The immigrant story is fertile ground for storytelling; it has been highlighted in literature (Ragtime), theater (Hamilton), film (La misma luna), and — of course — art. Carol Joo Lee, the bold and elegant Korean-American ceramist/artist, is now communicating part of her story in Naturalized, her art show that is now on display at Greenpoint Hill until May 27. We got to know Carol, talk about her parents’ influence on her work, and even how Manhattan (gasp!) may be her sturdy fortress even as her work spans boroughs.
Greenpointers: Naturalized has been open since Greenpoint Gallery Night on April 20. Can you talk about the viewers’ reactions to it?
Carol Joo Lee: I was quite surprised by how many people actually read the press release at the opening and wanted to share their own feelings or experiences with me. I’m naturally a very private person and don’t like to share that much about myself, so I felt a little exposed given that the backstory behind the work was quite autobiographical. But I felt very touched by that response.
GP: Can you discuss how immigration has nourished your work?
CJL: It’s a big part of my preoccupation in art and my academic work — I’m doing a masters in Migration Studies at the Graduate Center. I can’t remember when the turning point was exactly but there was a moment I decided that I wanted to articulate the immigrant experiences of my parents’ generation who came to the states under much more hostile, way less woke conditions and they just did their immigrant thing and accepted whatever shit that was thrown at them, and because they were alien survivalists they had no expectations that their stories had any value in American society.
Now, I wasn’t born in the States but came here as a kid and got pretty Americanized even before I got naturalized. Then I was an expat in Europe when I went to study there and realized that the racial IQ there was at least 20 years behind America.
All these experiences made me want to scrutinize my biography, and why and how my family got here. Before I only understood it as a narrow, intimate history based on a decision making process by few of my relatives. But then I realized that a whole chain of international policies and geopolitical negotiations were involved in my current status as a person and I got really interested in learning about the history of immigration in the US, specifically the Asian wave.
When I was doing my MFA in Geneva, Switzerland, I got a lot of slack for working with clay. They thought it was so old and uncool. So whenever I produced something in clay, I had to explain and defend the material. But recently I realized that there’s a great deal of parallels between clay and immigration — it’s a blank state with boundless possibilities until you’re up against its limitations and intractability.
GP: Do you live in Brooklyn or work out of here?
CJL: I’ve lived in New York City on and off for 15 years now but never lived in Brooklyn. I live in Washington Heights now. I never thought I’d live that uptown but I love it there. Since my studio is in Greenpoint I’m in Brooklyn fairly often, and most of my friends are out here. I feel like I’m one of the last hold-outs of Manhattan.
GP: Are there any artists you particularly admire/who have influenced your work?
CJL: I love artists like Meret Oppenheim and Marcel Broodthaers, surrealists who work with materials in both literal and mythical ways. I’m always inspired by Jacob Lawrence’s migration series in its storytelling of pain suffused with optimism and its capacity to be a witness in a sociological phenomenon. I’m also a big fan of Korean ceramic master Kang-hyo Lee.
GP: If you have an Instagram, can you speak to what it’s like to be an artist in the digital age? Is it a help, or a hindrance?
CJL: I do have an Instagram (@caroljoolee) but can’t say that I’m that proactive about it. I’m generally weary of social media — I stopped using Facebook years ago. I use Instagram but find it too taxing. Obviously there are benefits like being able to share work and connect with others, etc. But then I started seeing my life through the filter of Instagram and didn’t like that, and with Instagram there’s this weird pressure to be “good at it” and I feel like that’s a kind of pressure I don’t really need. I was obsessed with Twitter post-election, but I weaned myself off of it now and I’m ok with that too.
GP: Do you have any projects you’re excited about in the future?
CJL: Planning a short residency in Chiapas, Mexico this summer!