Saly Lee: Ceramic artist and arts educator at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum

You have to be creative to not just teach people about art, but also to teach people to make personal connections through art.
. . . You have to have authenticity as well as content to connect people with the culture that you are teaching about.

-Saly Lee

You have been in California now for a year and a half working as the Public Arts Program Coordinator at the San Francisco Asian Art Museum. What has your initial experience in California been—as an artist, as an arts educator, and in general?

I think about this question almost every day. Since I moved here, I have not been really active making art. I still try to do little things every day such as book art, but since I moved a year and a half ago, it has been really difficult to have that creative outlet. But then again, I get to meet so many incredible people almost every day [at the Asian Art Museum]: local artists and the artists that we invite from all over the world. Everyone has such an interesting, incredible story to tell. So on the one hand, I feel that I am more immersed in the art world, but one part is a little frustrating because I really do want to work on clay and ceramics. It is just that circumstances are not really allowing me to do that. So in part it is frustrating and in part it is really fascinating to meet all of those people.

The Bay Area—the city of San Francisco, Berkeley, etc.—is a lot larger than any of the places that I have lived, even including Busan [in South Korea]. It [Busan] is a big city, but when you live in one place for a long time you kind of develop a small town attitude. You get to know the city well, so it gets smaller and smaller. So, San Francisco and the Bay Area have been really challenging just because they are so large—the city is large and there are all of those little towns around San Francisco. Of course, just getting to know people is a challenge. I am trying to get more involved in the art world—especially museum work. It has been getting better, but when I first arrived it was really intimidating. I never felt it before. Eugene, Oregon is such a nice little college town. Seattle also has a small town feeling, which I really, really enjoy so it has been difficult. But, now I am getting to know more people and more places. I think that San Francisco is growing on me.

Going back to your childhood in South Korea, did you always want to be an artist? What or who have been your major artistic influences? Did the fact of your mother’s being an artist influence you in any way?

My mom is probably the most important person who has influenced me artistically and personally.

I do not think that I really consciously wanted to be an artist [as a child], but I knew that it was part of my life—even when I was young and was not really doing anything artistic . . . In a vague, undefined way, I wanted to do something with education and art . . . I thought that art and teaching would be an exciting way to live. I never really wanted to have a nine-to-five job—even when I was in elementary school. But until I was a freshman or sophomore in high school, I never really had any formal art education other than doing little art projects with my mom. She used to have a little studio at home and when she became a professor she always had a studio at her school, so I used to stop by every day to talk to her and to see her work. That really influenced me to make the decision that I really wanted to be an artist.

My mom is a painter and because I consider her one of the greatest artists that I know, I never really wanted to have the same medium as an artist. In a way, the medium of ceramics was decided for me, but I think that it is a great choice for me. I really like the fact that it can be both fine art and utilitarian, functional art.

[To explain how it was “chosen” for me,] in Korea if you want to study art you have to take a standardized test comprised of things like basic drawing and color composition. Even if you decide what you are going to study, such as ceramics, it is the same thing—you have to go through all of that. Also, my parents influenced me. My dad was a huge fan of traditional Korean and Japanese pottery. He used to have all kinds of [art] books at home—these were our regular books—and I used to read about the history of art everyday. He had the Cambridge art history books, which were a lot of fun to read. When the time came when I had to decide on a major, my dad and mom kind of pushed me towards studying ceramics. I never really consciously thought, “I want to become a potter,” but I just wanted to do art and ceramics was the medium. In Korean universities, you have to declare your major when you are applying for admission. Since I did not want to study painting or graphic design (a major for which you are guaranteed to get a job after graduation), I thought ceramics was the next best subject for me.

[I have two brothers who became engineers.] My younger brother is actually very artistic. He and I used to do a lot of Japanese manga-style drawings together. Actually, he would have been really good if he had ever gone into something like graphic design. But at the end of high school when he was preparing for his college exam, he decided that being an artist is not really a stable occupation for a guy, so he kind of dropped it. He did choose textile engineering, so when he was in college and graduate school he did a lot of marketing and graphic design classes, so he is still kind of in touch with his artistic side.

You have an M.F.A. in Ceramic Art from the University of Iowa. Please tell me more about your work as a ceramic artist. Have you worked extensively with other media?

Until five or six years ago, I thought of myself as a full-time artist and a part-time teacher. And now I feel that I am a full-time educator and a part-time artist.

At first as an artist, I was more interested in sculptural, more abstract ceramics. I used to think a lot about my self identity, not just as an individual person but as a person who belonged to a strong tradition of ceramics going back 2000 years in Korea. As that changed, my work became more personal. I started making more functional—or rather more functional-looking—things, more utilitarian things such as teapots and cups. So, right now I am more interested in creating something that is useful as well as beautiful. That is one of the strengths of ceramics as a medium. The question that I usually think about when looking at the structure of a teapot is, “How can I make this more characteristic of me?” Then, because I am dealing with the more functional aspect of ceramics I get to play with more colors and decorative techniques. That is really fun. Before, I was doing more sculptural work—very abstract. I used to stick everything in a wood-fired kiln and hope for the best. Now it is more deliberate. Colors, lines, and other decorative techniques are more important now. I have not worked extensively with other artistic media, but I love objects with function, so that is why I really love book-binding art. I used to do more book binding and now I am trying to get back to that. I have kind of dabbled in everything: textiles, jewelry, book binding, water colors, ink painting, calligraphy . . . I love learning so I have tried almost everything, but I always go back to ceramics.

