Eun-Kyung Suh, McKnight Fiber Artist Fellow 2020
Finding inspiration through solitude and solidarity
“Solitude and solidarity, they co-exist inside of me,” says Eun-Kyung Suh, a Duluth based, Korean-born textile installation artist. “I realize that while I work, my ideas and inspiration come from outside. In order for me to be most creative, I need my link to community.”
Less than two months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Minnesota, Eun-Kyung and Liz Miller were awarded the first two McKnight Fellowships for Fiber Artists administered through Textile Center. “I was very honored to receive this fellowship,” Eun-Kyung says, “but I started to realize that the forced isolation of the state’s stay-at-home order blocked my creative energy.
“At first, I thought I would be totally okay with the stay-at-home policy, especially since I am introverted,” she adds. “I told myself: ‘I can work at home … no problem,’ Then I started to realize how much my creative production relies on inspiration from community.”
While her muse may have been blocked, she had pressing demands in her role as a professor in the Art and Design Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth in March, when she had just three days to resolve how to digitally deliver three courses to more than 40 design students.
“I had to catch up on technology, and figure out how to teach online,” Eun-Kyung says, “and as my courses progressed, I discovered that I also needed to provide emotional support and hope to my students. This actually became the most difficult part of my job as an instructor. When I finished teaching and worked on issuing their grades, I found myself wondering how these emerging artists will respond in their creative work to these difficult times. Will they use this unique experience to empower themselves? Will they find themselves empowered to embrace a new creative vision?”
And Eun-Kyung said the question that she worried about most: “Will I have prepared them to develop their art and their careers? I feel a very big responsibility for this.”
In this spring’s 3D design course at UMD, Eun-Kyung assigned her students to create a 12”x12”x12” design from materials they had consumed during the Stay at Home order – everything from egg cartons to Amazon boxes. She wanted her students to create work that could be submitted to Mia’s Foot in the Door 5 exhibition. (Currently Mia has delayed its call for entries due to the coronavirus crisis). “I asked my students to create works that give meaning to ‘home’ … as a place … as a secure haven. I was pleased that the 28 students in that class were very honest to the theme.”
Outside of her role as professor, Eun-Kyung is directing her current creative work toward what the words the late British economist Ernst F. Schumacher wrote in his classic work Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered: “The all-pervading disease of the modern world is the total imbalance between city and countryside – an imbalance in terms of wealth, power, culture, attraction, and hope.”
“Art is an epitome to reveal this critical phenomenon today,” Eun-Kyung says. “National and state art organizations and agencies have attempted to bring arts to underserved communities through various initiatives and programs designed to revitalize the arts in these communities. However, indigenously created art activities from amateur and professional artists hardly appear beyond the regional level. Furthermore, touring exhibitions and other external influences on local areas are still limited.
“As an artist, I would like to borrow ideas and inspiration from the culture and tradition in underrepresented communities and incorporate them into a new body of work,” she adds. “For this project, I selected 20 small and rural towns in Minnesota based on a variety of characteristics – from population size and population density to distance from the Twin Cities metro area.”
While visiting these towns, Eun-Kyung will search for garage, estate, or moving sales, and collect discarded textile articles which are highly personal, familial, or cultural.
“My work will be a large-scale installation that repurposes these discarded items, recreates the geographical places, and projects photographs of local architecture,” she says. “It is my ultimate hope that the work will reflect lives and culture of average Minnesota residents in small and rural towns. Once completed, I plan to exhibit my work not only in large exhibition venues but also in the 20 communities.”