Interview with Liz Hall of TurningArt.com, 21 July 2010:
You were supposed to be a doctor, weren’t you? What happened?
I transferred from my public high school in Iowa to Phillips Academy, Andover, for my senior year, where I got my heart broken by a “big man on campus”. I was devastated and couldn’t shake the feelings of misery and self-loathing for a few years, so when I arrived at Harvard, I could barely stand living, much less try to gear up for academic achievement. Up until that point, I’d been an academic rock star, but all motivated by fear and the expectation of my parents. After my world imploded, I didn’t see much point in living, and the only pleasure I got was in the arts. I was in plays, I sang in choral groups. I had always drawn in the margins of my textbooks or doodled on napkins, but never given it much respect. I bought a set of paints the summer after my freshman year to soothe myself. I painted a lot of big sad faces using a lot of Prussian blue. Not knowing the safety hazards of handling oil paint, I washed my brushes in the kitchen sink and accidentally ruined my roommates’ pans! I cringe at that now.
I stumbled from major to major (psych, literature, music) until I finally had had it with academic life. Harvard stripped all the fun away from those fields. The only way I was going to be able to get through college was by playing in the art and electronic music studios. I found true happiness in the middle of the night in those rooms. My poor parents! Shelling out all that tuition money so I could be a dilettante! I can understand their anger now, but back then, I felt like all they wanted was to destroy my soul. We had a terrible relationship, and I constantly thought about killing myself. I spent several Christmases and Thanksgivings with a nice, dysfunctional gay couple who were my substitute family.
Looking back now, I realize that in Korean culture, you’re supposed to take care of your parents when they are old, and my parents were used to a plush lifestyle, since my dad was a prosperous doctor. They thought of my expensive education as an investment, and my decision to be a starving artist/musician was pissing on their plans. But growing up in America, I thought I was supposed to “follow my bliss”, and screw everyone else. It always amazes me when I meet parents who are supportive of the artistic aspirations of their children. I guess that’s the luxury of growing up in America. My parents also experienced the Korean War, and lost all of their material possessions more than once, so they were highly anxious that I would never survive if I didn’t become a doctor. All their friends were doctors, so I never had any artist role models during my childhood. It made for an extremely stressful young adulthood! I really did believe that if you weren’t a doctor, you would end up a heroin addict or some such thing. I did a lot of counterphobic things, just to overcome my fear.
During my deepest depression in my early 20s, I lay on my back in bed, unable to get up, and I cried and cried until I thought I was just going to suffocate from grief. In my bleary haze, I noticed that the pattern of the vertical window frames and my big oval mirror looked like Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic”. Then, like a sign, a calm realization swept over me that I MUST do art, and that I was unable to do anything else.
How does your family feel about your career?
After about a decade of mutual loathing and abuse, they finally came around when they attended Brickbottom Open Studios, and about a zillion visitors came up to them and said, “You must be SOOOOO proud of your daughter! She’s so talented! We love her work! etc.” and they saw people handing over hard-earned cash for paintings. They hadn’t realized my work would appeal to anybody, because they thought my work was unpleasant and weird. I was able to write them some big fat checks, which made them relax and have some confidence in my ability to survive.
Now I’m the white sheep of the family again. I don’t know why, except maybe it’s because my husband and I exercise a lot and have kept our weight down. They love my husband, even if he isn’t a doctor!
Did you paint at Harvard? Was that environment conducive to creativity?
There were about 20 of us in the studio art major, which is called Visual and Environmental Studies (to the confusion of many, who think I am an environmental scientist), and they were a great bunch of like-minded people. I felt like we huddled together against the tide of all the analytical, left-brained culture of Harvard. It was a breakthrough to discover that it’s an acceptable argument in art to say, “I did that just because I liked it.” That had never been possible in the rest of my life. My upbringing had been all about pleasing others-- to hell with what I wanted or what I felt. Being so close to suicide was really liberating. I felt like I didn’t, and couldn’t, go on listening to what everyone was telling me to do and trying to live up to their expectations. I had to be true to my inner self or else fling myself off of a cliff. I still use that familiar suicidal feeling as a bellwether.
Have long have you been a singer?
I grew up singing and had formal voice lessons from age 14 or so. In college I took it pretty seriously and thought about being an opera singer. Then I hit a wall of frustration, feeling like I would never be good enough, so I started to compose my own “art-pop” music, tailored to my own voice. I pursued that for several years, but having my own band and playing out was too stressful and expensive. In later years, I took refuge in singing the works of others. I figured, if you don’t like what I’m singing, don’t blame me, blame Bach or Mozart or whomever! Plus, I was actually GETTING a paycheck, instead of bankrolling gigs that didn’t return the bucks.
