Saying Goodbye with Stella Im Hultberg May 12 2020
Stella Im Hultberg was born in South Korea, raised in Seoul, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and later in California. She studied Industrial Design and worked as a product designer before serendipitously falling into the art world in late 2005. When not painting or drawing, she likes to eat, ride her bicycle, and play the New York Times crossword puzzle. After a decade in NYC, she now lives and works in Portland, Oregon, with her daughter and husband.
Stella's upcoming solo show Every Goodbye opens later this month, alongside solo shows by Sean Mahan and Liam Snootle. We spoke to Stella about delving into her Korean heritage, motherhood, her evolving art practice and an artist's role during this strange time.
Interview by Viet-My Bui. Photos provided by Stella Im Hultberg.
You have mentioned that you are relearning about Korean culture, redefining what you know about it, and are developing a new appreciation for your heritage. You have also incorporated more elements of Korean traditional dress and folklore in your recent pieces. Tell us more about this exploration into your heritage and how it was informed and influenced you.
Having lived away from Korea for most of my life, Korea and Korean culture (save for food) were often low priority for me, in order to adjust to new places to which I had moved. Korean heritage and culture became an obscurity and a faint memory as distance and time grew between me and my birth country.
After becoming a mother myself, and feeling a new kind of connection to my own mother that I wasn’t able to share with her, I started learning and relearning about Korean culture to perhaps be able to feel closer and gain any kind of insight into what built her.
I was fascinated to find out how much the original, traditional, folk, indigenous worldview predating external/foreign belief systems (i.e. Confucianism, Buddhism, democracy, etc) still influences so many parts of the country and culture, seeping through all the nooks and crannies of all the modernism Koreans boast. Learning about Korean mythology and basic concepts of the worldview changed the way I looked at the language, both spoken and written, and cultural content like K-pop and K-drama/movies.
My fascination carried through my work for a while. I had to hold myself back a bit to not purge my entire mental library of obsession, otherwise it would’ve looked like I had been painting a bunch of hanbok catalogues.
I have more to explore – some sculptural pieces with a hint of Korean folk culture. Hopefully I can do that this summer during the quarantine.
As a child, you were into manhwa or manga, and were surrounded by comic books and illustrated stationery. What were your favourite characters and stories?
To be honest, I can’t remember many details of what I used to read.
I do remember how it all began. During my childhood in Korea, when I was in the first grade, my older college student cousin came to live with us for a while. He had a subscription to this monthly kid’s comic magazine called Treasure Island (보물섬), featuring a dozen or more artists with serial stories each month. I was able to read all kinds of imaginative stories with many different styles of drawings. I started drawing in comic style a lot from then on.
I think what influenced me almost as much as these manga and manhwa as a kid were the TV anime series reminiscent of Studio Ghibli films. I grew up watching anime versions of the Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, Little Princess, and other amazing stories. I used to make paper dolls out of these characters and learned a lot while drawing them.
A prevalent theme in your work seems to be that of quiet resilience, and the portrayal of strength inherent in softness. What inspires you to pursue this theme, and how do you display strength and softness in your everyday?
It might not be something I have intentionally put forth as a theme, but the idea and tone of “quiet resilience” might be a running thread in most of my works, especially the portraying women. Maybe it’s more accurate to say “silenced resilience” rather than quiet resilience, sometimes.
I have noticed this trait exhibited by those in minority groups enduring hard times throughout history. It’s also something I always try to remind myself of, something I aspire to have within me.
Older, traditional Korean culture also considers it a great virtue to tough things out quietly, to have that strong core value with which to weather all the hardships – to have that unmoving, steady inner core, to weather and survive the hardest times. This is also a huge part of mothers in Korea. They don’t look it but they’re strong. They call it the “ajumma (aunties) power”.
The hidden core of opposing values is always interesting, so for that matter it could be the other way around: strong looking exterior that harbors warm, fuzzy softness can be very fascinating too.
I think all parents have to work with balancing strength versus softness when dealing with delicate hearts and growing minds of little children. Sometimes kids can exhibit the most resilience, albeit with fragility and tenderness. Also, trying not to laugh when they do something so hilarious to us, but completely serious to them, takes tremendous inner strength! :D
There is a sense of the biological, organic, and cyclical theme of life in your works. In your own life, your relationship with your mother, and your own child, play a big role. Can you tell us more about that? What wisdom has been passed down to you, and what wisdom have you gained from your daughter? How do you think this is reflected in your work?
My work has changed significantly since the birth of my daughter. It may or may not be apparent to the viewers, but it personally feels like a dramatic change, from the way I would approach an idea to scheduling each day to fit both painting and parenting and other life things. >_<
I started looking at the world differently, taking things slowly and looking at things from a fresh perspective. Just trying to remember how it was to be a child and reconnecting with my own forgotten childhood has given me a lot of insight to how to approach my own work and practice.
