Friday, October 16, 2015

sabbatical epilogue

Sabbatical is over. There was no grand opening. There was no grand revelation. There was no grand book to be shared. I did walk away with one big thing. I met my two greatest critics.

After I got over all the methodical preparation (procrastination) for making the book, I started to make things. And what happens when you start making things? For me, I start judging it.
Sister Corita Kent said that not to critique something while you are making it. But some things are easier said than done. So as I was making, I was having a full on critique session at the same time. There were two critics in the room with me. (Imaginary critics that is.) 

The first critic is the design critic. She looks at my preliminary sketches and says quietly, 
“Oh, is that all? Really? I guess we can’t all be special. At least your trying. But you do know that this is so trite. And juvenile. It’s a bit of a cliche, no?” 
This critic takes no prisoners. I try different strategies. I take risks and try something new.

Then the second critic come in. She is the fierce mother critic. She asks me, 
“Oh, so this is about you, not about the kids you are trying to reach. Of course it’s about you. That’s what self-centered people do, no?” 
I have no place to hide. I find myself trusting the truth of both of these critics. And yet I cannot seem to make anything that pleases either of them. The pain continues.

Then one day I finally realize something. I have to trust myself. Even though the critics are right, they are not helping me by looking over my shoulders. I have to ask them to leave me. Leave me alone for a while. I have to believe that I have good intentions. I have to believe that the process will lead the way. I have to trust my body as it makes marks and chooses colors. I have to trust the book baby as I trust my own son: that they will grow into who they need to in spite of my good intentions, in spite of who I want them to become. Because they are not me and I am not them. I am over the hump. And I run out of time.

So what now. I am still making. I am still writing. In between the slices of time of here and there. Day by day. Little by little. Bit by bit. There is a Korean saying: 티끌 모아 태산. It translate to gather dust to make a mountain. I have a small handful of dust. I am on my way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

my mother almost died in my arms this summer

We took her to the ER and they gave her an hour to live. They said to send for all relatives. We braced ourselves for the worst. Then, she did not die. It took her one month in the ICU and an extra two more months in the hospital, but she decided not to die. And it turns out, I was disappointed.

I love my mother. We have a great relationship. I know her, I get her, and even though I can disagree with her on many things, I love her whole-heartedly.

But I was ready for her to die this summer.

I had recently buried two cats that lived with me. One was 18 when she died and the other 19. Both of them died in my arms and at that turning point when the body started to shut down, they both gave off a specific scent I will never forget.

This summer, as my mother was in my arms, I started to smell that scent coming off of her.

To give context, Seoul this summer was on massive lock down due to the MERS epidemic. Schools were closed, hospitals were shutting down, and emergency rooms were chaos. My mother's health started declining on Friday. By Saturday and Sunday she was in a bad place. But all the advice from doctors in the family was to keep her comfortable at home and bring her to the hospital on Monday. It was Sunday evening when I noticed the smell. I asked our family members if we could get a nurse to come to the house to take a look at her. Everyone got up, started making phone calls and within thirty minutes we were in an ambulance riding to the nearest ER. And that is where the doctor told us she had a hour to live.

So we waited. And she lived the night. Then another. Then another. She got pneumonia. She recovered. She was on dialysis. She got off it. She was on the ventilator. For three-four weeks. Then she successfully got off that. There was no brain damage like we had feared. Her first word after she was taken off the ventilator was "cola." Damn.

Now she is back home and we are back to our weekly routine of Saturday morning phone calls. But first, I had to get over being disappointed that she did not die. Because I had already prepared for this departure, I had a hard time re-adjusting to this new paradigm. In the beginning I felt like I was talking to a ghost. And I did not want to talk to ghosts. But slowly as the days and weeks went by, my mother, once again waited for me to mature into my own body and we are now looking at her life, my life, our lives, and doing what we do best. Practice love.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sabbatical update: Labor

I have been using the pregnancy metaphor all last year when I was waiting for my sabbatical to begin. And along with this metaphor I thought, come January, the baby would pop out "bing!" in all of its glory. What I forgot about was the labor. The earth shattering, mind numbing pain that can come with labor. I have been in pain for the last three months. Psychological pain as well as physical pain. So much so that I ended up in the ER one day. 

