Ouroboros: Interview with Artist Stephanie S. Lee

"Ouroboros" is the 8th solo exhibition of artist Stephanie S. Lee on display at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, New York, in September 2022.

Ouroboros is the 8th solo exhibition of artist Stephanie S. Lee on display at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, New York, in September 2022. This series of works reinterpret the traditional Korean Folk Art (Minhwa) by connecting it with a modern perspective. Stephanie believes that the essence of life is searching for happiness and striving to benefit all humanity simultaneously. By portraying precious contemporary objects in a traditional Korean setting, Lee depicts the everlasting human desire to pursue happiness that transcends its appearance, time, and era. This exhibition presents paintings and graphic works inspired by Munjado, one of the genres in minhwa that depicts Confucian virtues in the form of letters. Combining the Korean and English letter forms with Ouroboros, the symbol of eternal destruction and reincarnation, Stephanie shows her journey to finding happiness and hope while going through repetitive everyday life as a mother, wife, and middle-aged female artist.

Stephanie is the founder of the Garage Art Center in Bayside and is also a founder of the Korean Folk Art organization. She recently discussed this exhibition via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): What gave you the idea to fuse the old and the new and snake in your work?

OuroborosStephanie S. Lee (SSL): I always liked things with history and tradition because the accumulation of time is something I can’t create. But I can interpret what I admire, so my works are the reinterpretation of traditional Korean Folk Art from the present perspective. I use an image of snakes and diamonds as a symbol of the positive human spirit that overcomes life’s hardships and obstacles. This positive spirit was the same quality I found and valued in Korean Folk Art; that has bright colors and positive energy despite going through many wars. Snake appealed to me since I was born in the year of the snake. Especially the Ouroboros, the symbolic serpent of Greece and ancient Egypt, continually devouring its tail and being reborn from itself attracted me because I thought it resembled myself.

As a mother, wife, and artist, I go through endless everyday chores and errands. Not that I want to achieve something grand or have the greed to possess them all, but just catching up and being responsible for the roles given to my life feels like a burden.  Prepare meals, wash dishes, get some more food to fill up the refrigerator, then all over again. Pick up my daughter, drop off, then pick up and drop off, and repeat. In the meantime, I continuously face society asking me, “Why are you wasting time and effort making useless stuff that doesn’t bring you money?” for the things I do as an artist.

All these keep coming every moment as the wave hits the seashore nonstop. But what can I do? Like on a running bicycle, if I stop, I will fall. So, I swallow myself and continue tackling every chore that feels like an infinite cycle. But I see hope since Ouroboros represents reborn and rebirth. Although it seems endless at the moment, I might become a better myself after going through these. I like that the Ouroboros also represents the unity of all things, both material and spiritual, which never disappear but perpetually change form in an eternal cycle of destruction and re-creation.

MM: What mediums did you work with, and how did you decide on the colors?

SSL: I like using traditional materials, so I’ve used natural mineral pigments, color pigments, and ink on natural dyed Hanji (Korean handmade mulberry paper). Lately, I have used linen instead of Hanji as my canvas because I like the texture of linen that brings a dimensional aspect to a flat painting. Also, it physically prevents me from being too obsessed with details and helps me see the work in the distance to look at the overall visual than the part. For this show, I went further to expand my canvas to fabric and vinyl by making hanging scrolls with printed fabric and stitched diamond-shaped faux leather.

MM: What’s your favorite piece in the show and why?

OuroborosSSL: Every work has its own story, so it’s hard to pick one. Paintings titled ‘Ajumma‘ and ‘Mother‘ suit the theme of this show, Ouroboros. And I’m happy that I tried the graphic design approach in addition to paintings that I usually do.

MM: How did you secure an exhibition with Flushing Town Hall?

SSL: I’ve been involved with many exhibitions held at the Flushing Town Hall as a guest curator and installer, where I’m also a teaching artist. Around 2020, Shawn Choi (former Director of Marketing at FTH ) invited me to do a solo exhibition. It is an honor for me to do a solo exhibition at the place near my home that I care for and love so much with full support.

MM: What’s the best thing about being an artist and why?

SSL: Life is much fuller when you have many channels to express and feel. Artists can use tools to communicate with others comprehensively on many different aspects using different senses. It’s a gift that you can see things from various perspectives and find beauty and meaning even in useless things. (Although it makes us vulnerable, sensitivity to details could sometimes be overwhelming.) Thinking of something philosophical makes us apart from mundane everyday chores and makes going through life easier. The ability to visualize thoughts beyond languages and numbers frees our thoughts and expands the limits; art gets better with age than other jobs that have a retirement age. And you don’t need to follow anyone. You always play the leading role in your art. You become a better human being when you are near art.

MM: What’s the best feedback you’ve gotten about your artwork so far?

SSL: I can’t remember specific incidents, but I’m thankful to everyone who enjoys my work. I’m satisfied when I feel like they understand and feel similar to what I intended. I was especially touched when great fellow artists enjoyed and complimented my work. They know the ups and downs of the whole process, so it means a lot to me. It’s a huge support for me to keep going. I also like working on commissioned pieces with the personalized input of the collector. I’m still amazed some people like my style so much they want to own my work. I’m happy to see my work connects deeper with them with a personal touch.

OuroborosMM: What are your ultimate goals for the future, and is there anything else you would like to mention?

SSL: I don’t have any specific plan. I just want to continue creating works to implement my thoughts and be around art as long as possible. Whether it’s a curation, performing a workshop, or creating my own work, I want to contribute somewhat to society using what I can do. Even if it’s not a big success from the perspective of society, if I keep going without stopping, I believe I will reach somewhere better someday.


To learn more, visit the official website of Flushing Town Hall.