In July 2020, Parrish Adjunct Curator David Pagel sat down with Telling Stories artist JooYoung Choi (over Zoom) to discuss her practice.

David Pagel: Your work looks like it’s made for kids—it’s colorful, friendly and fun. But it also addresses what adults think of as serious issues: fear, loneliness, isolation, abandonment, loss and suffering. Do you think adults do more damage to children by trying to protect them from such serious topics? Or by sugarcoating tough subjects? What can adults learn from kids?

JooYoung Choi: I believe adults need to find responsible, respectful, and age-appropriate ways to discuss difficult issues with children. We harm children by not helping them understand the realities of the world. Children grow up healthy and strong when they have adults in their lives who will listen and guide them through the scary things in life. I believe that we can find ways through storytelling and imaginative play to experience a variety of feelings such as fear, anger, love, and joy. When children practice these feelings with a responsible and caring adult, they’ll be better prepared to respond in a healthy manner to real-world situations. It’s not uncommon for people to think my work is geared towards kids. I think anyone who has spent some time with my work realizes that it tackles several complex and challenging issues. The pieces included in this exhibition explore my feelings about the international adoption system, racism, identity, loss, and faith. I like to think that my work is built like a house. Some people will walk in and enjoy a very well organized family room. Some will venture forward, opening closets to see beautiful messes, unlocking mysterious cabinets, finding strange collections of thought. Some will keep walking and remember how it feels to be young and curious.

DP: And what do we all learn from your art?

JYC: I should mention that my favorite motion picture is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, I’ve probably watched Roger Rabbit more than anyone else in the world. When I make art, I always aim to create work that is as layered and thoughtful as this incredible film. As a child, I loved it because it was so entertaining, and it provided me with a fantastic world where possibilities seemed endless. As an adult, it still gives me this feeling, but it has also given me so much more. As a multi-disciplinary artist, I have learned so much from the puppetry, animation, story development, and editing that made this film possible. This film made me want to be an artist, and I hope my work similarly inspires others to express themselves creatively.  Moreover, I realized that this film used cartoons to symbolize how people of color are treated in America.

“P-p-please, Eddie. You know there’s no justice for toons anymore. If the weasels get their hands on me, I’m as good as dipped.” -Roger Rabbit

When you compare how racism is interwoven within our justice system to Judge Doom’s treatment of Roger Rabbit, it’s rather chilling. The film addresses issues such as addiction, corruption, gentrification, and internalized oppression. Just like my favorite childhood film, I hope to create work that can reach people in different ways throughout their lives. Through my video art, I address issues of symbolic annihilation by creating TV shows I dreamed of seeing as a child. These short works feature Asian women and other people of color as superheroes, playing leading roles. Through my sculptures and installations, I’ve addressed issues such as adoption, family separation, immigration, the consequences of war, and the power of faith. Through conceptual art projects such as my Snow People project, I address issues of wealth, privilege, and the importance of welcoming refugees. This piece involved the creation of several soft sculpture snow people puppets. The project allowed local community members regardless of class or wealth to spend time living with my art. 

I think that every viewer will learn something different from my art. What I hope to share is how resilient faith and creative expression can become a powerful force to process one’s feelings and speak out against injustice. Nobody promised that life would be easy, and nobody promised that life would be fair. What matters is whether we perpetuate the ugliness we’ve seen, or we are brave enough to embrace our creativity and manifest what we wish to see in the world. This is a choice we all have to make time and time again throughout our lives.

DP: Did you always know you were an artist? Or did that revelation come to you later in life?

JYC: As a child, I loved making music, making art, writing stories, and watching TV. I took my cartoon watching very seriously. I kept a collection of character notes under the television set, if any “important” information about a character was mentioned such as their birthday, birthplace, secret identity or hometown, I could quickly jot it down. When I was in 4th grade I learned about the Marvel Universe. Marvel Masterpiece trading cards were some of the first paintings I fell in love with. I memorized as much as I could about those characters. While other girls were reading Tiger Beat, I was trading comic book cards and memorizing superhero profiles. Which is why I know Wolverine’s height is 5’3″, Storm’s secret identity is Ororo Munroe, and that Psyclocke’s brother is Captain Britain. Little did I know I was studying to become a world-building artist as an adult. I knew I loved art, but I wasn’t aware that being an artist could be a full-time career. We didn’t have any art museums in Concord, NH.  When I was 8 years old, I decided I wanted to work for Walt Disney animation studios. I wrote them a letter announcing that I was going to do character development and write songs for animated feature films. 

It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I figured out that I could become an artist. So I took some community college courses and studied under the artist Michael Stalling. I fell in love with the idea of being an artist. The first artist that really convinced me that this is what I wanted to do with my life was Maude Lebowski from the Big Lebowski. I saw that film and thought, “Oh my goodness, what a marvelous life that would be!” From there, I put myself through undergrad at MassArt. While completing my BFA I was the director of a social justice education program for children, a cashier at the book store and a waitress. During this time I found my birth family, and began getting scholarships to study Korean during my summers at different universities. Somehow, I graduated with distinctions and got accepted into grad school during my 4th year of undergrad. Two years later I received my MFA from Lesley University.