My relationship with my mom seems so incomplete and filled with regrets of missed opportunities and lost time. I spent my entire life thinking how different my mom and I were as people. That we’d never come to even nearly understand each other, but we can only accept each other the way we are. I always felt this feeling of silent discord while living with them as a kid. After I moved away at 18, the feeling became bigger and even abstract as the distance and time between us grew.
After having my own child, I came to understand my mother the way I never thought I could. Even the things I still don’t necessarily agree with, I can understand her hidden reasoning somewhat. I wanted to so desperately seek her out and connect with her, but by then it was too late. I really wanted to tell her that I understand her now, and that I understand her love now. Those words are only floating in an empty space. That unresolved vacuum of unspent energy and love gets mixed into how I see my daughter and also into my works now.
Something about having a daughter, while being a daughter, and also having a mother, while being a mother, feels like I’m now a tiny part of a huge cycle. A cycle of this tremendous feeling of love and adoration for both mothers and daughters that have been passed down and up - and as if I’m now a part of the circle of female strength, the history women have been making since the dawn of time.
This connection I long to draw between me, my daughter, and my mother, and the stories I want to share with and hear from other mothers, women, daughters, started to appear like a stream of consciousness in my works.
Flowers are a recurring motif in your artwork. What is the decision behind the portrayal of specific flowers, and what do they represent?
This is also a part of me noticing the world from a new perspective since becoming a mother. I had no idea motherhood would’ve impacted me in so many ways.
My mom LOVED flowers and plants. As a teenager, I’d buy her flowers with my allowance money for her birthdays and I still remember not really comprehending how much joy that brought to her. I was born and raised in big cities; I never really understood the appeal of flowers and nature as a kid. But after having a baby and moving to Portland from NYC (6 years ago), I started to notice all the flora, in an unforeseen abundance to me, surrounding me. They reminded me of how much they made my mom happy – how much they would make her happy to see them filling up a whole city like this. This naturally drew my attention to them, and I started learning their names and started growing them too. (I have a plant identifier app in my phone at all times.)
The peony has been a symbolic flower in Asian art for centuries, representing prosperity or compassion, sometimes bashfulness. It was one of my mom’s favorites. Camellias remind me of her to, the red kind with a yellow pistil center – I think it’s because of a song she liked from her hometown. Lotuses are special to me as my mom's name literally meant “small lotus flower”. I love its symbolism in Buddhism as well.
All these flowers made me wonder why we (humans) love them so much. Obviously they’re beautiful and a joy to look at. I can’t remember the exact source but I remember someone hypothesizing: in order for a plant to bloom its flowers, it takes all it has, all its energy and resources to do so – because its entire fate depends on whether the flower will bloom or not. And that maybe our love of flowers, beyond the appreciation of their apparent beauty, could be the acknowledgement and celebration of the hard work the plant has put into flowering itself.
What attracts you to the considered use of negative space in your drawings and paintings?
It’s the air the painting and the viewer breathes.
I try to balance things in what I make. If there’s a lot going on in the foreground, or the “positive space”, I would like the negative space to be quite significant to balance things out visually. It’s a breathing space. If the shapes or spaces are simpler, I try to add some texture to balance out the monotony.
In classical East Asian art styles, there is a concept of the beauty of the margin – a concept in art that the negative space is just as active a component of the composition as the parts that are painted or drawn. I love the idea of inactivity/rest being a working part of the activity.
I’m also drawn to very graphic looks that render each shape to possibly be a positive AND a negative space.
You have exhibited your work for almost 15 years. How has your art practice evolved over time, as your priorities and identity have shifted?
In the earlier years, I approached my work often on impulse and instinct, almost. I thought of what it meant to me only after it was nearly or fully completed. Sometimes it was a blur of an image I had in my mind, and most times it was just where my brushes took me. I often used to work a bit spontaneously, whenever the mood struck, sometimes for nearly 20 hours at a time, with very little planning. It was freeing in some ways, but not the most ideal way to work, in hindsight.
After becoming a mother, I had to change my work habits completely – luckily, for the better. It was nearly a year after my kid was born that I returned to the easel. I felt a huge shift in me as an artist. Like a different personality, almost. I had to work around the baby’s schedule, which changed, too, as she grew up.
Now I had to plan ahead, fit what I could into the little time I had for work. Working on spontaneity was out of the question, and if an idea struck me, I had to jot or doodle it down, and get to it later. There were some long sleepless nights, which gave my floating ideas a lot more time to marinate in my head and be verbalized. Journal and sketchbook keeping has become a big part of my daily process now.
