Brooklyn Artist Embraces Nature For Inspiration

Originally published on NYCityLens.com.
By Amy Chyan

Mi Ju shows off her most recent painting at Pratt's "Open Studio" day. (Photo: Amy Chyan)

She hovered over the house plant and watched the ants crawl. This is what Mi Ju, 27, a Korean-born painter, installation artist and master’s of fine arts student at the Pratt Institute, does, to gather inspiration for her art.

“She’s manically obsessed over nature,” teased Hiba Schahbaz, Ju’s studio neighbor.

Ju lives and breathes art, citing indigenous cultures, sciences and the places she’s traveled to as inspiration. She works on the mandate of combining space, art and vivid colors. Hidden surprises show up in her paintings when she combines fine paint strokes with paper cut outs to create a three dimensional feel.

On Dec. 9, Pratt held its annual “Open Studio Day” in Brooklyn during which master’s students showcased their work in private art studios provided by the school and opened to the public. For Ju, who will be hosting her first solo gallery show in September 2012, the day was like a dress rehearsal.

Ju usually spends more than 12 hours each day working at her studio, leaving just a little before midnight and returning the following morning to repeat it again. For down time, Ju goes to Prospect Park is where she catalogues shapes she sees in nature as sources for her next project.

“This is the most I like,” said Ju, whose first language isn’t English. “And it’s honest. I’m curious of what I’m going to make every time.”

For as long as Ju can remember, she has been an art lover. Her parents enrolled her in various extracurricular classes as a youngster, but art was the subject that sparked a passion inside of her.

Visitor's admiring Mi Ju's work. (Photo: Amy Chyan)

Recently, Ju started to pair each painting, which has gotten larger in size, with a 3D installation piece. The installations, mostly made from scrap material Ju finds, are a different type of artistic expression for her.

“Installations help me understand space,” Ju explained. While paintings are traditionally hung flat against the wall, Ju displays her canvases at a forward leaning angle, hanging them on thick twine to “represent the power of nature.”

“I don’t think I can go back to smaller paintings,” Ju said, after Schahbaz pointed out that Ju had to stand on spools of yarn to reach the top portion of the painting she had just completed.

Ju’s studio is divided into two parts by a single French door. The door’s glass panel is covered with sample paint cards in a rainbow mosaic pattern. The large space is for painting while the smaller space is dedicated to installation pieces.

The smaller room, dorm-like in layout and function, is where Ju’s desk, storage cabinets, reference books, microwave and kettle are. Next to a calendar and painting, a stalk of tomato vine is taped to the wall. The vine, dry and brittle, looks like a painting itself.

The larger space, or painting studio, is bright, with extra spot lights that Ju installed herself. Along the wooden baseboards are several plastic bowls filled with acrylic paint tubes. Three mini cacti plants sit equidistant apart on the window sill that looks onto Pratt’s campus common.

For Ju, painting is cathartic. When she taught high school art in Korea after graduating from Yeungnam University with her bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate, life became mundane.

“I just wanted to do something more. I thought artist should make money and make more art. But every day, repeating the same thing. I just want to have more time to paint,” Ju said about her teaching days before she ended up at the San Francisco Art Institute for her second bachelor’s of fine art.

Dressed in black jeans and an acid-wash denim, long-sleeve shirt, Ju prepared to entertain visitors. Most other days, she is draped in her beloved, paint-speckled navy T-shirt that has the capital letter “M” embossed in the middle. She pairs it with blue tights and goes bare foot, because “it’s just like home.” Several tightly plaited braids from the long hairs at the nape of Ju’s neck lay flat against her collarbone. The rest fall smoothly down her back. Her wispy fringe is just long enough to cover her eyebrows.

A small counter-top is stocked with snacks for Ju’s guests. A bowl of clementines neatly snuggles beside her snack of choice, Campari tomatoes. Almonds, Oreos and rainbow colored Twizzlers cleverly tied into a knot by Ju “because they are sticky to get” are also set out. Small boxes of Mott’s apple juice are neatly stacked like an immaculate supermarket shelf.

Unlike artists who go through multiple sketches before actually painting, Ju depends on research, organization and serendipity. She feels that drawing beforehand restricts the painting’s possibility since the painter would be mimicking the pencil lines.

“I make fantasy,” Ju said as she explained the process of her work from blank canvas to completion. “I’m an organic painter. I never plan. But I’m organized.”

Mi Ju's thought process laid out in her work space. (Photo: Amy Chyan)

Above Ju’s desk is a wall covered in handwritten research notes and sample images. Various objects she’s found in the trash are hung with clothes pins on a red yarn line. Art and science reference books fill the shelves.

A saying on the wall reads, “Gaia Hypothesis: Gaia Hypothesis proposes that all organism and their inorganic surroundings on Earth are closely integrated to form a single and self-regulating complex-system.” Another set of cue cards written in blue highlighter read: “mutation, anthropomorphism, drama and humor.”

Ju writes out her research notes because English words help her create images. “I imagine things when I read the word,” she explained. “It’s not what everyone else sees because English is not easy for me. The things I see don’t really mean what the word means, you know?” Ju’s experimented with using Korean for her research notes, but found the familiar language didn’t illicit any images for her since she “didn’t have the use the brain.”

Visitors walked through Ju’s studio, admiring her paintings and complementing her on them.

“You don’t need to know where Mi’s from or where she went to school,” said fellow classmate and previous studio neighbor DJ Perera. “Her art is just so vivid and lustful.”

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