Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Mirang Wonne

I first met Mirang Wonne during the Hunters Point Open Studios in October, where I was intrigued by large, mysterious-looking paintings of trees and branches. I returned to her studio months later to learn the story behind her work.

While living in Paris for art school, Mirang Wonne met another Korean native who recognized the artist's name. As it turned out, this woman's family had purchased the house that Wonne grew up in and Wonne's parents hadn't thought to check the attic for their daughter's doodles:

"Since my parents were selling the house, they painted everything, but they didn't know that I did graphics in the attics! [...] So she said, 'You know we bought your house and we found your graphics in the attic [...] there's all these small drawings and there's always a name: Mirang Wonne'"

Indeed, the attic walls weren't the only surfaces to Wonne took to drawing on. As the youngest of six, Wonne generally had free reign and her mother, who was a fashion designer, never chastised her for doodling around the house:

"We have a system where every season we change the wallpaper [...] so if I [drew on] this or that, we were changing it very often. And then my parents are very liberal people, so they allowed me to do anything"

Wonne's residential graffiti wasn't the only art showing in the household. Her father, who worked in education, collected illustrated scrolls, which he changed around the house ever season and would occasionally invite the artists over. Once in school, Wonne would draw in her school notebooks from the back, while taking notes from the front. But getting into a university art program was no joke:

"When I went to school in Korea [...] we had very strict education, like classic eduction to get into that school [...] We prepared 3-6 years, so for whoever gets into the art school in university, they sort of mastered how to draw and how to sketch and how to paint"

After college, Wonne received a scholarship to do graduate studies at Ecole Nationale Superieure des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. The early seventies in Paris were punctuated by student revolutions and she was involved in a number of group shows and her first solo show: an installation in four outdoor pavilions. For the installation, which integrated with nature through paper sculptures that moved in the wind, Wonne had to adapt some of her ideas to the local environment:

"I wanted to have huge rocks covered with paper, colored paper, but [small rocks were] all I could find at that time because Paris really doesn't have huge rocks or mountains!"

Wonne went on to complete a doctorate in art theory at the Sorbonne, but when she returned to Korea, she quickly realized that she didn't enjoy teaching. Around the same time she married another Korean who worked in the US, so she moved to the States. After working as an art director in New York for several years, Wonne moved to the Bay Area, where she began gravitating back towards creating art:

"I started all over again. I mean I always wanted to do painting, but since I had young kids so I thought I couldn't [...] but really one day I couldn't bear myself"

To brush up on her painting (pardon the pun), Wonne had tried taking an art class in the States, but compred to the four hour practical entrance exam required for university admittance in Korea, the American art education system was far less structured:

"[In] my country, Korea, we don't have to explain too much what I'm doing. The professors - they look at it and they know right away what I'm doing"

Meanwhile, despite the recession of the early 1990s, Wonne signed up for commercial studio space and began working as a career artist. She now views her studio as her sanctuary:

"I know one thing: without this space, I would go crazy [...] I would be miserable [...] this is like my sanctuary [...] I'm so happy that I have some space to work. And sometimes the work comes out right, sometimes it doesn't , but even then I feel so fortunate"

In the sanctuary of her studio, Wonne channels her emotions and experiences into her work. A couple years ago, some medical concerns cast a shadow on Wonne's life, which inspired a new series of work:

"After that period I came in [to the studio] and it was so gloomy. So just after that was a [bunch] of colors [...] I did all kind of color work because I needed some colors"

Whether colorful flowers, wispy branches, or peaceful boulders, Wonne frequently uses natural imagry in her work, but she is quick to point out that her work is not about nature, per se:

"It's not nature is my subject matter - life is my subject matter [...] I kind of borrow the form of nature to express something that I want to express"

For Wonne the relationship between life and nature may be less distinct, an attitudes she attributes to her Asian heritage:

"Being Asian [...] we have kind of a peculiar philosophy [...] we grew up like 'I am part of nature'. It's not learned from a textbook [...] the common thinking is 'we are part of nature, we are part of the universe' it's not anything [from] a particular philosophy we studied"

She recently returned to Asia in 2008 for her first show in Korea in many decades, where her work was well received. Having come a long way from doodling on attic walls, Wonne's instinct to convey her ideas visually remains:

"Artwork is like a diary for me. It sounds kind of casual, but it really means a lot to me. I try to be as honest as possible"

See some of Mirang Wonne's work on display in the One California Street building as well as the USF School of Law Rotunda Gallery. This spring she will have work up at the Ira Wolk Gallery in St. Helena from February 14 to March 14 and at the Triton Museum from March 7 to May 17.

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