Diary of a painter

From the IAR Archive

Losing faith in the early success of her work led Miseon Lee on a journey of self-discovery, both in artistic terms and geographically, writes James Hanley

Miseon Lee is a 52-year-old South Korean artist based in Limerick city who has been noted of late for her beautifully painted, classically poised self-portraits. But the story of how these works were arrived at and how she arrived to these shores is a moving and complex tale that is as inspirational as her work.

After seven years studying art in Seoul, culminating in a masters, Miseon was set for a career in painting. As an undergraduate, her studies were rigorously from life and she opted for Western painting, theory and techniques, as opposed to pursuing a native Oriental style of working, predominantly with inks and paint on rice paper. On graduation, her work had become expressive, not necessarily a deliberate fashion-conscious move to connect with the Zeitgeist of the mid 1980s, but more a natural evolution of her own practice.

Making bold, black and white paintings of the male figure, visceral and angst-ridden, was her trademark style at the time. Great things were expected, success beckoned, professors from college promoted her, culminating in her inclusion in a major international exhibition to coincide with the Seoul Olympics of 1988. Her work sold on the opening night. But then something happened. She lost faith in the work – actively hated it – a situation that became a ‘slump.’ Inexplicable, daunting, not unheard of, but debilitating to a fledgling artist.

She moved to Germany in 1991 to try and kickstart a change, a rejuvenation, but she was told by a German professor that he could teach her nothing, and that all she had to do now was paint. She couldn’t. She married and had a son (now eighteen) and moved back to Korea, where she taught art for the next fifteen years. Friends who had encouraged her must have thought she would never paint again.

These beautifully crafted, labour intensive, realistic portraits are poles apart from her earlier work, but they are still not definitive – they are a stepping stone.

Then in 2005, the ‘itchy feet’ as she calls them struck again. Randomly surfing while vaguely planning to go to the US, she read about Ireland, loved its nature, and chose a small city for a certain anonymity and a new life. She had to learn English, and set up home with her son, living off savings. A brave move, a ‘new frontier’ in her own words.
Then things changed. She painted a portrait of a friend as a birthday present. Another portrait followed. The results were good. Another followed, suddenly the cogs started moving again and soon she had thirty portraits of Limerick friends – poets, musicians, teachers, locals, a TD – giving her two acclaimed shows in Limerick in 2008. Then followed the inclusion in the Davy Portrait Awards of a haunting self-portrait and an award at the RHA for another from the series in 2010 (Fig 1).

She now paints obsessively, seven days a week at times, her arms aching and her head dizzy from the concentration. She has found her mojo. Perhaps it is to make up for all the lost time, her fifteen-year hiatus, that makes her now not want to stop. In the daily act of concentration she is able to forget unhappier times. These beautifully crafted, labour intensive, realistic portraits are poles apart from her earlier work, but they are still not definitive – they are a stepping stone. A series of self-portraits half undertaken, painted from life and from photos, are both an existential and a practical exercise (Figs 2-4). Using a cheap and readily available model (herself), she is working through things, emotionally and technically. It is all work in progress, but her mind is already racing ahead to the next body of work – large, boldly expressive again, but done from a happier place.

Miseon has come through the slump, and is now painting like there is no tomorrow. She smiles, she is happy, she looks twenty years younger than her actual age. Her son starts college in the autumn. Life is good. She knows that it can get better yet, and it will – and we will share and enjoy her journey through her paintings, new work from an artist who has finally conquered her demons and found her true artistic spirit.

James Hanley is an artist and a member of the Royal Hibernian Academy.

From the IAR Archive
First published in the Irish Arts Review Vol 28, No 3, 2011.

Miseon Lee is one of the Hennessy Portrait Prize 2015 finalists. Click here for more.