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Cultivate Featured Artist: Julie Lee

Selfie of young woman wearing a high neck black shirt, short cropped black hair, and wire framed glasses

The Cultivate Curatorial Board is excited to share the work of Julie Lee

Julie shares her work and process in our interview below.

Learn more about the Cultivate Featured artist series below.

Learn more about Julie on her:

Briefly describe your work or share your artist statement

I think for this occasion, I can speak more about this body of work. I haven't seen my paternal grandmother (the last remaining grandparent in my family) in more than a decade. Until I investigated my family’s archive of photo albums, there was a point in time where I could not even remember her face. When looking back into the albums, I noticed how few photographs there were of her and it left an aching void that I had not realized was there before. In creating this series of photographs, I spent time with my grandmother and built a relationship with her, even though we are physically miles apart. In these photographs, there are designs from traditional Korean architecture that have been punctured into the surfaces. When these seemingly mundane photographs are physically brought into the light, her being and the beings of her loved are illuminated. I spent seconds, minutes, hours, days, and months honoring her and securing her memory through the simple manual act of embroidery. A puncture into these photographs records every time I thought about her (which is seemingly infinite, all the time). In spending time with these images of her, I fabricated a conception of her as an individual, as well as the lands of Korea and America these photographs were taken in. Mining through these images (which mainly record the relationship between her and my older sister) made me challenge my own position in the matrilineal lineage that comes with her. Perhaps these conceptions of her (and the settings these memories were created in) only serve the purpose to comfort me from the uncertain question of whether I will see her again or not (whether I will ever be able to visit Korea or not). Perhaps these conceptions are only just that and the woman (as well as the spaces she inhabited) I remember never existed.

photograph of corner of room with light wooden floor and white walls. Walls have family photographs arranged in straight line. Old tube tv sits in right corner
"Installation of Grandma is an Angel", 2022, photographs, projection, video. Image Courtesy of the Artist

How do you go about beginning a new piece? Do you have it planned or is it more spontaneous?

In general, I’d like to think of myself as a pretty organized person. But that’s not always the case when it comes to the studio, because I really rely on my intuition throughout the process as well as the personal urgency and calling I feel in the work I throw myself into. With that being said, I make sure to do a lot of research in my observations or any line of thinking where I’m telling myself, “hmm, maybe there’s something to this train of thought… let’s write this down in our notes and look at this more closely.” I usually make so many things/rough drafts/copies/experiments/alternate takes before I start curating and shifting through whatever I created, piecing things together and making sense of my findings. Honestly, I’d like to see the way I operate as a very organized mess. I enjoy having that space where I get the liberty to explore in the first place before deciding to be more and more deliberate over time. Regardless, I always put thought in each and every step of the way. I think the Pepe Silvia Conspiracy Board meme is a pretty good summary of how I tend to operate [laughs].

What is a barrier that you, as an artist, overcame?

​As an Asian-American person, I felt pressured to assimilate to the Western sphere and be a "model minority" while also having to preserve any sense of heritage remaining in my family - a common experience of many Asian-Americans growing up. With all these pressures to do well from the academic and domestic spheres, I was having to grapple with defining my own sense of self and asserting my autonomy in my own personhood. Throughout that journey of having to define and heal myself, I felt very lost and alone... until I found other like-minded peers who experienced similar radicalized experiences. Together, we formed our own safe spaces and communities where we could truly be ourselves and participate in sharing, exchanging our ideas and creativity. I believe this is where my work and practices started blossoming: with the care and mentorship of my found family/community. Looking back, I always had to grapple with doubt and the thought of "not being good enough." I picked up a phrase from an artist and it's something I carry with myself, sharing with others when they doubt their work and themselves: you are not here to be a better version of someone else (or anything remotely similar of the sort); instead you are here to be a better version of your own self. No one else can do it exactly like you, so embrace that with full responsibility.

photographic portrait of middle aged woman looking over left shoulder
"Grandma is an Angel 02", 2022, photograph, 8" x 12". Image Courtesy of Artist

What is your go-to music when you're working on art?

I’m pretty all over the place. Recently, I’ve been into metal and witch-house music. I always listen to Frank Ocean, PinkPantheress, Tyler the Creator, and Dev Hynes/Blood Orange. Also, I’ve got to admit that I am a Swiftie (I’m very stuck on her Speak Now era…).

What do you strive for as an artist? What form of recognition is important for you?

​As mentioned before, I create my work based on a personal urgency: to gain an understanding of the stories of the people who came before me, specifically in my matrilineal lineage and the women around me. I'm always looking back in order to look forward, recording observations while viewing the family albums. I hope that my work can contribute to the family archives for the people that will come after me. As for recognition, I think I'm more concerned with community, rather than recognition. I think it's really fun to share the joy of creating and learning with others, where we don't need to be in competition with one another. I am honestly really grateful for the support I've gained from many others and I hope I can do the same. I am still surprised that people like what I have to say and make; the feelings are the same over here.

photograph of olderwoman standing with young adult woman in front of pond with flowering lily pads
"Grandma is an Angel 09", 2022, photograph, 8" x 12". Image Courtesy of Artist

What advice would you share for artists? Share something that you have learned along the way.

Your art is yours, so own it and take responsibility for it. Creating art should be something that is fulfilling, joy-bringing, and rewarding for you; you get to be your own narrator here - keep it that way (I especially mean this for artists of color). The journey will be bumpy, uncertain, and at times, make absolutely no sense.... but it is so worth it when you truly believe in it and love what you are doing. If you don't love what you are doing, I hope you can take the time to pause and reassess -- that is so important, to know when to say "no" and set boundaries. You're doing so well, you've got this!!!

What is a work of art that is an inspiration to you?

I've been looking at the work of Jamie Ho, particularly the moving image sets (cited as their new work/in progress work on their website). The colors are so rich and the narratives are a cinematic joy to witness as the stills pass by. Jamie is able to convey so much through the medium of the GIF and it's always amazing to see how well their work adapts in different settings (you've gotta look at their installations).

"To Look Back is to Go Forward", 2022, video, 4 min 8 seconds. Courtesy of the Artist

Who are three working artists that you love and would recommend?

That's a hard question because I am always in awe and support of what my peers have been up to. It's like witnessing magic. I'm going to respond to this question by giving mentions to local Pittsburgh artists who are just fantastic and who I encourage people to check out:

photograph of older woman pressing check against young girl as they pose together.
"Grandma is an Angel VII", 2022, photograph, 8" x 12". Image Courtesy of the Artist


Cultivate Artists

A curated collection of emerging and mid-career artists. The featured artist program at Cultivate serves to share the artist's work and process with the community, inviting them to understand how and why an artist creates the work they do, to market and promote artists, and to connect artists to each other and to our network of curators, artists, and gallery owners.

These artists are curated together and represent the work that we exhibit at Cultivate. The artists are selected in January and June, and scheduled out for the six-month period. If you are interested in being one of Cultivate featured artists, please visit our open call for submissions.

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