In conversation with Haejin Yoo

Despite having dreamed of becoming an artist since her early childhood days, visual artist Haejin Yoo worked in the field of Science for the first years of her adult life. After feeling a deep sense of emptiness at the age of 25, she returned to drawing in her free time and eventually took the decision to become a full artist 5 years back. The South Korean born, Germany-based acrylic artist specialises in surrealistic expressionist art, meandering through her past and present life experiences with the intention to evoke in the viewers the same emotions once felt in the moment. 

In our interview with Haejin, we spoke about choosing a creative life over a steady income, the joy and challenges of the painting practice, and her plans for the future. Enjoy!

By Nina Seidel

Slump from the “Spirit Illness” series, 2020
Acrylic, hand dyed cotton threads on raw canvas

***

Hello Haejin, thank you for taking your time to answer my questions. To start with, I’d like to go back in time. How did you get into art in the first place and how did you “end up” becoming a professional artist? 

From a young age, art came naturally to me, and I always dreamed of becoming an artist. Unfortunately, my circumstances didn’t support this dream. Growing up alone in a foreign country since I was 11, financial stability became my top priority. As a young adult, I believed that a steady income would bring me happiness and security. Suppressing my artistic inclinations, I chose to study science and eventually became a chemical regulatory analyst for a global company. This position provided a stable income and allowed me to support my family. However, by the age of 25, I felt a deep emptiness and a sense of not belonging.

My sister, who was studying architecture at the time, recognized my unhappiness and encouraged me to start drawing again. I hadn’t drawn since high school, but her suggestion reignited my passion for art. Through word of mouth, I entered competitions and applied for art fairs, eventually taking on commissions and participating in art shows during my free time. Despite my success as an analyst, I was severely depressed, and my job felt profoundly unfulfilling.

The decision to become a full-time artist came when my husband suggested we relocate from Australia to Europe. This move marked a challenging transition, as I went from financial independence to having no income and relying on my husband’s support. Over the next five years, I worked tirelessly to develop my skills as an artist. I learned to paint with acrylics and to manipulate the medium to create the effects I can achieve today. Without my husband’s unwavering belief in me and his support from the very beginning, I couldn’t have pursued my dream.

Looking back, I have no regrets. The challenges I faced allowed me to grow as an artist, and I’m grateful for the journey that has brought me to where I am today.

Crane Picknick, 2020
Acrylic, hand-dyed cotton thread on linen, 120cm x 90cm

I love the fact that you paint on raw canvas and also your unique way of signing your works, with hand-dyed red thread. Have you always worked that way or did these peculiarities come over time? 

When I first transitioned to being a full-time artist, I discovered the beauty of the raw, unprimed side of a cotton canvas by accident. The naturalness and symbolism of this surface resonated with me, as I saw it as a reflection of my own vulnerability and lack of professional support in the art world. After using up my initial roll of cotton canvas, I decided to switch to linen for an even rawer feel. Being on my own in the art industry, it took some time to perfect the technique of painting on raw canvas. As a detail-oriented artist, I require a smooth surface, which can be challenging with the rough texture of raw canvas.

In the past, I would use several brushes to complete a single painting, but recently, I’ve begun sanding the surface to create a smoother texture for my new series. The struggle of working with the rough canvas was symbolic of the emotional paintings I was creating, which often portrayed personal pain. This act of “fighting” with the canvas added another layer of meaning to my work. However, my new series focuses on spiritual wellness, and this concept of struggle no longer feels relevant. As a result, I’ve started sanding the surface to create a smoother working space that aligns with my new artistic direction.

Birth dream, 2023
Acrylic, oil pastel, coloured pencil, and hand-dyed cotton thread on linen, 150cm x 150cm

Is there any series or piece you’d like to talk about more in detail?

I’d like to discuss my “Spirit Illness” series, which includes the pieces “Slump,” “Beer,” and “Sleeping Bull.” This series is deeply personal to me and represents a pivotal moment in my life.

In 2020, I was thriving in Germany, making friends, working out seven days a week, and enjoying my life. However, one day I woke up feeling inexplicably sad and disconnected. I lost interest in socializing and the gym, began drinking and smoking every night, and experienced intense hunger constantly. My work suffered, and I spent days in bed, feeling weighed down by an unknown force. My behavior became more erratic, and I started acting like a different person.

Eventually, my mother, who lives in South Korea, contacted me after consulting two shamans who said I was ill. I immediately booked a flight to Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic in July 2020 to undergo a shamanic exorcism ritual. On July 1st, 2020, my life changed forever. Following the ritual, I stopped drinking and smoking, and the constant hunger that had plagued me for years disappeared. Throughout this journey, I created the “Spirit Illness” series to chronicle my experiences. The final piece in the series, “Sleeping Bull,” is a spiritual painting that signifies the end of my suffering and the beginning of a newfound peace.

