Since receiving her Master of Fine Arts from Columbia College in 2006, Albion artist-in-residence Aimee Lee has had her artwork shown in 73 solo, curated and group exhibitions; has received 24 grants and residencies and has been a visiting artist or a professor at 14 colleges.
But Lee didn’t truly find her love of arts — specifically, papermaking — until her graduate years at Chicago’s Columbia College.
That’s not to say Lee was never interested. Visual art, music and writing were with her from a young age. She learned piano in her hometown of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, then transitioned to violin, then transitioned to Oberlin College for a violin performance major.
Oberlin is nationally known for its strong music program, but Lee didn’t know how intense its music performance program was until she arrived. She didn’t want to practice eight hours a day like her peers. So, she began to take other classes, like philosophy, dance, writing and, eventually, art.
Like Lee, I’m a fine arts guy — of sorts. As a creative writing major, every time someone asks what I’m studying, I cringe because I know what the follow-up question will be: “So what are you going to do with that?” There seems to be a stigma of unemployability, and wasted tuition money and talent when it comes to a fine arts degree.
But Lee never faced these prejudices. She said much of Oberlin’s students embraced their creativity. Sure, many of her friends took on second majors distant from the fine arts, but they still embraced their creativity outwardly.
“It was almost like you would cover up your non-art life,” she said. “It was like ‘Oh, I’m a dancer. I’m an artist,’ and you didn’t want people to know, ‘Actually, I’m a computer science major.”’
What? No jabs? At first, I found this odd. But as Lee took me through her life as an artist, and the art of Korean papermaking, I began to think there was something else at play. I have no doubt that Oberlin students prided themselves on creativity, but I think Lee, without realizing, defied expectations of fine arts majors.
Lee didn’t spend the first 20 years of her life preparing to become a professional. She said she knew from the start there would be no career made for her — she knew she would have to make her own. Lee didn’t find a major until late in her undergrad and she took gap years before going to graduate school.
Lee is flexible, just as she has to be going from exhibition to exhibition, state to state, always temporarily settled. Just as the flexible, durable hanji paper she makes from the branches of mulberry and milkweed.
Lee didn’t discover book art -— the arts involved in making a book, including papermaking -— until her last semester at Oberlin. It was a total revelation. Books became more than what were read in school. She found they contained many of her passions: storytelling, images, installation, performance.
She left Oberlin wanting to make more books. But Lee didn’t regret taking book arts so late. She wished she could have expanded her experiences at Oberlin even more.
This is markedly different belief than the mentality Lee sees in students now, who are anxious to make money off the specific majors and skills they will gain in college. Lee says skills aren’t defined to certain majors, like STEM or business, but transferable through all.
“In my mind, going to a small liberal arts college is not about learning very specific job tasks that will earn you tons of money,” she said. “It’s about having a finite period of time where you get to be exposed to so many different things with people who become really close friends. And that’s the important thing: having to spend your time with other people. And it’s a time you don’t ever get again.”
It was important for Lee not to go into a masters program right after Oberlin. She wanted to have a job and a life to enjoy and draw inspiration from.
Lee first managed education programs at the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, making books in her spare time. She later worked for the New York Foundation of the Arts, where she helped designate grants to artists. She learned not only the many art mediums available, but all the ways she could make money for artwork.
Afterwards, Lee was ready to go to Columbia College in Chicago for a Master of Fine Arts.
Travels and hanji
Exhibitions, residences and professorships require a lot of traveling across the country and world. This would normally spell trouble for those like Lee, who is sensitive to light, noise and allergens. Yet, since graduate school, she has been traveling to unknown places.
Lee said constant travel lets you learn about yourself, but you also get to see how others live. Sometimes foreign places seem less foreign than places close to home.
“It’s been really great, and especially at a time where I didn’t feel the need to be settled anywhere,” she said. “And I wanted to kind of look all over and see if there was any place that really spoke to me.”
Lee has yet to find that place, but opportunities have given Lee some spectacular experiences. In 2008, she won a Fulbright scholarship and used it to travel to South Korea for a year, where she learned how to make traditional Korean paper, called hanji. She’s used in most of works ever since.
Jeff Abshear, a founding member and the current executive director of the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center (KBAC) -— which teaches, practices and promotes the book arts in one of Michigan’s most art-heavy cities -— considers Lee America’s foremost hanji artist and one of the first. Lee is a trailblazer in her field, bringing the art over from the East to the West.
Abshear met Lee a few years ago, and together, they had been trying to bring Lee to the KBAC. This December, she will teach workshops and show an exhibit there.
At first glance, hanji appears brittle and weathered. Blotches of pulp can often be seen in it. Yet, hold it and hanji is surprisingly flexible and resilient. Hanji products centuries old have been found with little wear.
Naturally, a long hanji-making process must come before the durable material can be cut, folded or twined into artwork. In Korea, papermakers often say that hanji has 100 steps. The first 99 steps make the hanji and the last step is the customer touching it.
Lee’s studio in Albion’s Bobbitt Visual Arts Center is a makeshift version of a traditional hanji station. She spends most of her time here not making artwork, but the paper. At her home in Cleveland, she doesn’t have the space available to make her material. And although Lee created the first hanji studio in the United States, she is no longer affiliated with the non-profit that now runs it. It is residencies that allow her to stock up on paper.
With a portable vat, buckets, a press and a drying table, Lee’s method of papermaking is close to the traditional methods she learned in Korea. Instead of mulberry trees, she uses milkweed gathered by sculpture students on the nearby property of librarian Allie Moore. Instead of natural items, she uses soda ash and synthetic mucilage.
First, Lee strips away the bast fiber (stem fiber) of the milkweed to extract a white layer inside. She then takes the white strips, dampens them and cooks them in a soda ash solution, which sits overnight to give neurtralize the pH of the milkweed flowers and to soften them.
The next day, she rinses the strips and beats them into pulp with two wooden hammers for at least an hour (traditional methods call for two to five). The pulp is transferred to a wooden vat and filled with water, and a mucilage to suspend the pulp. With both hands, she takes a bamboo screen and moves it through the vat in a specific rhythm. She lifts the screen out of the vat and places it onto a couching (pronounced ku-ching) table. She pulls the screen away to reveal a thin layer of wet paper, pulls the screen away and marks the paper like a bookmark with a ribbon. She then places her bamboo screen back into the water and begins again.
Eventually, she will take her stack and brush them up on a wall to dry.
Not only does Lee bind and knit books with her hanji, she weaves her work into ducks, dresses, dustpans, shoes, gourds, jewelry and teapots. Over 70 pieces were exhibited this earlier this semester in Bobbitt.
Lee spends most of her time at Albion in her studio. It is, after all, why she took up the residency. But she doesn’t mind. At home, there is just too much to do. Getting groceries, filling up on gas, shopping, each are little blips in a schedule that can add up. Here, she can focus on her work.
Although, she wouldn’t mind a bit of company. Lee has loved the art department faculty and staff, and loves the resources that Albion provides her and its students, but her interactions with students have been few and far between. She feels as if most students keep to themselves.
An opportune time to see Lee is at the 19th Annual Marilyn Crandell Schleg Memorial Lecture in the Bobbitt Auditorium on Tuesday, November 7 at 7:00 p.m. Lee will also teach workshops and hold an exhibit in December at the KBAC. She will be finishing her Michigan tour with an exhibit in Ann Arbor in March.
Visit aimeelee.net to see more of Lee’s work.
Video and hanji photos courtesy of Aimee Lee
Feature photo by Beau Brockett Jr.