Currently, I am taking a break from that gig, because those perfectionistic, critical demons started haunting me again. Performing classical music is such fertile breeding ground for self-hating thoughts. I want to do something freer, clumsier, looser. Honestly, I think a lot of my creativity is just to evade that horrible feeling of not being good enough in the conventional sense. It’s like, I’ll never be a good baseball player, so screw it, I’ll just invent my own, dopey game that I CAN be good at. Nyah nyah nyah!
How much of your work has to do with your Korean heritage? Does it annoy you that people always feel like your work is about your heritage just because you’re Korean?
I wasn’t aware that people thought my work was about my Korean heritage! Ha ha! Once a friend of mine described my work as featuring “a lot of Korean babies”. I did grow up with some really cute children’s books with little round-headed, black-eyed characters. Not understanding the text though, made them strange and mysterious. I guess I am realizing more and more that my work has a lot to do with those incomprehensible books. I love glyphs and enigmatic words, coupled with cuteness.
Tell me about some of the religious imagery in your more recent work. Were you raised Catholic?
I was not raised Catholic, but my recent singing job was in a very posh Anglican church, replete with antique art and plenty of time during the service to gaze at it all. I travel to Europe about once a year, and I love going to all the magnificent churches. They’re free! Ha ha! The Bible tells a lot of crazy stories, and it’s funny how people don’t seem to realize how crazy those stories are. I love the images of St. George slaying the dragon, or of St. Sebastian tied to the tree, all shot up with arrows. Or that woman saint whose eyeballs are on a tray!
What about the use of words in your work?
Like I said, I think those Korean children’s books I had as a kid impressed me deeply. My parents don’t speak very good English, and I speak almost no Korean, so I think I enjoy muddling meanings or creating more confusion with the words. I take great delight in misspellings, though I am a champion speller. I guess it’s another liberating thing, because spelling is so precise.
I’m a pretty verbal person, which people often think is opposed to art. But I like to think that the slogans in my paintings give people an access point into the picture. At least that’s what one woman told me. Another woman told me that my words ruined an otherwise excellent picture! Oh well, what are ya gonna do?
Brickbottom is an awesome studio space. I’m sure it’s a very creative atmosphere but what do you think about the Boston art scene overall? Is it conducive to creativity?
Before I arrived at Brickbottom, I was temping in a biotech start-up firm and felt like such a freak. In the corporate world, people were in such denial about our inevitable endpoint, and they were flailing about and getting into a lather about stuff that just didn’t matter in the long run. When I walked into the lobby of Brickbottom, there was a painting with skulls in it, and I felt so happy that someone was acknowledging death!
That said, the biotech start-up ended up selling out for big bucks to a giant conglomerate, and I’m sure at least one of them whistled their way to the bank. But they were so shitty to each other—going behind each other’s backs and trying to take each other down. It increased my despair exponentially, because that was my first experience in the working world, and I thought it was all like that.
You do a good job of marketing your work on your site. Can you speak to how it’s been to have to work so hard to sell your artwork?
It definitely doesn’t come easily. It’s a pain!! Motivation comes and goes, and especially since the down economy, it’s not as financially rewarding to have a show as it used to be, so the effort doesn’t seem worth it. Preparing and hanging a show generally involves a lot of hatred, sweating and swearing. It’s definitely something I have to get over. I’ll try thinking of it as Buddhist meditation.
I love doing Open Studios, because that DOES pay off. I don’t have to go anywhere. I can just open the doors and show off my zillions of paintings. I show twice a year, at Brickbottom Open Studios in November, and Somerville Open Studios in May. The majority of my painting income comes from those events.
Showing in galleries in the past few years has been heartbreaking—the one I had the longest relationship with went bankrupt and never paid me for six paintings that they sold! The other ones were bouncing checks, etc. It’s been a brutal time for art galleries. Anyway, I prefer to show in coffee shops and restaurants because that’s more the kind of place I go. I don’t really go to art galleries. I prefer for art to be an unexpected, pleasant surprise. I love impromptu performance art, too. It wakes you up to your surroundings.
I have a part-time secretarial job that takes the financial anxiety away, but I always have that nagging “You went to Harvard to be a secretary?” voice telling me to get on it and redeem myself as an artist and a human being.