. Specifically, the projects called: “Take care of yourself,” “Blind,” and “Suite vénitienne” (a project where she follows herself). I love her curiosity for other people and their experiences.
Lorna Simpson: Another artist I really like that gave me a new meaning and understanding of photography as a medium… and her navigation through her multiple identities (black, woman, etc.) is so moving.
Fave song of the moment or what do you have on repeat right now?
BTS’s Dynamite. This is so embarrassing and out of brand! I just don’t listen to pop, and I usually listen to Korean indie, but it’s so catchy. It just makes me so happy, and it’s a great pump-up song.
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