DP: One of the reasons I organized Telling Stories was to look at the relationship between fact and fiction (as well as artifice and truth). As an artist, and, particularly as an artist who seems to value the imagination, what do you think about the relationship between facts and fantasies, tall-tales and realism? In other words, what sorts of truth does your art pursue?

JYC: Several times throughout my life, I’ve learned that something I thought was the truth has ended up not being as real as I imagined.  I grew up celebrating my birthday on November 29th, 1982, but when I found my birth mother, I found out I wasn’t even alive in 1982. I was actually born on January 18th, 1983. My understanding of truth and fiction changed after I reunited with my birth family. I had to embrace a new understanding of reality.  Instead of seeing truth as black and white, realness became more like a spectrum of feelings. For instance, if I’m asked to write my birthday on a legal document, I put “November 29th, 1982″. I sign on the line that says, “I verify that all I have written is true,” even though I know it doesn’t feel like the whole truth. When I celebrate my birthday on the 29th, it feels real, but there is a part of my heart that knows that the anniversary of my birth isn’t until next year. My Korean birth certificate shows that I don’t have any parents, it was as if I was spontaneously manifested. My American birth certificate says I was born on a date I wasn’t yet alive on and birthed by my adoptive mother in Seoul, South Korea. Yet my adoptive mother has never traveled to Asia in her life, and I am not her biological child. I grew up thinking my birth name was JeeYung, only to find out in my mid-twenties that the adoption agency changed it, and it was actually JooYoung.

As someone with such a complicated past, fact and fiction often become blurred. Articles about my art and biography have become a new sort of fiction in my life. Much of what has been written about me includes incorrect information. Sometimes it feels like the fiction surrounding me as an artist is wilder and more bizarre than the fiction I write for my characters. For instance, some articles state that my step-grandmother brought me to an adoption agency and arranged for my adoption in America. This is not true. Nobody in my family knew where I had been sent. My birth father searched for me for ten years. Other articles state false information such as my birth parents were married, divorced; one article even claimed that ten generations ago my birth parents’ ancestors shared a genetic link! 

What I find compelling is that no matter how my life in this world continues to change, and reality and fiction continue to meld, the facts within my imaginary world remain relatively consistent; the dates, times, names of characters, for the most part, have stayed the same. I think somewhere in my subconscious, I take comfort in that, and it allows me to remain flexible when I learn something new about my life here on Earth. I think as a child, I had a truth in my heart, one that couldn’t be spoken. It was my guilty desire to grow up in a world where I felt like I belonged. In my mind I would savor the idea of what it would’ve felt like to grow up free from being called names like pancake face or flat face, and to have parents who shared my features and personality traits. As an adult I made that journey and found my family, and they are all creative and wonderfully expressive artists (from skilled martial artists to rock ‘n roll musicians). When I returned from my first trip to Korea, I realized that although I found a piece of my heart, there was so much about who I was I just didn’t know. It was as if my longing to know my origin story had taken up so much of my being, it hadn’t left much room for anything else. And so, I created the Cosmic Womb, which began as a place for me to understand who I have become through my reunion journey. What I didn’t know is that this imaginary world would not only be a place for reflection, but also a laboratory for future visions.

Through my artwork, I can create things I’ve never seen before. These pieces speak truths I cannot express in words. I know when I complete a new work, and step in front of it, it changes me. It changes my understanding of reality and broadens my belief in what is possible. Just as a child who sees snow fall for the first time, or eats their first cannoli, it can be life-changing. Everyday as a child we see new things and learn new words, and as an artist, I am interested in embracing that young and curious way of being. I hope that my work brings people into a world of not knowing, of being vulnerable, of learning about new legends, new languages and new worlds, and in the process find a very old part of themselves they may have forgotten.

DP: What’s your view of an ideal viewer? In other words, what does your work ask of viewers? demand of them? seek from them? And, equally, what does it give to them? The flip side of this question: what’s your nightmare version of a viewer?

JYC: Anyone who is willing to take their time, and enjoys getting lost in the mystery. I love when people come up with their own stories. Sometimes they come up with ideas that are so good I end up adopting them into the official narrative. I don’t know if I have a nightmare version of a viewer, that’s an interesting idea. I guess Lady Madness, the green monster in my installation Like a Bolt Out of the Blue, Faith Steps In and Sees You Through.  Now she would be a nightmare viewer! She’s somebody who thinks she knows what she’s seeing before she even gives it the time it deserves. Other than Lady Madness, I’ve occasionally had someone assume my work must be connected to Japanese animation. It’s always awkward explaining that other than a few Miyazaki films I don’t particularly know much about anime. Or sometimes people will assume that all my imagery must stem from the culture and myths of “my people.” It’s interesting explaining to them, that yes I am inspired by “my people” if you mean Jacob Lawerence, RB Kitaj, Fred Rogers, Mary Blair, Jim Henson, Stan Lee, Walt Disney, my husband Trenton Doyle Hancock and my student Akshay Sukumaran. 

