Jae Lee just recently graduated from MICA with a Bachelor of Fine Arts under the Painting department.  She is also, an alumni from MICROCOSM, and among the first group of student that started this publication.  Her article Enlgish only is available to read on her site. Her paintings of flat areas of color and text reading TEACH ENLGISH!, or O Say Can UC, speak about her cultural experiences coming to the United States from Korea and becoming a citizen.  Since graduation she has been working and waiting for pending replies from grad schools. and during the inclement weather in which we  found ourselves stranded with little to do, we caught up with each other in an interview through a casual and informal chat, which is appropriate since it is similar to the informal approach she uses with her work and with her identity as an artist.

Jenny Robinson: How have you been since graduating from MICA?

Jae Lee: I’ve been doing all right, just working.  I haven’t really talked about my works to people that I don’t know on a personal level, I am still shy to talk about my works. I don’t want to label myself as an artist, such a sophisticated term for me to describe myself.

JR: Instead of “artist” what do you prefer being called?

JL: painter.  When I am asked what I do for a living, I usually say painter, so one time this person I never met before asked me back, you’re a “painter”?  He meant by painter, who really paint for a living, not like artist.   As you can see, anyone can paint like me.  Someone wrote in my guestbook,  “Seriously, anyone can paint like you.” I liked the comment.  I think I like casual and informality.

JR: It does offer less prestige than the traditional studio practice of painting, similar to how you feel about the title or painter in relation to the title “artist”

JL: Its funny before I got in art school, MICA, I never found myself that way.  Now that I think about it, I didn’t have a dream until sophomore year.  I just wanted to graduate, get a decent job, and have happily ever after.  I was still critical in a way, but I never got it out to people or to my works.  I was very self-conscious and I am a bit still.

JR: Last time I talked to you I believe you were a first semester senior.  I believe you were working on a series of chalkboard paintings.  These paintings had chalkboard paint on canvas with a phrase written as though on a chalkboard in different languages. Can you describe to me how you created this series?

JL: Lets see, it seems like a long time ago although it was, in fact a bit more than a year ago when I created them.  I guess it had to do with my cross-cultural experiences as well in living in the states as an immigrant.  I was interested in multi-culture in the states. I used to go to ESL class in community college, and I met people from all over the world.  Those people I met in the class all tried to adopt this new culture/society in the states by learning English having same culture background, non-English speaking world. It was interesting to hear their unique accent and background. of course we always started conversation with asking each other “how do you say hello in your language?”  Those people I met in the class all tried to adopt this new culture/society in the states by learning English having same culture background, non-English speaking world.  It was interesting to see the transformation of language, which one can easily make.

JR: I was once told that with every language one speaks they carry a different personality with the mannerism and the cultural aspects the language carries.

JL: I agree by learning English I learned many aspects of Western cultures as well.  I guess I can say I’m pretty much bilingual now.  English is a good language to use when I want to direct someone like giving a driving Very informative. It can be incredibly intense in a short sentence, while I think Korean is emotional.

JR: Do you feel then than you adopt different mannerisms when you speak English and Korean?

JL: I think so, I guess another mannerism one could get when he or she learns a new language and adopt new society is self-consciousness.  You have to watch out yourself first.

JR: I find that no matter how cautious I am sometimes I make some very silly and embarrassing mistakes in Korean

JL: Haha you know it! But I figured, you shouldn’t be afraid of that, people take it in a good way most of times, however it is still hard to be yourself when you speak in your second language.

JR:  Yeah it can be very hard to express how you feel when you can’t find the right words to describe it.

JL: true, I think that everyone should try and learn another language.  People will experience a whole different world, and that will be an opportunity to find themselves in another perspective too.

JR:  I recently saw photos of your senior thesis, it seems that the aesthetics of the American flag indicate a large presence of American in your work.

JL: Yes the blue, red, and white, but those colors are commonly used in flags for European countries like France.

JR: And now that I think of it, on the Korean flag as well.

JL: Yes, I guess blue and red are the symbol of the liberal and conservative/traditional.  Maybe people wanted to mix those two in their flag to keep the balance between the two. Yin and Yang.  I also found the two colors are often used in signs in the States, more common than ones in Korea.  Americans are very patriotic. I guess I just naturally chose two colors for my theme influenced by these things.

JR: You have very strong text in your work, such as TEACH ENGLISH! Reminds me of the pressure in the US and abroad on English learning.

JL: Yeah I agree.  English learning is so intense in Korea now.  Parents even send their kids to English kindergarten.  I heard speaking English is not an optional thing in Korea.  It is a mandatory thing to do in order to survive.  However I don’t like how native English speakers somehow take advantage of it.  I was just chatting with some people I know, one said, “ I want to go travel” and the other simply said, “Teach English!” I am not sure teaching English is that easy which one can simply take to go on and travel.  The piece is from my personal experience.

JR: What else would you recommend instead of teaching English?

JL: If you would like to go on a travel that means you are willing to learn their culture, not influence people into your culture.  Like you said, ever language one speaks carries the cultures and mannerisms with different personality.  I think so; I guess that’s the true meaning of travel.

JR: Considering you had to adopt a new language when you moved here, it does make sense that others should extend the same courtesy when visiting other countries.

JL: I believe so, especially for English speakers.  Now English is a universal language. I decided to come to the states; I have to do what I have to do.  I guess I just need a little bit of aid to set up myself in order to live here like getting a drivers license. In fact I took the written driving test in Korean, which was very helpful.  I think the United States has enough educational system to get people to learn English such as ESL courses offered by community college, which I did, and teachers in the program are very nice.  I guess they have to be nice and patient right?

JR: very true, when I am teaching Korean to English speaking kids at summer camp patience is important.

JL: However this merit and virtue of the United States might disappear soon.  They already got rid of the written driving test in other languages.  Now new immigrants have to take the exam in English no matter what.  I made a piece about this too.

JR:  Are you trying to communicate a political statement or are these paintings more about your self-exploration about you own feelings of English, and communication, or is it a combination of both?

JL: It started from my self-introspection/reflection, but it came out to be a strong political statement in a sense.  I think where I stand here in the States as a person is critical, and political, I can’t deny.  I am an Asian female who just came to the states what more can I say.   It is an emotional product of living 6 years in the states.

Jenny Robinson 2010