Not knowing why I was in so much pain, I misdiagnosed my pain as, "you are doing something wrong. You ARE wrong. You are doing something bad. Or so poorly that you are failing and that is why you are in pain."

Turns out the labor pain that I am going through has nothing to do with my merit as a person, artist, designer or writer. When I was in labor with my son, I knew that the labor was finite, that the pain had nothing to do with my capacity as a person, or my worth as a person. It had nothing to do with predicting my parenting skills or what my child was going to be like. It was just labor pains. As big as it was, it was only pain.

My child Eli once asked me when he was about five or six, "Mama, is love more powerful or pain more powerful?" I asked him what made him think of such a question. He answered with "I thought love was the most powerful thing in the world, but when you are in pain, the pain becomes so powerful that it feels like it is more powerful than love." I paused. Thought about it and then said, "I completely agree with you that when you are in pain it can take over everything. But I still think love is more powerful." "Me, too."

I was able to get an epidural during my labor with Eli. There doesn't seem to be that option for this labor. So I'm finding other ways to manage my pain as my projects try to make itself out to this world.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


Eli asks me the other day, "my cheeks are getting more and more chubby. Isn't it? Am I getting fat?"

Okay. Rewind.

I have body issues. It started when I was seven years old and was quite active until my mid-thirties. And although I still occasional have delusional ideas about my body regarding its shape, size and weight, I am happy to say that I am pretty grounded. Or at least practicing being grounded.

So, my child of seven is asking me if he is fat. My child is probably the opposite of chubby. If anything he is skinny. And today he is worried about becoming fat. So I ask him, "is it bad to be fat?" And he says glumly without making eye contact, “I don't know…”

So today we have the “fat talk.” And this is what I tell him.

Secretly, you, Daddy, I, the people we know and the people we don't know, all have been breathing in the idea that being fat is bad. No body actually says it. But we seem to be thinking it. We don’t seem to know that we are breathing in this idea everyday and now it has become a real thing in our brain. But this idea is mean and it is rude. This idea is as mean and rude to say that people who have brown skin are stupid. And you know how that feels. In my opinion, it is as inappropriate to say or think that being fat is bad and wrong.

We are all different. In our bodies and in our minds. And that is great and wonderful. But there are all these ideas about how we should think and how we should look. Because we are confused about what we should think and what we should be. And being fat is one of those things that got thrown into the bad pile. But in my opinion we have to actively say no to these thoughts. Because these thoughts are not really our thoughts. And we have to advocate for ourselves--all of ourselves--in all of our forms, colors, shapes, ages, gender and more.

We have to love and respect ourselves just as we are. We are all different and that is a beautiful thing.

Okay, Mama. Can I have a snack now?

You bet.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Methodical Preparation

It turns out methodical preparation for a project is another form of, wait for it… procrastination.

I have been buying tools, paper swatches, researching printing options, looking at wacom tablets, an iPad stylus, inventing and building photoshoot structures for consistency of lighting and photography, ordering more equipments, tools and materials online, then another trip to JoAnn Fabrics, Utretch, Michael’s, and Lorraines. A whirl wind of busywork all to disguise that I don’t want to draw.

I am creating a picture book for children. So I have to draw. 

The last time I drew seriously was when I was in high school. It was 1983 and I was preparing for the entrance exam for university. I was applying for the design department and for that we had two tests. A drawing test and a color composition test. My last month of preparation before the exams looked something like this.

Wake up at 5:30am. Take the first bus to my drawing studio. From 6:30-9:30am go through a self-imposed three hour drawing test (pencil rendering of a plaster reproduction of a roman sculpture.) Take the bus to second studio where I would study color composition. From 10:30-1:30 pm, go through a self-imposed three an a half hour color composition test. Crit with the instructor, then wash up and go back to drawing studio. Have some food then sit and draw until 11:30pm. Then catch the last bus home, sleep some then start the day all over again at 5:30 am. No one told me I had to do this. No one gave me the outline and said you must do this in order to succeed. I did this to myself. Just to make sure. Because I really needed to get into Seoul National University. I was 17.

I did this for about a month. On top of the fact that I had been in “training for the last year.” This was just the final cherry on top of the “MUST GET TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN” routine. Then we took a bus to our university of choice and took the test. I did well enough and I got into the school of my choice.