DP: What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were starting out as an artist? What is the most satisfying thing about being an artist? The most frustrating? 

JYC: If I could go back, I would tell myself to spend more time learning about the fundamentals of visual math. Learning how to create a dynamic composition that is visually balanced and perpetually blooming with new ideas isn’t easy. I don’t think I appreciated this part of painting when I began making art. Now it has become one of my favorite parts of the painting and building installations, creating flow, exercising notan, creating harmony through the rhythm of repetition and variety. 

I think the thing I find most satisfying, is when I am beginning a piece, and all these ideas are generating, and the possibilities are endless. It’s the time where I can process my feelings about something I am trying to understand and it feels like being in a lab and discovering a new element. It feels like an endless summer day back in grade school. I also enjoy when my work reveals something I didn’t know about myself, or when a project forces me to grow as a person. For years I was incredibly hard on myself, I grew up with a mother who loved me but was incredibly strict, and had very high expectations. Over the years a negative voice had grown inside of me. This should’ve been done last week! What’s taking so long? Why can’t you just finish what you started? While working on a previous film project, I listened to almost every Mr. Rogers Neighborhood episode from when it began up to the late 80s. I read one of his books and listen to some of his audiobooks on parenting. Through this process of researching what type of video I wanted to make with puppets, I learned how to let this negative voice go. I began appreciating where ever I was in the process. I learned that when I accepted who I was and where I was, it actually made it easier and more enjoyable to get along in the process of completing a work. Time and time again my art has taught me to appreciate that small invisible essence inside of me and everyone else that is true, vulnerable and can only grow if it is loved. 

As for what is most frustrating, although I no longer criticize myself for how long it takes for me to complete my work, a new voice has emerged that is like a child who wishes for me to finish my project so we can enjoy it. 

Fred Rogers made a song that I think sums it up:

I think it’s very very very hard to wait

I think it’s very very very hard to wait
Especially when you’re waiting
For something very nice
I think it’s very very very hard to wait

Over the past year I learned how to write a script using standard Hollywood format, and I have drawn well over 3000 sketches for the animated pre-vis and storyboards. And I must say, it has been very, very, very hard to wait, especially since I am waiting to see something very nice get created! But I think even this part of the process of art-making is something you learn to embrace, like waiting for your birthday, or a holiday or even the next Marvel movie. 

DP: How has the pandemic affected you as an artist, both your work habits and ways of thinking?

JYC: In some ways my life hasn’t changed much. Anyone who knows me, knows I work all the time. I only stop for birthdays, anniversaries, emergencies and Marvel movies. As I mentioned earlier, I have been working on a film, it’s titled Spectra Force Vive, Infinite Pie Delivery Service. This has been quite a creative challenge, since originally I had planned to cast actual humans for some of the roles. Due to social distancing, I’ve had to switch to mostly all animated and I have constructed a human cast made up of puppets. I had entertained the idea of using puppets early on in the brainstorming process, but once the pandemic began, it became the only reasonable choice. Amongst the cast of puppets, I’ve found creative ways to include a few humans. I sent one actor a green backdrop, and another actor already had his own green screen. Through the magic of the internet they can send me their footage, and I can edit it into the film!

Since I switched to puppets, this has allowed me to open up voice-acting roles to a larger community of friends (and new friends) regardless of where they live. From old friends from my hometown to fans who have followed my work, I have been able to invite a variety of people to do voice work for the project. Also, I have opened up casting opportunities to the global puppet community. I have created a website that shows them how to film green screen-ready footage through their phone and send it to me. So in some ways, it’s allowed more people than I imagined to participate in the project. Since I haven’t been traveling for work or attending events, my time in the studio has increased. Having my world slow down has given me a chance to reflect upon how systemic oppression has impacted my art, my outlook on life, and the narratives I have built. 

I realized that: 

  1. A few of the power dynamics in my script reflected old played out ideas. 
  2. Some of my casting choices seemed to perpetuate the limited thinking prevalent in the media I consumed as a child. 

This led me to ask myself questions such as: 

How has racism influenced my outlook on life and the art I create?

Why did I originally cast this character to look this way?

Am I perpetuating ideas about race that are limiting and oppressive?

How do I include characters with disabilities in a manner that is respectful and not tokenizing?

How does an anti-racist lens allow my story to become more compelling?

If this narrative involves saving the universe, Earth couldn’t look the way it does today. How would it change?

What would a new vision of the world look like?