Coming this September to Spoke SF is Mago, a solo exhibition featuring new work by Portland-based painter and illustrator Stella Im Hultberg. The exhibit will include paintings and drawings exploring her Korean heritage and traditional folk stories. Inspired by Korean myths and the artist’s experiences with motherhood, Hultberg has created an ethereal body of new work. Read her interview below with Spoke curator Dasha Matsuura.
Could you tell me a little bit about your background? Where you grew up, how you came to be in the art world.
Stella Im Hultberg: I was born and grew up in South Korea and lived in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Moving to the states after high school was pretty typical, having gone to international schools when not living in Korea. In California, I went to college for industrial design, and worked in consumer products, furniture design and toy design for some years during and after college.
I had just moved to New York City with my husband in 2004, when I wanted to change something about my life a bit further, so I started to draw again. Luckily lots of great galleries started opening up then. Thinkspace Gallery was one and they “discovered” me. The art scene was blooming - so I got to ride the waves.
How have your various geographic locations informed your work over the years?
SIH: Since moving around has been near the core of my identity since I was a kid, I’m sure the rootlessness feeling has seeped into my paintings as I’ve worked the tangles out.
I have always felt a bit afloat, flitting here and there, without much of an anchor anywhere. I’ve always felt like an odd ball out, identity-less and blurry as a person. But now that I’m older, I’ve taken that as myself, and feel very comfortable not being super defined. I think maybe that shows through my work as well.
Your Korean heritage plays a large role in this body of work stemming from traditional mythology. Could you tell us a little bit about the myth/story and what drew you to it?
SIH: Initially it started from my desire to understand my own mother. A kind of reconciliation, maybe.
Just like with my own mother, I had a life-long love/hate relationship with Korea, my mother country. Mostly stemming from some unsavory experiences moving back to Korea in my teens. Teenagers will let you know if you’re new and different. I left Korea without hesitation or looking back, even with some good friends and some fond memories there. Since leaving, my ties with Korea have been on the back shelves of my mind for a long time - there - present - but a bit ignored. I hadn't tried to understand or learn what Korean culture really was about, and why things were the way they were.
It’s been well over 20 something years since I last lived in Korea. In the past decade or so, I have grown to become more comfortable with my blurred identity alongside my Korean roots. So I started to really take notice and read and learn.
I had known a lot of stories of Korean myths and folk tales grown up. But I had never really known all the in-depth stories that are woven throughout the folk culture that explain a lot about the Korean worldview.
Mago, for example, is a deity/character and myth that I wasn’t entirely familiar with. The creation myth I was always told was that of this male character, Dangoon. I did know of this old granny character called “Samshin Halmi” (Grandma Samshin), who supposedly allots babies to families. But I hadn’t known that Samshin actually meant 3 lady deities (Samshin literally means 3 deities), Mago, and her daughters So- hee and Gung-hee, were basically mothers of all people. This was so fascinating to me - that the real Korean mytho-history began with women!
The Mago story has a lot of female characters and a lot of motherly elements. How do you think these figures relate/contrast to your older work?
SIH: Mago is the mother of her two daughters, who are the mother of all humans, according to the myth. There was something that really drew me into the idea of the mother of daughters who are mother of all mothers and children. The cyclic structure is very intrinsic to life and the ancient people must have noticed that. You see it in Buddhism, Hinduism and other ancient beliefs. There was something really fascinating about mothers and daughters repeating and inheriting the experiences and roles.
Since becoming a mother, I started to feel an odd universal connection to other women. We’re all daughters, we’ve all had mothers, some of those daughters are mothers all over again. Something more powerful than the civilization that we’ve built, something of the animal world, a cosmic kind of energy and connection, if you will.
I hope my new works and the figures in them carry this feeling and energy somehow. I think my older works tended to focus on conveying certain emotions at a time, now I feel like there’s more of an organic story and connection I am trying to build within a body of works.
Do you have narratives for the figures in your pieces?
SIH: I do but many times, but they’re a bit too abstract and blurry to elaborate on.
For example, in “The Archer” I was thinking of a young girl, standing up to protect her people. I drew up the sketch right after the inauguration and women’s march earlier this year, the start of the dark times we’re going through right now. There seems to be a large influence of shamans and folk/traditional clothing in your work lately.
Where are you drawing reference and inspiration from? Are there any other influences for this body?
SIH: There were some interesting angles I found while researching Korean culture and art history for the past couple of years. I started with the general knowledge I had about Korean art - starting from the dancheong (colorful painted patterns under the eaves of ancient royal palaces or buddhist temples), patterns and other clothing and headdresses that were often worn by the royal family or noble, affluent people.
Because Korea, during the last kingdom (Chosun) before the current modern republic, was very Confucian and heavily influenced by Chinese dynasties, they tended to be very conservative. The royals and nobles clothing and art were interesting but still much more similar to the Chinese compared to folk culture and art.
I loved that the whole peasant/folk culture myth and belief system all melded with each other into daily lives and routines. So folk culture, embroidery and beliefs were big inspirations for me and I’ll continue to run with those ideas.
I was also reading about Korean archery for a while. I meant to do more pieces with this theme but only ended up with one painting and some drawings this time. Koreans had made this traditional bow called “gak-gung” (horn bow), a composite of many materials including animal horn. This, when unstrung, would bend into a circle, making it very portable and light, and very resilient and elastic when strung up. I thought it made such a great metaphor for all the potential energy and strength harbored in people who seem small and insignificant and less powerful. This was also around the presidential inauguration earlier this year.
Flowers alway figure prominently in your work. Do the peonies have any specific symbolism for you? Are there other meaningful flowers in the new work?
SIH: Flowers, to me personally, represent my mother. She loved flowers, especially peonies.
After we moved to Portland with a then-baby, I was suddenly incessantly bombarded with flowers and plants of all kinds, and found myself noticing them more and being reminded of my mom and her youth.
I had forgotten how youthful and colorful she had always been - literally colorful, always wearing bright colors, red lips and finger nails. She had a certain vitality and energy, and she would run around any new city we were living in.
I think, perhaps, our nostalgia for our childhood isn’t really for our young selves, but maybe we are missing the youthful, young, healthy, near-invincible looking parents we once had.
By painting colorful flowers, I feel more connected to her.
With your little one, aside from the schedule impact, how has being a mother influenced your work?
SIH: I really wish I could say that I stayed the same person before and after having a kid, but I feel like I’m practically a different person - but in a way that is closer to my raw core, perhaps.
I know for sure my work wouldn’t look and feel the way it does now had I not become a mom. I work differently, much more pre-planned and thought out, since time is so limited. I do feel there is something that has been enriched in my mind and soul since becoming a mother. I think I have more to talk about through my work too. Stylistically the work feels like it is moving away from your looser, more inky work on paper and into a tighter, denser space.
How do you feel that your process has evolved or changed over the years?
SIH: I have oscillated back and forth between loose and tight. I think a lot of it has to do with what I’m feeling at the moment. Many times if I have more of a clear idea or narrative-like theme/story in my mind, I tend to get tighter. If it’s more emotion-based, I get looser. I'm always trying to figure out a good balance.
If you could do a collaborative piece with any artist living or dead who would it be?
SIH: In lieu of collaborating, I’d love to be either a studio assistant or someone who got to observe for even a small amount of time the late Louise Burgeois, Ruth Asawa or Yayoi Kusama.
I’d love to be able to peek into their worlds - I’m fascinated by the way they both wove their world of art with their personal life histories and experiences. I wonder about what their earlier lives and careers must’ve been like.
It would be an honor just to be in their presence.