My relationship with drawing is fraught with anxiety about performance, being good enough, and almost always about being judged.

No wonder all of my perfectionists have escaped. All 1001 of them. Time to let go. How?

I think I am overthinking everything. The robust machinery of “mass-production” is constantly nagging at my elbow saying things like “production value” and “economic effort.” Fuck it. I keep forgetting that this is about relationships. My relationship to myself, my relationship with my child, my relationship with all the children out there who feel lonely—lonely because they feel like that they are the only ones who look like them, who feel like them, who think like them. All I am trying to do is put on my little light to say, “I am here, and I understand what you are going through.” Just like this blog.

So I say, focus on the love. Focus on sharing. I can only be who I am, and I am going to have to honor that.

New rules of conduct.
1. Have fun. If I am not having fun, something is not right.
2. Start with what comes easy. Path of least resistance is not a rude thought.
3. Notice what I keep away from and resist. And ask that part questions.
4. Have small, short, achievable goals to start with. There is a Korean saying about collecting dust to make a mountain. So do a little everyday.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Functional Criticism: How to have Productive Critiques in the Creative Classroom

Here is a free downloadable pdf for students and educators in the visual arts!

A huge thank you to Christine Heindl, Anita Jung, and Arlyn Nathan for all that I learned from you when I was a new teacher. And a big, big thank you to all of my current and past students from whom I learn so much every year. Thank you for sharing your journey with me.

For the full size go to:

Monday, January 26, 2015

The History of No Play and All Work (Also known as the Ant and the Grasshopper)

한국어는 아래에 있습니다!

When I was a child, I read the Aesop’s tale of the Ant and the Grasshopper. It tells the story of the ants who work all day long and all night long, throughout the spring and summer season, sweating it out, gathering food and packing it away. The grasshopper is happily singing and playing his fiddles, all the while laughing at the ants for not knowing how to enjoy the summer’s day. Winter comes and grasshopper is all but dead until the compassion of the ants saves the life of the grasshopper.

This little tale engrained in me a fearful work ethic that fueled my non-stop-must-work attitude. It created in the mind of an eight year old “you play = you die”. This developed into “you fail = you will be homeless”.

Fear knows no logic, so this paradigm went on living in me, unchecked, until I was in my late thirties. That is a long time to believe in “you fail = you will be homeless”.

Then one day a friend of mine came over for dinner. She was a physician. This friend was working in the emergency room and was in the process of creating protocol for homeless people who came in for help. In telling this story my friend came to say something like, “in many cases the homeless are either going to be addicts or mentally ill...” and a little alarm bell in my brain went off. I stopped her and asked her to repeat herself about the homeless being either addicts or being mentally ill. She did as I asked. I don’t think I pushed her to add anything like, “a typical person, without anything catastrophic happening to them, usually do not become homeless because they don’t write up a good end of the year report.”

Suddenly, I felt like I got a “get out of jail free” card. The carrot, or was it a threat, was gone. It vanished. It was never real. I find myself again as Don Quixote.

Since then I have been working on the “play” part. It has been about ten years. I still find it hard to calm the nerves of the Generals inside of me who think about the threat of death and homelessness when I play. But having a child helps. Watching him play gives hope and faith in how we can be creative, productive, compassionate, and joyful all through play.

내가 아주 어릴 적에 메뚜기와 개미라는 이솝 이야기를 읽은 적이 있다. 개미는 온종일 열심히 일하며 곡식을 모으고 메뚜기는 노래 부르고 춤추며 개미들의 미련함을 우습게 보았다. 겨울이 오자 메뚜기는 죽어가고, 개미들이 불쌍히 여기는 바람에 겨우 살아남는다는 이야기였다.

이 교훈은 내 머리 깊숙이 자리를 잡았고, 이후 어른이 되어서도 “놀면 = 넌 죽는다”를 알게 모르게 믿어 왔다.  “놀면 = 넌 죽는다” 는 “일을 하지 않으면 = 넌 집 없는 노숙자가 된다”로 변했고, 이 비논리적인 사고는 40세가 다 되도록 점검해 볼 새 없이 나의 “쉬지 않고 무조건 열심히 일하기”를 불 질러 왔다.

