Suzy Taekyung Kim knows about tenacity. It’s taken a perfect cocktail of talent, perseverance, practice, patience, and courage, but alumna Suzy Kim is doing the kind of meaningful work so many artists dream about. Since earning her BFA at Emily Carr University in Visual Arts in 2003, her work has graced public spaces across the United States. Having her work appear in the public sphere has allowed Kim to reach a number of vulnerable communities with her art. Last month Chantale Lavoie, Emily Carr University’s Executive Director of Advancement, stopped by Suzy Kim’s New York studio to chat about her journey as an artist.
“I’ve always been in love with art,” Kim tells Lavoie. “That’s the only language I could speak.”
Kim means this more literally than one might imagine. When she originally immigrated to Vancouver, she couldn’t speak English. “It’s a part of the immigrant experience. When I couldn’t speak, all I could do was listen. Since I couldn’t speak English, I expressed everything in art.”
Kim has moved from Korea to Vancouver and then to New York, with each home contributing something new and vital to her practice. The natural beauty of Vancouver inspired many of Kim’s patterns and florals, and the breakneck pace of New York inspired her to create work that invites viewers to share small moments frozen in time that we may otherwise be moving too fast to appreciate.
Before her big break, Kim was living in New York with her newborn son and just trying to survive. Finding a studio was a struggle, and New York is an expensive, sometimes unforgiving, place to call home. Kim was relegated to working out of her apartment, making only the small artworks her limited space would allow. At that point, her biggest piece was 40 inches by 40 inches as she didn’t have room to create or store anything larger. It might have been hard to imagine that in a short time, Kim would be working on gigantic projects that extend beyond the realm of gallery exhibits.
Kim has been interested in public art ever since she took a sculpture class in her second year at Emily Carr University, but never knew how she could approach it. Ultimately, it was her belief in seizing opportunities that led to her next step. As a student, Kim volunteered serving hors d’oeuvres at gallery openings, offered help to artists in their studios, and interned under many artists who worked in varied mediums over the years, including Takashi Murakami, one of Japan’s most influential artists. Believing that it is important to be on the ground with as many artists as possible, Kim viewed her volunteer experience as an opportunity to learn about the industry, and considers this time as integral to her current career as an artist.
Kim is also a proponent of cultivating relationships: She still keeps in touch with all of her old mentors and carries their lessons into her practice. One of the most notable things Kim learned from Murakami is that “art isn’t always in solitude. It can work better in collaboration.” This reinforced her idea that it’s important to reach out to the people in your life. Kim advocates that artists make this an essential part of their practice.
“There are plenty of people who want to help you,” she says.
What’s more is you can never tell who will be able to offer you the push you need. For example, one of Kim’s close friends had recently met the Deputy Director of New York’s Percent for Art Program, an initiative from the New York Department of Cultural Affairs. The Percent for Art Program allocates 1% of the budget for new projects toward art for that space. Kim’s friend encouraged her to apply, so she stepped outside of her comfort zone and went for it, despite the fact that the project would require her to create a piece far bigger than anything she’d worked on before.
After she sent in her submission, Kim didn’t hear back for a long time. It wasn’t until 3 years later that she received a phone call congratulating her: she had been selected as a finalist for the Percent for Art Program.
“I was like, ‘What? Me?’ I literally cried on the phone, because I had been struggling up until that moment,” Kim tells Lavoie. “It was a dream come true.”
After the initial call, Kim realized she would need a studio space now more than ever to produce the vibrant 11.5 foot by 16 foot piece that would come to grace a public elementary school in Queens. The new project motivated her, and she found her first studio space, which was barely big enough to contain her work. Nonetheless, with all the challenges surrounding finding creative spaces in New York, Kim was thrilled, and started working immediately.
The piece now stands as a bright, beautiful beacon, full of patterns, bubbles, and pieces of mirror, creating an interactive mural that Kim can be proud of. As soon as she completed the project, her immediate thought was “what next?”
Kim got busy submitting to open calls, and getting, in her words, “all of the rejection.” Then another public art project came up that she felt connected to: A large scale piece for the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center in Nebraska.
“A lot of my close friends were going through cancer,” Kim explains.
Her connection to the project has another significant layer: Kim’s husband works in a hospital with patients who are often facing death. Whenever she visits him at work, she is struck by the lack of colour and ambient elements present to provide comfort. Her thorough understanding of the space coupled with her talent for creating buoying patterns in bold colours made her an ideal candidate for the project. Kim was once again awarded the project, which has been a highly gratifying experience for her.
“I sometimes get e-mails from the Cancer Center telling me how much people love my art.” Kim says earnestly. “It makes my day.”
When we ask Kim what role she feels artists should play within the community, she thinks for a moment before saying, “I think artists should create shared moments. From a shared moment, you can open up your hearts to talk about complicated issues… it’s all about making that bridge instead of solving the issue.”
Kim credits the Emily Carr University grad show with helping her believe in her potential to succeed. She recounts that at the grad show, lots of people approached her and asked her to sell her paintings. That’s when, with awe, it dawned on her that art truly could be her career. And now it is. Kim’s art is out in the world doing work. It’s uplifting and inspiring. We can’t wait to see which community she brightens up next. Kim is currently represented by Blank Space Gallery in New York and by Ian Tan Gallery in Vancouver. You can view her work on Instagram at @suzy_taekyung_kim.