Interview conducted by Hayley Pierpont (Scripps '22) and Lindsey Tam (Pomona '20).
Aimee Lee is known for being a Hanji maker and has even opened the first US Hanji studio in Cleveland, where her practice is based. As a person of Korean descent, Lee uses her heritage as inspiration for her art. Lee handmakes and hand dyes her own paper using traditional Korean techniques and materials. She then constructs unique and intriguing weaved artworks, knitted books, artists books, paper icons, and even Korean clothing wall art. Lee masterfully utilizes paper--usually seen as a temporary and two-dimensional material--to craft artwork that breaks the boundaries of paper’s material properties, often taking on a three-dimensional structure. aimeelee.net
In what ways has your understanding of the connection between humans and the earth (materials, plants, etc.) changed throughout your years of practice?
It has changed a LOT because when I first started, I was worried much more about connections between humans and humans. My sense of our relationship with the rest of the world was in a more naive kind of way, where I loved reading about how Native American/First Nations people related to their world, and about people who tried to live as lightly as they could. But my reality never reflected that admiration for such a lifestyle. It wasn't until I started making paper, and directly from plants, that everything changed. Once your hands are actually on a plant and you have to understand its cycles of growth and what part is good for what, then you have a real relationship. And that deepened as I learned about plants (and insects) for natural dyes, and so on. My favorite book about the topic is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, a Native botanist who speaks so eloquently about the reciprocal nature of our relationship with the world. Her idea is that humans can be GOOD for the non-human world, rather than the way we think we are always bad, polluting, dangerous to the rest of the world. I love this idea and wish more of us could sit with it, believe it, and practice it.
Can you reflect on your paper making process? Do you have an end-product in mind or is the process spontaneous?
Both. I either want to make something in my head and work towards it, or I make paper without worrying about what it will become, because I know eventually the answer will come to me. Sometimes I know exactly what I need and do a batch for that project but usually I have stashes of all kinds of paper, even manipulated paper, that I occasionally review and touch to see if any of it speaks to me. One of my books from last year, In Place Of, came from all of this hoarding. I had kept pieces of things knowing they would become an edition, and one day I think when I was doing morning stretches, I realized exactly what it had to become, and all the pieces fell into place.
Papermaking keeps me connected to the world as I mention in your first question. So it's something I expect to do until my body doesn't allow it anymore. But my skill in the wet studio makes it possible for me to create books that I couldn't have done before I was a papermaker.
In terms of your handmade paper, how often does the process go according to plan. Have there ever been products that are unusable, and do you ever recycle paper? Are there any sorts of materials you've tried that aren't conducive to paper making? And how much is the result a product of the artists' touch vs. the materials themselves?
I recycle everything all the time. I always keep stashes of paper scraps to use to make art and also to recycle. A lot of my garments and 2D pieces are recycled from other pieces and other papers. Having a plan is fine, but often makes life a lot harder because you can get married to an idea that just isn't going to work in real life. I was trained as a classical violinist but later studied improvisation and other types of music like jazz. It unlocked an ability that I already had but hadn't named, which I practiced but didn't know I was doing, and I credit a lot of my making and teaching skills to my ability to improvise. You have to be able to roll with whatever comes, even if it's something bad like a student splattering permanent ink all over paper that you got from Korea and Japan and could never find again. I learned early about how to work with plants for papermaking so I was lucky: lots of people do tons of trial and error that they could have avoided with a good teacher or decent book. I made HUGE errors with milkweed, using the wrong part of the plant, but the best part of terrific failure is that you learn WAY more than if you had done it right from the start. I still have those messed up sheets of paper and I show my students all the time.
I was taught how to make paper from pros, so I knew from the start what not to use. If you know the definition of paper involves cellulose, and that cellulose comes from plants, and that not all plants have the same amount of cellulose, then you know what to steer clear of. What I've learned from experiments are what plants are most amenable to papermaking, and I stick with them.
In my work, my hand and the materials are extremely important in getting to the final product. The relationship between materials and my hand is the only relationship that gets me to the end product. Whatever happens in my intellectual head is not divorced from that, because it's all one thing. The intellectual/critical stuff is all informed by what I know in the world.
Can you speak a bit about your icon series. What inspired this body of work? For the most part, this seems to be some of your only truly two dimensional work; how is that artistic process different from an interactive book, or a paper sculpture?
This started after I got back from my first Fulbright in Korea in 2009. I was thinking a lot about the landscape in Korea, which is very mountainous—so different from where I grew up in NY, which didn't have that. I was also thinking about family and my experiences with family members who were deceased. I think the process is different obviously because the narrative happens all at once rather than being revealed through a book, but I still deal with issues of material and technique, color and space, how the piece is going to be "read." The material is almost always paper so that process is identical: knowing what it can and cannot do, asking it to do what I want and seeing if it will respond as I expect.
We were really intrigued by your Weight of the Moment artist book, particularly since its form differs drastically from your other artist book. Do you have a favorite piece you've created? Why?