그러던 하루 의사 친구가 놀러 왔다. 그녀는 그 당시 응급실에 근무하면서 그곳으로 찾아오는 노숙자들을 위한 프로토콜을 만드는 중이었다. 이 프로토콜을 만드는 과정을 이야기하며 잠시 지나가는 말로 “노숙자들은 대게가 중독자이거나 정신질환을 앓고 있는데…”하는 대목에서 나는 정신이 잠깐 나갔다. “노숙자들은 대게가 중독자이거나 정신질환을 앓고 있는데…” 아하. 나의 두려움은 근거가 없는 두려움이었다. 연말 보고서 하나 잘하지 않았다고 해서 곧 노숙자가 되는 게 아닌데. 또다시 나는 나의 돈키호테를 만났다.

그 이후로 나는 “놀기”에 대해서 연구 아닌 연구를 해 왔다. 이 “연구”를 해 온 지 10년이 되었는데 아직 잘 안되는 날이 많다. 군복을 벗은 내 안의 장군은 고개를 흔들며 “노는 윤수”를 걱정한다. 하지만 아이를 낳아 기르면서 놀이에 대한 희망이 커져 간다. 놀이를 통해 경험할 수 있는 창의력, 기쁨, 연민 등을 보며 희망과 믿음을 키워간다.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Having a Goal (And Finishing What One Starts)

Having a Goal (And Finishing What One Starts)
한국어는 아래에 있습니다.

I remember a talk I had with my father. It was my first summer break after I started college. I was probably sleeping in, watching lots of t.v., having endless coffee dates with friends and doing a whole lot of nothing. My father pulled me aside to have a talk. And it went something like this.

Yoon Soo, you must always have a goal. Even if your goal is not to have a goal. Otherwise, things will just happen to you. So you must have a goal. At all times. 
Now once you have a goal, things will happen that will make want you to quit your goal. For example, let’s say your goal is to climb that mountain. So you start walking toward the mountain. And your legs hurt. And you get thirsty. And you get tired. And you think your goal is stupid. And so you think you should change your goal. 
At this point, you must sit and think. No matter what your goal is, you will always want to give up at one point. And this is because most goals have some hardship to them. And because you don’t want to go through the hardship, you will think that the goal is stupid and you will want to change your goal. And sometimes the goal is stupid. But more likely then not, the work is harder than you expected. So at the moment when you think your goal is stupid, think about it, be honest with yourself and evaluate your goal for its worth. And if it still is worthy, work through the hardship. And achieve your goal.

I heard this story when I was 18. I still remember it now. I am more lenient about having multiple goals going at once, and putting things on the back burner, but the core of the message is not lost to me.

I used to plow through most goals with anger, vengeance and determination. Now I move forward with more hope, and more peace. For some reason, I am not in a rush. Even though I have less time left on this world than when I was 18, I am more relaxed about what I might achieve. And perhaps more measured.

Time feels very precious to me. And because of that I want to spend it well. And spending time well these days means to spend it doing meaningful things. Like friends and family. The people of my tribe. And sharing the love. Maybe that’s way I’m not in a rush anymore. Love is a daily practice and it is not a destination. If my goals used to be nouns maybe now it is a verb. Practice. Practice love. Practice joy.


대학 때의 일이다. 일 학년 첫 학기를 마치고 여름 방학을 맞으면서, 늦잠, 텔레비전, 커피숍 수다. 무궁무진한 백수의 일상을 보내는 나를 바라보던 아버지가 참다 못해 이야기를 하자 하신다.

