Wonsook Kim is one of those rare artists whose work seems inseparable from her personality.

I have known her for over ten years, and yet I can scarcely remember – did those gently whimsical, touchingly poetic paintings introduce me to this high spirited artist, or was it the other way around? The fact is that I can hardly think of Wonsook and her work independently of each other.

What has always struck me about both is a deeply rooted humanism, a sense of morality without moralism, and a generosity toward the world that is very much at odds with the stereotype of the egotistical, self-centered artist. Wonsook’s paintings are an expression of an inner world in which the difficulties of life with all its sorrows, loneliness, cruelties and losses are eased by a boundless sense of hope and compassion. Her works speak to us because we have all known such problems and have all sought such consolation.

On a winter afternoon just before we sat down to a wonderful Korean New Year dinner which she had whipped up in a borrowed apartment, Wonsook and I discussed her life, art and beliefs.

EH: Let’s start at the beginning with your childhood in Korea. What is your background and how did that influence your decision to be an artist?

WK: I was born 1953 in Pusan after the Korean War. On my first birthday we moved to Seoul and I grew up there. My father was a writer and musician, but that was the wrong time for that. So he became a newspaper man and was a journalist all his life. He was also a conductor in church. My mother was the pianist and that’s how they met. They secretly dated, because that was the time of arranged marriages. I think they got together because of their shared artistic interests.

EH: Was culture an important element in your childhood?

WK: We have lots of professional musicians in my family and my parents tried very hard to interest me in music. Everyone was playing some kind of musical instrument, but I was different. I liked writing and reading. My parents provided me with books, because my father was a writer. We read biographies of great writers like Tolstoy and others from everywhere in the world.

We were living with my two grandmothers. They told stories all the time. They didn’t have that much of a repertoire, so it was the same story, about a tiger and a fairy and woodcutter’s terrible life until fairy came and blessed him. I would say, “Tell me a story, tell a story” and my grandmothers would say “No, if you like stories too much you will go hungry all your life.” But I think stories make me fat.

EH: What about visual art?

WK: I wasn’t interested in being a painter. But I always made drawings of those stories, I had eight brothers and sister so there was plenty of opportunity to redo the stories with pictures for them. And I always had an eye for visual things. In grammar school I was always picked for what they called the environment beautifying committee to make the class room nice, and I helped people arrange furniture and set the table for birthday parties.

EH: When did you get into visual art?

WK: I got involved in art in my high school years. I was trained in a fairly western tradition, involving lots of discipline. You would practice drawing an egg one whole month and then two eggs the next month. You could spend a whole month drawing the side of Venus’ face. It gave me the ability to draw anything I could see. I’m glad about that because, later when I came to America, I discovered that not many American kids know how to draw. In Korean schools, things were divided into eastern and western study and I didn’t do much with calligraphy. My head was full of images of Gauguin and the Impressionists, and I was going to be a great artist like them.

EH: What brought you to the United States?

WK: I got into one of best art colleges in Korea and attended for one year, but it was a disappointment for me. The Oriental art training can seem very systematic if you are young and fearless and have an idea about what a great artist is. I loved El Greco. I was going to be a painter like that and I was going to make the sky and figures move like he did. But art school seemed like a continuation of high school.

It was all about following steps and didn’t have the personal expression you have in western art. At that time the thing to do was to go to Paris. But my uncle was ambassador to France, and if I went there, I would have to report to him. I wanted to be totally independent, so that wasn’t such a good idea. America seemed open; it was a land of opportunity. I got into Berkeley, but that was fairly expensive, so I looked around at state schools. In 1972, there was a new awareness about foreign students and diversity and I found I could get scholarships. Illinois State University offered me the most money so I went there. I stayed there all the way through to my MFA.

EH: What kind of work were you doing?

WK: I could draw anything; I had that kind of training. I did a lot of watercolors, and color compositions. In 1972, Color Field Abstraction was at its peak, it was the predominant look. So, I did a lot of that too. I was the only Asian woman student, so I felt I had to overdo. I got a bigger canvas and rolled in it and threw more sand on it, and put on boots on and walked around on it. My grades were good, but it felt empty, it didn’t fit my disposition.

EH: So what did you do?

WK: I had always kept a diary. That is another practice from school in Korea. The teachers checked it all the time. Each day you write down the date, drew a picture of the weather, and wrote down what you did. On the bottom of the page there was a big empty square where you were supposed to draw what you saw. This was in grammar school but even to this day I have a journal and write down things and doodle.

One day in graduate school, I came late to class because I had been to a concert. As an excuse, I showed the teacher, Harold Boyd, my program from the concert. The performance had been Handel’s Requiem and I had drawn my reaction on the program. He looked at it and said, “Why don’t you make art of this?” And I thought, “Wow, would that be allowed?” So I made a print of the Requiem drawing and he was very encouraging. And once I did that, it was an overnight change. But I worried, am I going to be a great artist if my drawings are about the fact that it’s raining outside? Can this kind of sentimentality pass? But once I started working this way, I realized all the other things I was doing didn’t really have anything to do with what I was feeling.

EH: That is very interesting, because the 70s were the time when feminist art emerged with an agenda of getting back to personal life, and realizing that male abstract rhetoric didn’t mean anything to the interior lives of women. Were you involved with any of that?

