Threading Memories / MiKyoung Lee

Thirty years ago, in 1993, the artist MiKyoung Lee moved to the United States from her native South Korea. Recently graduated from college with a degree in fiber arts, Lee came to Philadelphia to enroll at the University of Arts, where she continued to study textile arts as well as printmaking and book arts.

MiKyoung Lee, Bubble #3, 2008. After earning her MFA in 1996, Lee embarked on a career as a practicing artist and teacher. She has thrived at both, teaching at her alma mater in Philadelphia and, since 2022, serving as director and professor in the School of Art, Design, and Art History at James Madison University. While Threading Memories is the artist’s first solo exhibition, it is her second major show this  year. Her work was featured in a two-artist exhibition at the highly regarded Jupiter Museum of Art in Shenzhen, China, in early 2023. She was also part of the 2021 group exhibition New Grit: Art & Philly Now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Threading Memories features twenty of Lee’s works from the past two decades. Together, they reflect one of the strongest through lines of her practice: the capturing and processing of memories in the creation of art. Lee was first drawn to textile arts as a child; in both her parents’ and grandparents’ homes she was fascinated by functional and decorative objects stitched using long-established techniques.

This exhibition considers Lee’s work through four groupings, opening with the topic of dreams, represented by a set of hanging sculptures titled Bubble. The sculptures reflect the artist’s interest in the way our minds work in the relaxed but sometimes fraught state of sleep. The undulating forms speak to the importance of dreams to the review and revision of memories, anxieties, and hopes. Lee comments that dreams have an inherent “floating” quality—they hover on the  edges of our real lives and disappear when we wake, as though both the dreams and the desires they represent drift away.

MiKyoung Lee, Bubble, 2016. In the second section, works referencing natural forms are inspired by Lee’s recollections of the landscape near her grandparents’ home on Geoje Island, a small island off Korea’s southeast coast. Lee reflects on the experience of visiting her grandparents’ village: “For me, that beautiful landscape—not so much what I saw, but what I felt, what I touched, what I smelled in nature—really affected me. Those memories and experiences, and that place, feel as though they wrap around me; they form my foundation; they comfort and nurture me.”

Tradition and labor are explored in the third part of the exhibition. The long history of Korean women weaving and stitching textiles inspires Lee. Her “thread drawing” series of intimately sized works pays homage to this history of handmade and labor-intensive female textile work. Moreover, in this meditation on the past, Lee sees her textile labors standing in contrast  and quiet counterbalance to today’s mass-produced textiles and fast-fashion throwaway culture.

MiKyoung Lee, Drawing Bubble 22, 2015. All works: Collection of the artist. © MiKyoung Lee. Photos: Joseph HuThe last section is titled Life Cycles and includes two sculptures, both large and boldly colored in bright red, and a group of works on paper. The works are deeply personal for Lee as their creation, form, and color refer to the memory of a major life transition—that of childbirth and becoming a mother. Bubble #3 is a large oblong hanging sculpture whose womb-like shape and red, softly textured openwork surface hint at the nurturing form of a mother’s body. In the process of making these works, Lee contemplated the memories associated with the physical and emotional changes that motherhood brings.

The light, airy, and ethereal qualities of Lee’s distinctive works are the result of her unusual medium. While she creates art using traditional cotton materials, for much of her work she uses everyday products; most of the sculptures in this exhibition are formed using pipe cleaners, zip ties, and twist ties. Lee elevates these materials with a technique of twisting and knotting, a linking method akin to the weaving of threads. Her process is repetitive, methodical, and meditative, allowing Lee to reflect on and catalog her memories as she creates.

As she notes, “In my work, I see a metaphor for life. . . . Accumulating tangles is part of life. The threads in these objects seem chaotically ordered, but they come together beautifully; they become reordered to create something new, with new textures and contours. I really love these ways of thinking of life.”

Zoe Kwok
Nancy and Peter Lee Associate Curator of Asian Art

Art@Bainbridge is made possible through the generous support of the Virginia and Bagley Wright, Class of 1946, Program Fund for Modern and Contemporary Art; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; Joshua R. Slocum, Class of 1998, and Sara Slocum; Rachelle Belfer Malkin, Class of 1986, and Anthony E. Malkin; Barbara and Gerald Essig; Gene Locks, Class of 1959, and Sueyun Locks; and Ivy Beth Lewis.

Additional support for Threading Memories / MiKyoung Lee is provided by Nancy C. Lee.