Rick Hellman
KU News Service

KU professor curates summer show in Seoul to create space for mother-artists

Mon, 06/26/2023

Show logo for "Mothers in Craft," South Korea

LAWRENCE — Here’s how hard it is to be a mother and artist in South Korea these days: Two of the 14 artists Sunyoung Cheong had lined up for a show there this summer had to drop out.

“I started with the 14 artists last year, but the one of them, her husband got a new job in America. They moved to California, so she couldn't do it," said Cheong, University of Kansas assistant professor of visual art. “And the other one, she is the sole caretaker for her children due to her husband’s busy job, and her husband is out of town. So she couldn't do it either. It's difficult for them to stay for the exhibition. And yet that is my role as curator – to encourage mother-artists to continue their art practice under discouraging and unexpected circumstances.”

Cheong, who makes jewelry, often with a honeybee motif, said she began thinking about a show of mother-artists nearly a decade ago when she was a graduate student and a young mother herself.

“My plan was to create a platform for mother-artists, mostly in metalsmithing — some of them focusing on hollowware and some of them focusing on jewelry,” Cheong said. “Most of these artists had good careers; they all have MFA degrees, and then they did successful exhibitions before they become mothers.

“But in Korean society, the conventional idea is that child care is all the mother's job. It should be their No. 1 priority, their duty. So even though these artists had great careers, once they have children, it's really difficult to continue their career as an artist, because being an artist is not thought of as an actual job.”

Moreover, Cheong said, many South Korean artists live in high-rise buildings in Seoul and other big cities, where it’s difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a studio and particularly to work with metal.

“The impact of having children in craft is much more critical because disciplines like metalsmithing or ceramics require heavy equipment, various tools and chemicals that are not suitable for home studios with young children,” Cheong said. “Oftentimes these studios require a good-sized space with good ventilation. This makes it very challenging, especially for artists who live in city like Seoul.”

To address this issue to the public and to support mother-artists, this curatorial project investigates why motherhood affects the life of visual artists, particularly in the craft discipline. It also gives an opportunity to think about how to create a sustainable platform for talented mother-artists in future art practice.

“I wanted to create small communities to support each other and give them some steppingstones so that they can continue to do their practice,” Cheong said.

Cheong said she began curating the show in earnest before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns caused a delay. Then, during her last visit to Seoul a year ago, Cheong stopped by the Gallery Ahwon, which she described as a respected home for arts and crafts there, to pitch the operators on her idea for a show of mother-artists. And although she had no previous affiliation with the gallery, she got the green light.

Cheong said many of the artists couldn’t commit to creating new works for the show, so she didn’t assign them a particular theme to execute. Rather, she said, the mother-artist herself is the show’s theme.

“They can make anything they can possibly make in their circumstance,” Cheong said. “If they don't have a studio in their home, they can use whatever material they can use to create the work. ... It doesn't have to be multiples; you can create just one work. And if you don't have access to a studio for using metal, you can just use alternative materials like paper or fabric.”

Thus, one of the objects in the show, Cheong said, was created by knitting metal wire. Another was created by casting plastic resin. Cheong is bringing some of her jewelry.

The show runs July 5-15, and Cheong said she hoped a similar exhibition could be repeated every other year.

Image: A composite featuring the artwork of seven artists in the upcoming show. Credit: Courtesy Sunyoung Cheong

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