WK: No, not at all. In hindsight, I see there was such a thing, but I didn’t have any kind of feminist agenda. It was more of a personal awakening. There were a lot of interesting confessional poets then and a group of us reading a lot of Sylvia Plath. Robert Bly came to the school and spoke. And then, later in the 70s, New Imagist painting was okayed by the mainstream. I felt a kinship with that, but I was never part of a group.

EH: What kind of format were you working in at this time?

WK: I was using a brush. It suited my disposition. I wanted to draw like I’m speaking. It was almost like a writer jotting down certain ideas. That was easy with the brush, but wouldn’t have been with a pencil, which is used for finer details. I was also making lots of prints, and using a big brush stroke worked well with that. It fits my personality, as I’m not a very patient person.

There is another thing about the brush — it allows so much more room for surprises and accidents.

I may start with a fuzzy idea, but while I am working, chance things occur. The brush makes that kind of magic happen best.

EH: Have you been influenced by Asian painting or calligraphy?

WK: I suppose there is a certain amount of that in my work just because I lived with it until I was eighteen. You could see Asian painting all over the house. In the spring, what we called the picture man came by with drawings to bless the house and to ensure a good year to come. There are certain calligraphic things you live with. But I never had any formal training and actually I hear from Korean painters that only someone without formal training could paint like I do.

EH: When did you start doing story based paintings?

WK: I guess that was always there. My paintings always end up being about human emotion, vulnerability, strength, weakness, about relatedness and unrelatedness, loneliness and aloneness.

EH: Most of the figures in your paintings are female. Are they you?

WK: You can’t avoid the autobiographical nature of art. A lot of times it is me. The paintings are about what I’ve done, who I’ve met. Even if they come from something from a book, it’s coming through me. That’s why there are lot of women and a lot of Wonsook-like figures.

EH: Your settings are generalized and universal. One never has a sense that they represent a specific place or moment.

WK: I was born and raised in Korea, but I studied in America. That makes me very “multicultural” But in fact my experience was always very universal. I grew up with the Bible. It was tedious and I hated it so much, because we read a chapter or two every morning. The Bible has such wondrous and humorous images, full of drama and violence. But I found the same things in Chinese and Western folk tales. So in a sense, as a child, I already had a whole culture that was very mixed. I think that’s where those universal images come from. I’m not interested in a certain period or political agenda or social issue. Basically my art is about conditions of everyday life.

EH: You mention the Bible. What does religion mean to you?

WK: I was brought up in a very strict Christian home, but by the time Christianity settled in Korea it had a different face. We were very orthodox. We didn’t even sharpen a pencil on Sunday. We went to church and church life was very important. I rebelled against it – any sane person would — and that is one of the reasons I came to America. I wanted to see things in a different way.

But at this stage of my life, I have a different notion about divinity. Today, my spirituality, all of that background, is very important to me. There was the idea of an absolute, even if you didn’t know what it was. Everything else is relative in the face of that one absolute. I ran away from that idea, I hid from it and denied it, I argued with it and ignored it, but it doesn’t go away. It’s comfortable for me now to accept it and have a good time with it.

EH: Your recent work is very sensual. There is a sense of female sexuality that we don’t associate with religion and Bible.

WK: I am so glad I’m now able to talk about that with enthusiasm and freedom. I grew up in a Christian family, of course. But Korean society itself is still very Confucian. All the relationships are hierarchical. They are not horizontal and of course as a woman you belong in a slightly lower place.

You are never just yourself, you are who you are related to — your father or your husband. So in both those traditions, the notion of a woman with a body of her own that she maneuvers as she pleases, these are taboo subjects.

I recently went through a divorce, which was an important experience. It made me take a leap that I knew was in me but couldn’t execute before. It was like what happened 30 years ago when I realized it was okay to make art out of a concert doodle. Now I see it is okay to make art of your own personal joy, I am fifty now and it took this many years for me to understand and digest my different traditions. Now I pick and choose. There was so much I needed to discard, and so much good as well.

It’s like becoming a child again. Children by far are the best artists; all the artists keep trying to get back there. Picasso actually made it back all the way. For me it is like going back to a childhood where you could draw and doodle and make things happen, without worrying too much about how it is going to be received.

EH: If you characterize your development would it be towards moments of freedom?

WK: I am most free when I am in the act of art making. I’m relying on that chance more than ever, and I work a lot from poetry. There is a danger of being schmaltzy, too sentimental, too feminine, I was worried about those kinds of things before, but not so much anymore.

EH: Is there anything else you would like to say about your work?

WK: Another important element is humor. There’s a lot of humor in my work. It’s a good way to talk about something difficult. Often my paintings are about contrast, about power and weakness, man and woman, shadow and light, being outside or inside, being viewer or doer. I introduce humor to soothe the contrast.

I have wondered where this humor comes from. I think it comes from faith, from knowing I’m not in total control of my own destiny. I don’t have pat answers to most of life’s fundamental questions, but I’m grateful for all the things I have received. Maybe it’s also a matter of DNA, of the disposition I inherited from my parents. I feel my faith and my disposition are such great gifts, and I feel so fortunate to have them.