The Forested Mind: An Interview With Joanne Nam

January 28, 2014

Joanne Nam's paintings are only a fraction of the lush, labyrinthian stories that inspired their creation. Stark, finely wrought visions of nightwalks and blurry memories populate the landscape of Nam's world, leaving a ghostly but familiar chill with the viewer. In this interview, Joanne Nam delves into her upbringing in the forests of Korea, relating the strange impressions her life has left on her that continue to inspire her work. "I am not going to paint an old man dragging a dead dog," she says--a recurring memory of hers--"However, I would definitely paint a girl feeling the strangely beautiful disturbance." Nam lives and works in Los Angeles.



You say your work is inspired from old memories of growing up in a forest. What was your childhood like, and why choose this as your primary source of inspiration?

I traveled to Hawaii recently. It was such a beautiful island. The wilderness of forests reminded me so much of my home back in Korea. Actually, Hawaii was a lot nicer. My forest did not have flat wide roads or pretty stores. It was filled with poisonous plants, insects, and wild animals. I barely found an insect in Hawaii. However, I realized that whenever I see a forest, I get this feeling that makes me want to walk between trees and stay there quite a while. I stayed in Hawaii for five days but did not want to leave. The nature on the island was very therapeutic for me. 

My feelings about this forest surprised me. To be honest, I hated the forest when I was young. It was uncomfortable to live there. In the summer, my whole body was a feeding system for mosquitos. Giant bees sometimes flew into my room. I had to run outside to wait for the bees to get bored and decide to do something better. There were also untouchable plants like poison ivy. My mom accidentally touched some ivy and could not get out of bed for a month. My place was isolated from the town community, so I did not have many friends until I started to go to kindergarten. One day, my dad felt bad about it and got me a baby quail. It was so small and lovely. I adored it. The next day I had to watch my dad’s giant dog eat it. I watched a lot of animals be born and disappear. I cried a lot when I saw the death of my first puppy. It felt like watching my best friend die. It tore my heart, but as I saw more and more puppies and kitties die, I became quite numb about it. Although I felt an extreme isolation whenever it happened, it was my life in the forest and I had to accept it as it was.

I choose these feelings as my inspiration because I have a strong attraction to them. Although I did not document anything that happened in the forest, some images and feelings are still vivid. One image that I still see often in my mind is my grandfather pulling a rope from a distance. As I got closer to him, I realized that he was dragging a dead dog. The end of the rope was strangling the dog’s neck. My grandfather said he was going to bury it somewhere in the mountain. It was and still is an ugly picture. However, I remember thinking that the dirty old rope my grandfather was using was strangely beautiful. It was the same kind of rope that Koreans use at traditional funerals. These kinds of stories that I have in my head become good inspirations. I like reliving the emotions of the moments. I am not going to paint an old man dragging a dead dog. However, I would definitely paint a girl feeling the strangely beautiful disturbance. 

You focus most on evoking the feeling of a memory. Some say that your paintings give off a sense of isolation, even loneliness. How do you react to this?

I am happy that some people experience these feelings, looking at my paintings. These feelings are the ones that I felt most of the time when I was a child. I still feel alone sometimes, just like everybody else. However, feeling lonely is not always a bad thing for me because it gives me inspiration. 


Since you work off of memories, do you take reference photos? What is your process for this, and does recreating memories conflict with your original vision of them?

I take a lot of photos in my daily life. I document whatever happens around me whenever I find the moment inspirational. I often go outside just to take photos of trees and dried flowers. 

When I take photos of a model, I usually take around 300 to 400 pictures of her for one session. All of pictures are very random, so I take some time selecting pictures that I can use for my painting. It is better when the pictures have a certain mood I want to represent. However, those photos are always hard to find. So I modify my references a lot using my imagination.  

How often would you say you draw from memory versus from life?

I need existing references to paint my memories. I collect references from my daily life. Then I put essential elements together from them such as mood and items to represent my past memories and feelings. 


What do you dream about?

I barely dream. When I fall asleep I become like a corpse. I know this artist friend who dreams about crazy things such as a girl with deer horns, and bizarre  swivel patterns. However, my dreams are usually simple. Most of them are based on what I experienced in my past. Sometimes, a few dreams remind me of forgotten parts of my childhood.


If you could hang out with one person, living or dead, who would that be? What would you do?

I would say I have not met that person yet.


Are there any rituals you have when you do art?

I pray. 


Who are some artists (of any genre) that inspire you?

There are too many. I like a lot of photographers, but I especially love this photographer named Roger Ballen. I also like Alexandre Day and Chris Berens for their imaginative painting styles. There are too many fantastic artists around me in my life. I thank them for their existences. All of my friends are very inspirational too.

Where, ultimately, would you like to see your own art?

I cannot really answer this question yet. I happen to be a painter so I paint. I am very curious where this is going to take me. I honestly cannot wait to see where. I feel very joyful whenever I paint, and each time is better than the last. Although I do not know what I will become fifty years later from now, I am going to focus on what I can do today. 


Is there anything else you'd like us to know?

Art has been a way of finding myself. I am not good at expressing my feelings and thoughts verbally. However, I am very glad that I can communicate with you through something I love and feel very thankful about this. 

Thank you.


Interview by Lauren YS