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Sun Sook Kim’s Healing Art

By Mary Gregory

In some cases, it’s possible to look at a work of art with no knowledge or consideration of its creator. In fact, for many works that have come down to us through time, we never know who made them. In other cases, it’s impossible to separate the art from the life of the artist. The paintings and drawings of Sunsook Kim are completely intertwined with her experiences. Through her visual art, she draws a map to her own center.

Drawing, Sunsook Kim says, is, for her, similar to breathing. It sustains her. It enlivens her. And without it, she would not be who she is. Her paintings and drawings are sometimes complex and mysterious. Words and letters surrounded by blocks of color create a powerful impression, and yet, they cannot be easily read. While the vibrancy of color, strong outlines, and vigorous brushstrokes convey an urgency, the exact message is known only to its author. For the viewer, mystery suffuses the work, even while the force of the composition is clearly felt.

Images of houses suggest shelter. They float in an abstract space, incomplete in their construction, and filled with a childlike nostalgia. Sunsook Kim places them amidst strong, confident abstractions, punctuated by lines and symbols whose meanings are never quite clear.

It may be that the artist, herself, isn’t fully clear on the themes of home and shelter. In her life, she has been both witness to and victim of domestic difficulties and, at times, violence. Art became her refuge, or as she expresses it, her best friend. Through color, line, imagination and emotion, Sunsook Kim created the world she wanted. She was able to live in her work when her world became inhospitable.

As a woman, Sunsook Kim faced challenges unlike those of her difficult childhood years. At a young age, not even forty, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her fears and frustrations were beyond the capabilities of traditional pain medications. Sunsook Kim found that only her art carried her to where discomfort and dismay could no longer reach her. Her work became her method of catharsis, the only thing strong enough to purge her body and soul.

The series of drawings and paintings that she created while she underwent surgery and other treatments can be challenging and difficult to see. But they are filled with an emotional and psychological reality that traditional imagery would be hard to equal. In them, Sunsook Kim faces her own doubts about her beauty, about her abilities, and ultimately about her very survival. She deliberately tried to infuse them with humor, believing the adage that laughter is a form of medicine. By introducing a piano keyboard, flowers, and cups of tea, Sunsook Kim chronicles that even in the hardest times, life provides beauty if we seek it.

Throughout history, art has provided solace and sustenance. Healing rituals of civilizations around the world have often been based on some form of art. Dance, music, masks and even paintings were the medicine of choice for shamans and healers of earlier times. And in the modern age, only art could fully express and repel the horrors of wars, when societies themselves fall ill. When the great 20th-century master, Henri Matisse, survived torturous cancer surgeries at a time when medicine was less kind and evolved than it is today, it was his art, he declared, that saved him. Though he could no longer paint as he once did, he began a series of cut-outs that many see as his greatest accomplishment. 

How fully Sunsook Kim’s work will deliver her from her illness and struggles, only she will finally know. But she does not create art for herself alone. She hopes that others, when they see her art, will find not just beauty, but hope.

Mary Gregory is an award-winning art critic, writer, and novelist. Her articles appear regularly in some of the leading magazines and newspapers in New York. She has reviewed landmark exhibitions and interviewed and written features on top figures in the New York art world. Mary Gregory is part of a team honored by the New York Press Association for Best Coverage of the Arts in 2015, and she is a 2013, 2014 and 2015 Pushcart Prize nominee.


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