I remember where I was when I made this book and that I was incredibly upset, so I'm going to guess it was after the presidential election in 2016. This was a case of having things ready for a long time and then it coming together. I had made the black & white "bucket" of sorts as an experiment with woven paper thread. The other side of the scale has more accurately woven pieces, meaning they are flat. But the cradle made me think of a kind of fetal position, shriveled up feeling that I had after the world basically turned upside down and I felt incredibly unsafe. I wanted to consider this moment in time, where we could choose to roll over and give up, or take up the fight in earnest. You can't really tell from the images, but if you slide the bits to one side or the other on the rod, you can shift the balance. It's up to the reader to decide where in that continuum they want to be.
What are you working on now? Or what hopes/plans do you have for your future artistic practice? How has this new environment of isolation impacted your practice and do you have any advice, as an artist, on how to work around these difficult conditions?
I always have multiple projects going at once, both in the studio and more...'academically' in terms of my writing. I have been working since 2016 on a book about people who make tools/equipment for papermaking and have traveled around the world to interview them. The first essay was published last year and I'm working on a second now before I go through and write about all of them. Because of my research in Korean papermaking, I wanted to include the Korean screenmaker who inspired this idea in me in the first place. Next year I'll go on another Fulbright grant to research his process, and hopefully make a trip to Japan as well to do the same. This work of documenting the papermaking field is extremely important to me. Of course if I didn't have to do it, that would be great. But I have enough skill as a writer to do it, and even if I wasn't trained as an ethnographer or anthropologist, I am fascinated by the human side of hand papermaking. So many historians have taken to this field in a faddish kind of way, but they don't know anything about papermaking. The good thing about doing this work is that I am able to learn very deeply about my field in ways that most artists aren't able, so in that sense it's a gift.
I just released my first "how to" about jiseung, which is Korean paper basketry, and want to work on the second book in that series. I did a milkweed papermaking how-to a couple years back and that was very popular.
I am still thinking about what I want to do for this year's artists' books edition. I bet that the little woven pieces hiding under a big sheet of glassine will play a role. Usually I get that done in the summer.
I also have a lot of ideas around honeycomb paper and want to see how that works in various forms, whether as a book, sculpture, or installation. I have a solo show late in the year, and I have a whole new idea about how to maybe revisit my old thesis of bricks to engage the gallery.
Fortunately for me, aside from my many gigs on the road, I work at home. So lockdown simply extends the time I have to work at home. Because I am human and affected by the rest of the world, I was unable to do anything related to "my work" for the first couple of weeks. All I did was sew bags from fabric scraps I had gotten at a Zero Landfill event and send them to friends or their kids. Somehow that felt soothing even if it was useless. Of course I've made face masks for my family back in NYC but now that I'm over the sewing hump, I am back to writing. I'm trying to write a lot to get this toolmakers book going; it has dragged on for more years than I wanted. Every day a new challenge crops up and because of the pandemic they knock me down for longer than during non-pandemic times; the bad feels worse, the worse feels like my life is over, and so on. But that's what we're all dealing with. I am not sleeping as well and had lots of nightmares at first. The biggest comfort has been to know that the entire world is in the same boat; it's a collective unconscious that is not sleeping and having nightmares and unable to focus during the day: that's everyone, not just me.
So I feel lucky that I CAN work at home even if I'm not doing it as quickly or as much as I usually would. One thing I started to do that was inspired by Hannah Hinchman's A Trail of Leaves was to draw something non-human daily. Every day if I can, I've been drawing the same rhododendron plant outside my window. It's very soothing. I also highly recommend reading anything by Lynda Barry, esp her newer research on drawing and comics and so on. What It Is, Making Comics, Picture This, Syllabus, and One! Hundred! Demons! are all fabulous. I know you can't get to a library and maybe can't afford to order them, so you can also check out her tumblr for the courses she teaches at Univ Wisconsin Madison and elsewhere.
On your website, you mention that says Korean wedding ducks are usually made out of wood. What inspired you to weave it using Hanji instead?
I saw a black and white image in a museum catalog from a paper exhibit in the 80s of a woven paper duck and I knew I had to make my own. As I got more into this process, I started to find more images of paper ducks woven using the jiseung technique that I had learned in 2009.
You mention you draw inspiration from your Korean heritage. Is there a particular component of Korean heritage that inspires you? For instance, are you only interested in traditional practices or do you explore modern day customs as well?
I love looking at old objects and will go to different museums and request (months ahead of time) to pull Korean objects from their storage. You learn a LOT that way. But I think a lot of the old stuff still survives today. For example, I have always been really interested in the way we behave on the "outside" and how it's different from "inside"—that comes directly from out/in spaces of Korea. It's very delineated there: you take of your shoes before you come inside, you wash your hands and face, you change your clothes, all of it. To me it was normal because I was raised in a Korean home though in the US. I found it crazy that people would wear their shoes inside the house or even on their beds. This shattered all my ideas of how you were supposed to behave in different places. And today, people still give those ducks as wedding gifts, so it's a tradition that is still a big part of contemporary life.
If you have pieces with more than one edition, how do you go about ensuring coloring/paper is the same while also being handmade?
I usually have made all of the paper and dyed it ahead of making the edition, so it's from one batch and fairly uniform. However, given the way that I construct these books and the natural inconsistencies in handmade paper or weavings or dyeings or whatever, I always mark my editions as variable ones, indicating that the edition for the most part is the same but has variations from one book to the next.