Museum  January 17, 2023  Colleen Smith

Sammy Seung-min Lee Takes Root

Photo © Scott Dressel-Martin

Installation view of Sammy Seung-min Lee: Taking Root, 2022. Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

Occasionally, the adage “There’s nothing new under the sun” is wrong. 

The art of Sammy Seung-min Lee is multifaceted: part sculpture, part fiber art in the form of handmade paper, part performance art, and part interactive art. Lee’s extraordinary multidisciplinary project titled “Taking Root” shows exactly that at Denver Botanic Gardens, open through February 5th. 

The exhibition is curiously calming, textural and sensual, and domestic yet exotic. Lee’s exhibit presents themes of immigration, racism, multiculturalism, the intimacy of table settings, and what she – the mother of two — calls “the unstoppable love of motherhood.” 

Lee moved from Seoul, South Korea, to Southern California as a sophomore in high school. 

“I was 16 when I came, so I remember where I come from,” she said. “Now I am not Korean, not American, but Korean-American, a hybrid.”

Relocating from one continent to another was, for Lee, a calculated risk.

Photo © Scott Dressel-Martin

Installation view of Sammy Seung-min Lee: Taking Root, 2022. Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

“I am adventurous, and I was fantasizing about the outer world,” she said. “The U.S. was where my parents could approve because we had family in Orange County.”

The artist recalled the first meal at her aunt’s California home: Korean food served from a buffet. Lee was handed one large plate — a radical departure from the multiple small serving vessels for specific foods and beverages typical of a meal in Korea.

“I wasn’t sure if I liked everything on one plate, and I was looking at it and seeing this is what it means to be Korean-American,” said Lee, who studied fine art at UCLA and architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In 2007, her husband’s job transfer landed her in Denver. In the Mile High City, Lee wears many hats: she teaches, she operates a contemporary art residency space known as Collective SML | k., and she also serves as a Denver Art Museum ambassador of Asian Art.

Photo © Scott Dressel-Martin

Installation view of Sammy Seung-min Lee: Taking Root, 2022. Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

For her own artistic practice, Lee works primarily with hanji, traditional handmade Korean paper. Hanji, the artist notes, is a sustainable medium made with the inner bark of mulberry trees.

“A lot of labor goes into it, and when properly made it’s said to take 100 hands,” she said. “It’s steamed and pounded thin, never cut, and it lasts forever and is resilient.

In contrast, she added, “In the Library of Congress, I was handling books from the 18th century, and they were falling apart in my hands because the paper is made from wood and is brittle.”

Lee works the hanji in water. The exhibition includes a video demonstrating the paper-felting process, a task Lee compares to pre-industrial laundry. 

“I am navigating destruction and rebirth. Domestic labor, a woman’s labor, the whole of motherhood is a part of my process,” the artist said. 

“The fiber is thin but strong, so I can feel it. I agitate it and pound it and wring it, so that it’s physically stressed. I layer sheets so they are thicker and stronger. There is an element of transformation,” she said. 

Lee cast her first piece with paper in 2014. “Take Root” is the culmination of a project she initiated in 2017. The exhibit features her Street Art Cart modeled after a self-contained Korean food pushcart often operated by a female.

In the “Meet the Artist” video, Lee mentions her intention to “activate a sense of empathy."

“All the issues around immigration and the strong feelings of racism: As an artist, I’m trying to ask myself questions and explore different emotions through my art practice,” Lee said. 

“When I take my cart out, people approach out of curiosity because I appear as the vendor. As soon as they realize I’m not selling anything, it’s disarming when I say I am a contemporary artist and asking them to set a table. Some think, ‘Oh, I’m not an artist. I’m not creative.’ But it’s not really an art activity,” Lee said. “Basically, I am asking people to set a table for someone special in their life, one special person. I ask them to set up an imagined meal for this person, using Korean serving vessels, adding their narrative to the community narrative.”

Then she casts the table setting in paper.

Photo © Scott Dressel-Martin

Installation view of Sammy Seung-min Lee: Taking Root, 2022. Courtesy of Denver Botanic Gardens.

“People’s perception is that paper is very weak. It appears weak, but it is like dried leather, very strong — and that is the very concept of my work,” she said. 

As a case in point, Lee looked to the heavy-duty, industrial-strength bank vault door she cast in a milky white paper. 

“It’s all steel and bolts, but looks like a lady’s petticoat,” the artist said. “I love the quality of paper because it naturally tells so much narrative. This paper has an amazing sculptural aspect to it. And sometimes, I am able to record my own handprints.”

About the Author

Colleen Smith

Colleen Smith is a longtime Denver arts writer and the curator of Art & Object’s Denver Art Showcase.

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