Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Artist on Artist: Gary Sweeney Interviews Jon Lee


Jon Lee and Gary Sweeney - GARY SWEENEY
  • Gary Sweeney
  • Jon Lee and Gary Sweeney

Jon Lee is a master printmaker and a professor at Trinity University. I remember my first reaction upon seeing an exhibit of his work: The prints were so subtle, dreamy and transparent that they seemed barely there, and yet their craftsmanship and complexity were unmistakable. I had the pleasure of meeting him later; and despite his quiet demeanor, he's actually warm and friendly, with a very droll sense of humor. His wife, who also teaches art at Trinity and the Southwest School of Art, is the perfect counterbalance to his reserve, and together they make a very impressive art partnership. We sat down and talked over Mexican Food.

When you were growing up in Korea was most of your impression of America formed by the movies? Any movie in particular?
I learned most of it in school: that without America we were doomed and that America was important in keeping the peace in East Asia. Then my older siblings had very different opinions about that, and for a long time I was not sure what to think. So I guess I had to come here to figure it out

Were you raised in an artistic household?
No. However, my brother went to art school and my sister married an artist. I'm not sure why that happened.

Was there a moment or piece of artwork that made you want to become an artist?
I was always drawing as a child, all the time, and I was always questioning the older culture. I was rebellious — when somebody told me to do something, I would do the opposite. And I also knew I wanted to help people, though at the time I didn't know what that meant.

Why did you decide to come to America?
I was working as a professional printmaker in Korea. I wanted to be more proficient at lithography, so I came to study at the [internationally renowned print studio] Tamarind Institute.

What was the most startling difference you noticed when you began your stay here?
In Korea, the culture is that you must respect your elders no matter what. While I do not think this is a bad thing, it also applies if a fool is a year older than you — you can't say anything to them, just obey. Or that students or children cannot question their elders. So I guess you would say I like that there are perhaps less restrictions, in that sense.

How would you describe your artwork?
I really enjoy simplicity and straightforwardness. Most importantly, I consider that every day objects hold a unique beauty, and I take the time to see that simple beauty and bring that to my artwork. It all started with a tiny 16th-century bowl made by a peasant in Korea for everyday use. Although small and crude and insignificant, it is now, in Japan, enshrined and worshipped as an object of perfection. The way it was experienced and handled and used is a big part of what it is now. We have many such interactions with objects every day. Those simple interactions with simple objects are what my work talks about. Each series is different. I take everyday objects or movie credits as subjects, and I print them on handmade paper. I also use a rather pale, muted palette — I like to use natural colors. Now that I am older, I realize that my art also helps me know myself. Leo and I talk about that a lot: how much we personally benefit from being artists because we get to explore and talk about ourselves, the world around us, how we feel about it and work all that stuff out, as our job. That is pretty cool. And every artist does it. Just like your work is not about you but also all about you and could only be made by you.

Jon Lee’s Simpsons-inspired lithographs SM0303 (left) and SM0301 (right) - JON LEE
  • Jon Lee
  • Jon Lee’s Simpsons-inspired lithographs SM0303 (left) and SM0301 (right)

What is it about printmaking that draws you in?
It fits in with my personality. I've always really liked the concept of original multiples. It is very democratic. Unlike paintings, you can make work that is affordable and shareable. Print technology had huge effects on society, especially movable type, which democratized knowledge. I also love the process. Printmaking requires you to invent things. I make my own tools, my own paper and I build and work on the presses. And I also love paper. Paper is beautiful. If I could get away with it, I might just make paper and exhibit that! Prints and paper go hand in hand, and technically evolved hand in hand.

Your prints are amazingly complex, yet that quality might seem lost on the average viewer. Does that bother you?
A little. There's a video that accompanied my exhibit at the McNay Art Museum, and it shows the process. Although my art is about the simple things in life, it may not be understood as simply, at least not at first.

Talent: Do some people have it and some don't?
Yes. Everyone has some kind of talent. And everyone has potential. Each person has to figure out what their talent is and nurture it.

What's the best advice you give your students?
Actually, I listen to them a lot. I approach each student as an individual, and together we determine the best way for them to proceed through the art process. I also tell them to go out and experience different things and to trust themselves.

Is there a Korean style? Could you walk into a gallery and notice a painting or print with a certain familiar look or set of elements?
Yes, there are things I would recognize as 100 percent Korean and I'm sure they would recognize those elements in my work.

What's the biggest change you've noticed in students over the course of your teaching career?
"Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!" That's what they think about. It's a sad thing, but I understand given the cost of education. Especially in the arts there are few well-paid jobs, and it is hard to justify spending all that time and money when you don't later earn lots of money. That is a problem with society though; that education is not a valid enough reason, but a higher salary is.

Your wife Leo is also an accomplished artist. Are there certain challenges to having two creative people in the household? Doesn't one of you have to be normal?
We are completely non-competitive and since one of us is an abstract minimalist and the other is a narrative figurative, we complement each other. We're very good at making books together because I'm good with angles and straight lines and she's very good at the sewing end, which I am not. Mostly we just support each other and take turns juggling our children, work and art.

If you could own any piece of artwork what would it be?
I'm really not interested in museum artwork. To be honest, my favorite artists are unknown craftsmen.

I can't imagine you ever completely freaking out. Can you think of an instance in which you would just lose your composure?
Parenting will always make anyone freak out. You can't help it, but I feel losing my temper to be a shameful thing. I think people freak out too much. We only realize it when we freak out over things we shouldn't, then feel embarrassed after. But if you look at the times you think it was okay, you notice that maybe it would have been better to stay calm. We're all overworked and freaking out — it's nicer if we don't dump our crap on others, when we can help it.

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