In lieu of spontaneous and sporadic work habits, consistency is now key to my creativity. Productive or not, I try to sit in the quiet of my studio every night while my daughter sleeps, and submerge myself in the work mode. When I’m done with the night’s session, I jot down my thoughts on the process, and plan what to do the next day.
As far as identity goes, whether personal or career related, I’ve always felt a bit... ambiguous, straddling more than two worlds. Having grown up in several countries as a Third-Culture Kid, as I’m sure many second (and after) generation immigrants or multicultural people can relate, my self-identity always straddled somewhere in the empty space in between different cultures. Having been an eternal outsider, I always envied those with a single, deep root, those with a very vivid color of one’s own – my own color felt like a murky brown from mixing too many. The ambiguity of being neither this or that used to feel like my weakness.
At some point in my 30s, I have begun to see the benefits of this murky identity. I started to fully accept that blur and ambiguity as my identity itself. It might show through my work as well. I have stopped trying to be just a painter or a designer or a sculptor. I now see the benefit of being neither this or that. I plan to try to blur the lines between different mediums and practices a bit more in the future too.
Tell us about your upcoming show with Outre. What is the name of your show, and what is the concept behind it? Was there any particular research involved behind this body of work? I have noticed that you are incorporating a more organic, loose approach. Saekdong stripes and your iconic shrouded figures feature prominently in your pieces, too.
I have titled the show “Every Goodbye”. I didn’t do much research for this round of works. I did read /listen to/watched a lot of people’s stories. I tried to visualize a lot of these thoughts, and filter them onto the surface.
At the end of last year and the beginning of this year, I had a lot of thoughts about children and childhood, and the unseen burden and trauma they carry with them into adulthood. I grew up saying a lot of goodbyes, never having lived in a house/flat for more than 3 years at a time. Moving around had rendered me an eternal outsider, leaving behind everything I had just gotten familiar with.
I braved through it all at the time, growing up. Kids are resilient after all. But not one person asked me once if I was okay. They just assumed I was. But goodbyes are never easy. It’s something I never grew used to. Does anyone?
We say goodbye everyday – little goodbyes each day, to ourselves and others of that day, to all the fleeting moments. All the passing, hidden, overlooked moments and feelings we either say goodbye to or bury them deep in our hearts.
We try to go on, as if nothing hurts and nothing happened. Glimpses of people we encounter everyday doesn’t say anything much at all about what is at the bottom of their hearts. Small nicks the little goodbyes or other hurts make can add up perhaps to huge gouges in ourselves. The pain nobody asks about, but is eating up people from the inside.
I wanted to portray that it’s okay - it’s okay to live with a different face than you feel. That it’s okay to hide. That it’s okay to feel hurt. That it’s okay to not be okay. That it’s enough of a wonder to just be living your lives carrying what you have inside.
The shrouded figures show many faces – all the faces we wear through our day, our lives, hiding safely in their covered coziness/protection.
Saekdong stripes are traditionally for children’s clothing in Korea. The colors and its meanings – typically 5 colors for 5 elements of the classic world – are very interesting to me, although I use more than the 5. Those colors are EVERYWHERE in traditional Korean clothing, artefacts, art, palaces and temples. Painting them were a part of my desire to make more graphic works – something colorfully abstract to show, perhaps, different shades of blood coursing through ourselves.
What was the most challenging piece to create for your show, and why?
I usually have a lot of “quarrels” with at least one piece in the series I’m creating. These are the pieces that make me fight. Usually, it's either the technique I’m using or the composition or something else, but something doesn’t go smoothly for me.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to “quarrel” much with these pieces this time. The only snag I can think of was the pieces with mounted paper. I had to recreate a couple drawings because of the hiccups I had trying to mount the paper drawings onto wood panels. Luckily I was ahead of schedule (a very rare occasion) so I had enough time to redo the pieces.
Somehow, this didn’t anger me. I just shrugged it off and enjoyed the extra time recreating them – even to my own bewilderment.
In this current climate, staying connected to others is especially important. What do you feel is an artist’s role in connecting people and reflecting the human experience?
It’s such a strange time, a historically unprecedented kind, and we’re all in it, albeit in different ways.
I have been fortunate and honored to have some people reach out to me with their stories of pain and recovery in various forms. Either they’ve overcome something huge in their lives or they’re going through a rough patch right now, but each person, in varying ways, have sent me messages of connection, gratitude, and triumph.
This has resonated with me greatly and I have come to see artist roles – or at least, my own role as an artist, perhaps – to be that of healers, quiet listeners, and consolers. Isn’t it always a bit comforting to feel that you’re not the only one in the world feeling the way you do and going through what you are going through? That some things are a universal experience, and you’re not alone. That you’re understood. That it’s all okay.
Thank you so much for your time, Stella. We can't wait for your show.