Stages of Thought
Stages of Thought
Stephanie Kim, a Bushwick-based painter, talks about her road to recovery from depression and a nearly fatal car accident, and finding her true voice through three very important people that shaped her to who she is today.
Bushwick Open Studio can be summarized as part open house, part parent-teach conference, and part neighborhood tour. It is a weekend long event where you can get to see the artist's studio but also talk to them one-on-one, asking about their upcoming projects or just how their weekend was going. During Bushwick Open Studio, I visited Stephanie Kim at her studio, which was located on the second floor of a sun-bleached blue building located on the outskirts of Bushwick. A flattened cardboard box wedged between the door and the frame subtly invited curious people and fellow artists for the weekend event.
Stephanie was standing with a few visitors in a room across her studio. She and her guests were trading words about Bushwick Open Studio and one of her 6’x6’ paintings that was leaning against the wall. Dark and brooding, the painting caught my eyes as the empty room gave space for the piece to breathe and allowed the viewer to see the painting at a distance. She said her farewells to her visitors and rushed back into her studio where I was glancing at her smaller works that hung on the wall and sketches gently curled on a table.
Stephanie greeted unexpected guests as we were preparing for the interview. She handed out printed maps of Bushwick that listed out studios in the neighborhood and helped visitors to their next destination. We briefly talked to an Italian visitor who landed in NYC that morning and decided to make the most of his day by touring the Bushwick Open Studio after a 14-hour flight from Vietnam. A few more visitors drifted into the studio but Stephanie and I were able to start our conversation after the afternoon rush.
Stephanie’s life is compartmentalized by periods of moving back and forth between the US and South Korea. She was born and raised in Austin but moved to Seoul by the age of five. There, Stephanie lived with her grandmother who practiced 붓글씨 (bootgeulshi), which is traditional Korean calligraphy, and traditional Korean painting. Being surrounded by her grandmother’s traditional paintings and calligraphy gave Stephanie a natural exposure to the arts. She would draw pictures for her mother who was back in Austin finishing up her studies in comparative literature of Shakespearian theater and 판소리, a traditional Korean art form combining singing, storytelling, and theater. As Stephanie was tracing back on her influences she told me, “I remember my mother taking me to watch plays and 판소리 as early as when I was 5 years old. Because of that early introduction to theater I grew fond of classical and orchestral music, along with Samuel Beckett for his plays and set designs.”
It wasn’t until coming back to the US at the age of 10 where she saw a John Singer Sargent exhibit which drove her to become an artist, enamored by his style which had the characteristics of the Impressionists and painters of the Tonalism period. She would move to Seoul once more and then back, returning to a quiet town right outside of Penn State University before entering high school.
However, Stephanie’s college career would be on hold after her freshman year as depression consumed her studies. It would take two years to fully recover before Stephanie considered going back to school. While we talked about her road to recovery she told me there were crucial people that had supported her while she was recovering from depression all the way to finishing her studies. “I definitely had people very important to me that guided me through my life as a person and as a painter. Three people in particular. Each person signified a chapter of my life and stopped me from giving up on painting.”
“The first person I’d call my mentor and supporter was my painting instructor, Sangram Majumdar, in my first year of college. He was really strict when I think back back being in his class. He was one of those professors that would berate you if you were a moment too late for class, but he did that because he expected the most out of you and he cared about you. And this was during my fall semester in 2007. Even though I finished that semester I kept contact with him and because of that I was able to be in upper-level lectures and go to special events that only juniors and seniors were allowed to go.”
But this was when Stephanie’s depression took over and Sangram was worried as he saw her in school less often. “Even though I became less and less present in school Sangram and his then-girlfriend, Annelise, would email me to check up how I was doing. He also emailed me when he got engaged and always kept me in the loop about school.” Sangram’s conversations was the lifeline that kept Stephanie’s interest in art afloat while she was away from school.
Stephanie returned to Korea to have her parents by her side, but while in Seoul she was struck by a vehicle. The crash caused multiple broken ribs and fractured bones throughout her body. Stephanie went into a coma for several weeks but once she regained consciousness, she discovered that the cerebral hemorrhages caused by the accident made the simple task of talking and replying difficult.
Stephanie slowly recovered from the accident and decided to come back to her studies in the Fall of 2010. Before starting the semester she decided to participate in an art marathon at the New York Studio School. It is an intensive 2-4 week program where students come in the morning and paint all the way into the evening or even into the night. “During my time there my instructor was Susanna Coffey, and I consider her as my ‘art mom.’ Throughout the two weeks, she became something more than a mentor. Susanna became someone that I can trust, someone I can lean on, and someone I can always go to when I needed advice. And since learning from her my paintings changed. It was my first time painting landscape in oil and I eventually found my own voice because of her.”
In a few weeks Stephanie would be back in school along with thousands of students going to class and starting a new chapter in their life. “I was actually scared of meeting my friends again after being away for so long. Also, the fact that I haven’t been painting since the end of freshman year made going back to school a little disheartening. But because I met Susanna and because she taught me during the two weeks most of that negative anticipation went away.”
“The third person I’d call my mentor is Stephen Westfall. I met him in 2012 during my summer residency. I was going through a series of changes in my style. I was confused about my own style and was trying to figure what exactly what I wanted to paint. Stephen was a colourist, and ever since my residency I would always come back to him whenever I hit a wall when I was painting. Because of that residency program I began finding my own voice. He would visit me periodically and then to see me and how I have been progressing. And to have that someone who teaches yet have time to visit me, it has been a huge help for me.”
As we talked about Stephanie’s current works, the Noir Series in particular, she told me that her fondness of using black came out as a serendipitous coincidence. Stephanie used to paint with a wide arrange of color palette, being taught by colourists and studying traditional painting. One day Stephanie decided to narrow her choices down to one main color: black. "In school they tell you not to use black because it was such a strong color which meant that it would dull other pigment down if mixed. Despite that advice I jumped right in started painting with black. It came to me as easy as talking and so far I’m enjoying it. It may seem dramatic or depressing for someone else because it's black, but I’m enjoying myself very much with this series.” Too many possibilities can clog the thinking process. From Stephanie’s creative process and photographers keen on using film, the phrase ‘art through limitation’ came to mind. “There’s so many ways to address black and mix with black,” Stephanie said as we talked about her Noir Series. “I want to continue this project as long as I can."
Lastly, I asked Stephanie what goals she would like to achieve within five years. “Susanna and Stephen have been telling me to go to grad school, so that has been on my mind recently. I’d also love to learn glassblowing and glass sculpting. Or maybe go back to Korea to try and learn lacquer painting.” Stephanie had a lot of artistic endeavor in sight, but I also wanted to know the other small things she’d like to achieve. “I really want a dog in the future, maybe a Corgi or an Australian Shepherd. A driver’s license and moving to quieter are just a few things that'd be nice to have in the near future.”