Slump from the “Spirit Illness” series, 2020
Acrylic, hand dyed cotton threads on raw canvas, 120cm x 90cm
Beer from the “Spirit Illness” series, 2020
Acrylic, hand dyed cotton threads on raw canvas, 120cm x 90cm

Back to your painting practice now- could you please share some of your creative process with me, from the starting point to a finished piece?

My creative process often begins with a sudden flash of inspiration, where the final image of the painting appears in my mind like an epiphany. This can occur during moments of rest, such as cooling down at the gym or lying in bed and staring at a blank surface. After experiencing this epiphany, I jot down the idea in my notebook and begin researching the symbolism of any animals or flowers I plan to incorporate into the painting. Previously, I used to sketch my designs by hand in my notebook, but I have since transitioned to using an iPad and the Procreate app for conceptualization.

Once I’m satisfied with the design, I build my canvas and embark on the journey of bringing my vision to life.

Sleeping Bull from the “Spirit Illness” series, 2021
Acrylic, hand-dyed cotton thread on raw canvas, 150cm x 150cm

Painting itself and stretching the canvas onto frame is such a hands-on, physical activity. What do you enjoy about it and could you put into words how painting makes you feel?

To be honest, stretching the canvas is not my favorite part of the process. Many of my paintings are large, and linen can be difficult to stretch. I rely on my husband’s help in this stage – he handles the stretching while I do the stapling. The process usually takes at least an hour, and once it’s complete, I prime the canvas with clear gesso and sand it using an electric sander. It’s quite an involved process.

The part I enjoy most is when the stretching and priming are finished. I feel a sense of pride in the work we’ve done together, and I’m incredibly grateful for my husband’s constant support and assistance in my artistic journey.

The Daydreamer, 2020
Acrylic, hand-dyed cotton threads on raw canvas, 180cm x 200cm
The Island, 2020
Acrylic, hand-dyed cotton threads on raw canvas, 180cm x200cm

You are also a mum. Many times, we talk about the challenges that come with having children and a career but I wanted to ask you the opposite question: can you think of any benefits that come with being a mum and an artist?

I resumed working as an artist when my little girl was just six weeks old. Living in Germany, far from our families, we don’t have any external support, and our 19-month-old daughter doesn’t attend day-care. My husband works from home, often late into the night, and we both care for our daughter during the day. Once she’s asleep around 7 pm, I start working, usually until 11 pm or midnight. I can’t work any longer since she’ll be up again at 6 am!

We don’t have weekends off and are constantly tired and sleep-deprived. However, we’re working towards our goals, and that makes us happy. One of the benefits of being a mum and an artist is that my daughter serves as both my inspiration and my muse. In fact, the awards I’ve won came only after Scarlett was born – she’s our lucky star! Despite our busy lives, we occasionally daydream about sleeping in or binge-watching Netflix on weekends.

The Hunt form the “Spirit Illness” series, 2020
Acrylic, hand dyed cotton thread on linen, 120cm x 90cm

Any advice you’d like to share with emerging artists, especially at the beginning of their career?

For self-taught artists like myself, it’s crucial not to feel impatient, which is the most difficult part of being an artist for myself. Instead, focus on what is important to you and what you want to express. It’s essential to believe in yourself but also to be able to look at your work objectively. Recognize when it’s time to move on, identify what isn’t working, and concentrate on evolving. Networking with other artists is vital, as working alone can only take you so far. Pursuing a career in art can be lonely, so it’s important to connect with others. Networking also allows you to learn about events and competitions to challenge yourself and grow. Be aware of fake opportunities that may appear in your Instagram direct messages, and stay focused on your own development. Participating in art fairs can be a great way to network and gain exposure for your work.

Patience truly is the key, though it’s easier said than done.

I live in a burning house, 2021
Acrylic, hand-dyed cotton thread on raw canvas, 90cm x 120cm

Any upcoming project or event that you’d like to share?

I’ve recently begun working on a new series and have decided to decline offers for potential events this year. My primary focus is on creating this new series so that I can apply to participate in an art fair in Los Angeles at the end of September 2023.

Any fellow emerging artists you’d like to recommend?

Yes, I would like to recommend Ceinwen Birrell, Oskar Johannes Gustafsson, Joanna Pilarczyk and ‌Ladislas Chachignot.

And last question, what are your hopes for the future?

In the near future, I would like to enter the US art market and see my new series “Talisman” come to full completion. Painting in such detail can be a gruelling process, and it’s not always relaxing. The “Talisman” series will feature numerous intricate details, so completing it would be a significant achievement for me. The series will consist of around ten paintings, ranging in size from 100cm x 100cm to 150cm x 150cm. I’m not sure how long it will take, but it will definitely require more than a year.

***

Daffodil
Get in touch
with Haejin:

https://www.haejinyoo.com/
Instagram: haejinyooart

All Photographs courtesy of
Haejin Yoo

Written & edited by
Haejin Yoo and Nina Seidel

© Copyright 2023 Suboart Magazine
All rights reserved

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