Elizabeth Kirsch, Following
Kansas City Star,
June 28, 2009.
In her current installation “Thread Whisper”, Ke Sook Lee
incorporates many of her favorite leitmotifs: transparent aprons the
size of doors; vintage crochet work, idiosyncratic embroidered “drawings” on
various textiles; and pigment made from dirt and vegetables from her
garden. It’s possible your grandmother’s hankie found its
way into this show, now illustrated with Lee’s hermetic, stitched
Over the past decade, Lee has exhibited variants of such textiles internationally.
But “Thread Whisper” is the first time Lee has amassed, in
one room, her complete asethetic arsenal representing a subject she continues
to exhaustively investigate: the home and its female householders. For
her, it is a topic both highly personal and of continuing global concern.
“Thread Whisper” is part reverie and part stage set. Lee’s
installation, which was mounted by her son John Sangjun Lee, literally hangs
by threads and pins. It consists of a four-sided house dangling in the
center of the room, and various stages of a garden installed around the periphery.
One need not fully grasp Lee’s narrative to appreciate the ghost-like,
stitched and stained textiles that float throughout the room and on the walls. But
if one looks at Lee’s forms long enough, ancestral spirits seem to weave
in and out of the various settings, whispering stories essentially inaudible. Lee’s
work aims to give them a voice.
She can do this because her own history resonates with the stories of
generations of anonymous women whose lives were limited to the confines
of their homes.
Lee is Korean. She was fourteen when, just after the Korean war,
she was put in charge of the family home. “I grew up in a
Confucianism background,” Lee said in a recent interview. “Women
had no social life then; they could only be at home working. They
had to do all the cooking and make all the clothes. And homemakers had
no social status. The most fun part,” she recalls, “was
doing embroidery. It was the most individual expression women had.”
After Lee married, she moved to Kansas City with her husband, Dr. Kyo
Rak Lee, who was a radiologist and taught at KU Medical Center. Once
again Lee became a householder, this time in a foreign country, with
two small children. After her sons were older, she attended the Kansas
City Art Institute where she received a BFA in 1982.
Lee has since worked in many media, but ten years ago she began focusing
exclusively on textiles. She incorporated vintage, hand-crocheted doilies
into squares she stitched together like quilts. Her fabrics became
layered, with multiple openings and hand-stitched drawings, and she created
ceiling to floor installations. Instead of painting on canvas,
she made giant gossamer aprons that would give Betty Crocker a migraine.
Four such aprons form the “walls” of her house in “Thread
Whisper,” each one with its own distinct personality. Clearly
they serve as metaphors for housebound women.
One is slightly worn. Another has transparent envelopes attached to it.
Each envelope contains a handkerchief with one of Lee’s stitched,
organically outlined drawing of a person. “Someone has to open
each one up and take them out. They can’t get out by themselves,” she
explains. The two remaining aprons have more images and more openings. “These
allow for more freedom,” Lee says.
Lee’s drawing, as she calls it, consists of tiny stitches
she painstakingly embroiders to form lines. Each little stitch, she says, “represents
a seed that offers hope of personal growth.”
In that spirit, Lee has created “gardens” in her installation.
In one corner, the ground has been “furrowed” with hundreds
of minute stitches sewn onto various kinds of fabrics that have been
rolled, folded, stitched on, and dyed.. On another wall, dozens
of embroidered circles or rings hover on the wall like so many butterflies
or bubbles; they represent flowers blossoming and opening up. A
profusion of crochet-work and molded paper shapes formed from doilies
explode on a third wall like some giant fabric bouquet.
“Life is a bouquet – whether hard or easy,” Lee believes.
In her art, there is ever a push – pull sensibility. Lee’s house
of monster aprons threatens to smother one, yet as “walls” the
aprons are transparent and open at the sides. There is a possibility of freedom.
And ultimately, endless rows of plain little stitches can sometimes turn into
vibrant works of art, just as a garden patiently tended can one day glow with
color and life.