윤수야, 사람은 항상 목적이 있어야 한다. 무목적이 목적이라도 사람은 꼭 목적이 있어야 한다. 목적이 무엇이냐가 중요하기 보다, 사람이 생각을 하고 계획을 하고 목적을 달성하는 과정에서 많이 배우기 때문이다. 
목적을 세우고 나면 꼭 한번은 목적을 저버리고 싶어질 때가 있다. 예를 들어, 목적이 “저 산에 올라가겠다.”라고 가정해 보자. 그래서 그 산을 향해 걷기 시작했다고 하자. 한 참을 걷고 걸었는데, 산이 가까워질 생각은 안 하고 오히려 멀어지는 것 같은 느낌이 들 수 있다. 발은 아프고, 목도 마르고. 산을 오르겠다고 결정한 것을 후회하기 시작하면서 원래 목적이 바보스러운 목적이라는 결정을 내린다. 그래서 산 오르기를 취소할 생각을 한다. 이 순간, 윤수, 너는 잠시 앉아 생각을 해야 한다. 목적, 어떤 목적이라도 그것을 성취하려면 어려움이 있기 마련이다. 그런데 그 어려움을 사람들은 견디기 힘들어한다. 때로는 진짜로 바보스러운 목적이 있을 수도 있다. 그러나 대게는 목적을 성취하기 위해 거쳐야 하는 어려움을 견디기 힘들기가 일수이다. 그래서 원래 목적이 바보스럽고, 해서 뭐하냐는 생각이 들면, 잠시 앉아서 자신과 솔직한 대화를 해 볼 필요가 있다. 원래 목적의 진가가 무엇이고, 아직도 그 목적이 가치 있다고 생각하면, 이 힘든 고비는 넘겨야 하는 과정이 아닌가 하는 고민을 해 볼 필요가 있다.

이 이야기를 30여 년 전에 들었다. 요즘도 자주 생각하게 되는 말이다. 예전에는 독을 품고 목적 달성에 전념했었지만, 요즘은 조금 더 느긋해졌다. 시간은 30년이나 지나서 내가 이 세상에 살 날은 많이 줄어들었음에도 불구하고 여유가 생긴 것은 왜일까. 예전의 나의 목적들이 “명사”들이었다면, 요즘 나의 목적들에는 동사들이 늘어났다. 예전에는 학위 습득, Tenure 습득 등이 목적이었다면, 요즘 목적들은 “연습하기”다. 사랑하고 좋아하는 사람들이랑 어울려 일하고 만들기. 사랑은 종착지가 아니고 매일 연습하는 마음가짐이 아닌가 싶다.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Process: Writing Children’s Books

Process: Writing Children’s Books (한국어는 아래에 있습니다.)

1. Fear and Performance.
2. Fear of Evaluation and Judgement.
3. Comforting children versus being Avant Garde, cutting edge and cool.

My sabbatical has officially started. And I have fear. I have had this fear for the last year. It started when I was awarded sabbatical in January of 2014. The sabbatical was given for my intention to write children’s books about multiculturalism. And that was important to me. So I was good about this. Even though it scared me. But then something unexpected happened. 

I was celebrating the joy of receiving sabbatical with my “sabbatical dance”, Eli asked me what I was so happy about. So I explained to him what sabbatical was and what my topic was. He immediately asked me if he could be my helper. I immediately said yes.

Then the fear kicked in. Why? Because in that moment, I bypassed being a writer, artist, designer, and I became a mother. A mother who wanted to create an experience of wonder and creativity. Of open mindedness and collaboration. Do you know what kind of a hoarder I am when it comes to creativity? I want complete control and domination. I exaggerate. But not really.

So whenever I thought about this children’s book, a part of me would shut down. It was because I was shushing myself. 
Don’t think about your needs. Think about Eli and what kind of an experience you want to create for him. You are a control freak. How are you going to teach Eli about collaboration if you don’t want to or know how to? 
Am I hard on myself? You bet I am.

I have been talking about writing this children’s book for a year now. And yet I lived in fear. Until one day recently I was having brunch with a new group of friends and the idea of the oxygen mask came up. Ahhhhhh. “In case of an emergency, please put on your own oxygen mask first.” You cannot help others when you yourself cannot breathe. Ah. So that’s why I felt like I was drowning all this time. Time to put on my own oxygen mask on first.

So I put my oxygen mask on. I got rid of my “you must do this and you should do that” list. It goes something like this:
You must start what you finished. (You must finish that one idea that you started a year ago. Even if you have other ideas that you want to pursue right now. What will you be teaching Eli about follow through?) You must think about the big lesson of these books. It is about multiculturalism after all and there is so much we have to learn about this. (Which makes for a dry, preachy book.) You should probably use your hands in the “making” aspect of the book instead of doing something digital so that it feels rich and personal. I know you want to comfort little kids, but you are a visual artist after all and you should think about what is edgy, cool and even Avant Garde.
So I got rid of all these should and musts. I looked through all my writing so far and let my curiosity guide me. And then I did what I was fearing the most: drawing. More specifically, the depiction of people of color. (But that is another story.) And would you believe it, I had a break through within a week. Seriously. I shared my idea with Eli and he loves it. We are well on our way to collaborate. We are now like two fish in the water: playful, experimenting and having lots of fun. The weight of “doing something that is really important” has been replaced with love and joy.