At what point did you decided to become an arts educator? How did your experience at with the University of Oregon’s
Arts and Administration program shape your vision as an educator?

It came to me as an epiphany all of a sudden. When you are an artist you basically live in a little bubble. You make your art and show it to people, but you never get to interact with people. That is at least how I understood it. So, one day I realized that I wanted to work with more people, I wanted to influence more people. One day I just realized that I wanted to influence people through art. That is why I decided to pursue a second degree: Museum Studies and Arts Administration. At first I was more interested in creating artistic venues, such as setting up a gallery or curating a show. I also love writing about art, so I wanted to learn more about art critique. But when I was in school I started interning with the Education Department at the University of Oregon’s museum. Museum education just felt right to me. It allowed me to have a job where I was part artist and part educator. You have to be creative to not just teach people about art, but also to teach people to make personal connections through art. That is the most appealing part of the job to me. So after my internship I took more museum education classes and got more hands-on experience. Then I was able to get a job with the Seattle Asian Art Museum and now I am here [in San Francisco].

Lisa Abia-Smith was my boss at the University of Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. She is the museum’s Director of Education. Her approach to education is very open—you do not really preach [a message] to people, you let them feel whatever they can get out of art. People usually have some kind of expectation when coming to the museum—they learn what they want to learn. So, what I learned by working with Lisa and through my classes at school is that you have give people choices. Different people have different learning styles, expectations, and educational backgrounds. What I learned then was to keep an open mind and offer diverse programs for different people. That became the basis of my job philosophy.

At the Seattle Asian Art Museum and the San Francisco Asian Art Museum you constantly have to learn new things as exhibitions change and you develop teaching materials and activities associated with them. What is the approach that you take to learning about the subject of an exhibition and then how do you translate that into educational programming for the public?

As with everything else, you have to study first. I think that is the most exciting part of my job—I get to learn new things every three months. There are lots of resources available. There are books, lectures, and articles that the curators recommend. You can also google almost anything. I start by researching the basic things that I have to know about a subject and then I try to find some kind of common ground with the people who visit the museum . . . Most of the visitors to the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco are interested in learning and they want an art activity that is authentic, not just in terms of the artistic materials but they want an activity that is directly from the culture that they are learning about. I keep striving to create better activities, not just skimming off the top with a cheap craft activity, such as creating a paper-roll totem pole that does nothing to teach about its significance in Native American culture. You have to have authenticity as well as content to connect people with the culture that you are teaching about.

In Seattle, a big part of your job was working with groups of K-12 students. How is it different to create an activity for K-12 students and their teachers as opposed to an activity for a public program?

As a school program educator, you have a set amount of time and you have set objectives in your lesson so you stick very close to that. You have to make the connection very clear and then you go straight to the point. You have about 40 minutes to do the activity. So, in that way it is a little more formulaic because you have to have goals to get across to the students. For a public program, it is pretty much open ended. We just provide materials and directions, but what people get out of the activity and what they learn are up to them. That is why authenticity is such an important thing at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

What are some of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences that you have had as an arts educator?

In my job, you have to move very quickly. Once a program is done you have to prepare for the next one and the next one, so I do not really linger too long over the past programs. If there was something seriously wrong with the coordination of a program you have to learn from it, but otherwise you do not really think about it too much. Also, you have to be flexible in terms of scheduling and being able to change the set up on the spot. I have learned to read audiences and presenters and to change plans according to the situation.

I think that the most rewarding moment is when the artists who you have worked so closely with express, “This is the best program ever!” Or when a museum visitor comes up to you and says, “I have learned so much about this culture. I did not know anything about this before and now seen a lecture/demonstration and have talked about it. Now I have an appreciation for this art form or culture.” That is the most exciting kind of moment, especially with family visitors. They are so excited to experience the art-making process.

What are some of the projects that you have coming up in the near future?

In my personal life, as I said, I am planning to do more book art. And then I am taking Japanese language class. That is one of the things about this job and the institutional culture [of the museum]—you just want to learn more. At the museum, now that we have a new exhibition coming up in October, I am learning about Burmese puppetry. We are inviting a Burmese puppet troupe. We also have a Korean culture day coming up. This is actually one of my initiatives here, to start to plan at least two cultural events per year. The Korean culture day will be the first cultural event focusing on a specific country . . . Now, as a department we are trying to do cultural days for underrepresented countries such as Korea and the Philippines . . . That is a really exciting project for me.

To learn more about the San Francisco Asian Art Museum’s Department of Education, visit their Web site . A full listing of museum events is available online.

Interview Details: September 26, 2009. San Francisco, CA. Sarah Lin Bhatia.

Teapot images by Mia Vollkommer at AKAR.

All other images courtesy Saly Lee.

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