So I go back to my mantra for the last few years: Love and Joy. (Because I know how to work hard, and I know how to be hard on myself.) I collaborate with Eli with love and joy. If there is no love or joy in the process, then something is not right. 

Love and joy. Like air and water. Essential and sometimes invisible.

과정: 아이들을 위한 만들기

1. 잘할 있을까에 대한 두려움.
2. 평가에 대한 두려움.
3. 아이들을 위로할 있는 작품이 아방가르드한 작품일 있을까에 대한 두려움.

(군복을 벗은 장군인 듯한 내 삶이지만, 무서운 것이 아직도 이렇게 많은 우습다.)

안식년이 공식적으로 시작했다. 하지만 두려움밖에는 없는 같다. 2014 1월에 다문화 아동에 관한 책을 만들겠다는 의도를 바탕으로 안식년을 받게 되었고, 중요한 일을 하게 것은 반가운 일이었다. 걱정도 많았지만 반가운 일이었다. 공부할 거리도 많고, 정리할 생각도 많았지만, 안식년에 대한 이메일을 받자마자 뜻하지 않은 일이 일어났다.

엄마, 그렇게 즐거워? 내가안식년 댄스 나의 기쁨을 만끽하고 있자, 우리 아들이 질문한다. 안식년은 무엇이고, 엄마가 하고자 하는 일은 무엇인지 아이에게 설명한다. 그러자 아이는 당장, “엄마, 나도 도울 있어?”하고 물어본다. 생각지도 않고, “물론이지!”라고 나는 대답한다.

순간 나는 쓰는 , 미술가, 디자이너의 옷을 벗고 엄마가 되어버린다. 아이에게 신기한 창조의 경험, 다른 사람과 같이 일하는 방법 등을 경험하게 해주고 싶은 마음이 성큼성큼 앞장서 버렸다

나는 무엇인가를 만들어 나갈 , 엄청난 집중력으로 독재 아닌 독재를 한다. 그런데 아이, 그것도 아이랑 어떻게 보람찬 일을 함께할 있을까 걱정이 된다

아이들을 위한 만들기 고민은 하면 당장 먼저 나타나는 부분들: “ 생각을 하면 . 아이를 고려해서 그가 무엇을 어떻게 경험할 것인가를 생각해야지. 내가 하고 싶은 것이 있어도, 아이가 좋아하면, 아이가 하고 싶은 데로 해야지 되지 않을까? 경험이 아이에게 상처가 되면 되니까.” 이와 동시에 드는 생각: “최첨단의 멋진 책을 만들고 싶은 마음. 뭔가 세련되고, 앞서가고, 아방가르드한 그것. 어떻게 하면 잘했다고 소문날까?” 주인은 간데없고, 손님만 가득한 집에서 사는 느낌이랄까.

비행기 안에서 비상시 산소마스크가 내려오면, 옆에 있는 사람을 돕기 이전에 자신의 산소마스크부터 써야 한다던데. 아무리 사랑하는 사람이 옆에 있어도, 내가 의식을 잃으면 옆에 있는 사람을 도울 없기 때문이다. 나도 나의 산소마스크부터 서야 했나 보다. , 그래서 지난 년간 숨이 쉬어졌나 보다.

나의 산소마스크는책임감대신에사랑과 기쁨으로 일을 하기다. 책임감은 무겁고, 실수를 두려워하고, 위아래가 분명한 같다. 사랑과 기쁨은 공기와 물처럼 생명 유지에 절대적으로 필요하지만, 때로는 눈으로 없는 그것. 가볍고, 햇살을 반영하고 식물과 동물이 있는 터전을 마련하고. 사랑과 기쁨으로 일하기. 순간순간을 사랑과 기쁨으로 일하련다.