Jan. 15, 2012
I can’t believe the year is almost over. It’s been a long year, full of surprises, let downs, fun and stress. A mixed bag of experiences that when weighed together has been a valuable year for me.
I have a good feeling that this year, when I turn 35, is going to a memorable year for me. I have everything just where I want it in my life. Financially, emotionally, spiritually and technically, I am ready to launch my career as a painter. I am going to paint the kind of paintings I’ve always wanted to – big and bold.
Since I wrote that, a lot has happened. My mother has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and I am forced to confront my fear of her not being with me for the rest of my life, as I’d like her to. Rationally, I know this is not possible, but emotionally, that is what I want anyway.
While living with mom for two years before coming to Korea, I was sure that the next series of paintings would be influenced by that experience.
While teaching at Poly school in 2011, I came up with the theme for my next series of pantings: the Korean sauna.
After finishing my contract, March 29, 2012, I moved into my studio at Jankura Art Space in Itaewon, Seoul, the next day. Four days later, I had started my first painting.
This is the start of the first painting. I’ve worked on it for 3 days, about 9 hours.
There are many ages and body types in the sauna, and all are unique and beautiful to me. Many of the women have bodies that bore children, and the elderly who have bore many burdens during wartime. The paintings are about more than the sauna though.
As I worked on this first painting, I realized that this series is largely a tribute to women. Women are amazing. Women give life, nurture, and are strong and sensual by nature. In the painting, I plan to also put myself as I have begun to see these qualities and validate them in myself for the first time. Becoming a fully realized human being and woman is a process and I am grateful for all the women in my life who have acted as teachers and role models for me. Most of all, I am grateful to my wonderful mother, who I love with all my heart and who gave me life and continues to enrich my life today.
Here is a little background on the sauna from Wikipedia.
In Korea, saunas are essentially public bathhouses. Various names are used to describe them, such as the smaller mogyoktang, outdoor oncheon, and the elaborate jjimjilbang. The word ‘sauna’ is used a lot for its ‘English appeal’, however it does not strictly refer to the original Scandinavian steam rooms that have become popular throughout the world. The konglish word sauna (사우나) usually refers to bathhouses with jacuzzis, hot tubs, showers, steam rooms, and related facilities
When you enter the sauna, you can find lots of naked women wandering around, applying lotions, drying their hair after bathing, and so on. The temperature is very warm. You will see a counter where you can buy soaps, shampoo, clothes, undergarments, some foods and drink, and anything else you may need for washing or comfort.
The first thing you do is go to your locker, undress and put your clothes inside. I can imagine most foreigners would be shy about being undressed in front of so many strangers, but I felt fine about it, I guess because I have experience drawing from nude figures and being a nude figure model myself. It felt quite natural to me.
(From KNU Times) When you look around the public bath, you can see many people sitting down on plastic seats and washing themselves, rather than standing at the showers. This is because they are “washing off the dirt” from their bodies. Most foreigners, especially people from western countries, just take a quick shower, but Korean people painstakingly wash off the dirt from their bodies with a rough towel called an ‘Italy towel.’ This towel did not in fact originate from Italy. It was named after Italy because its producer, the textile manufacturer in Busan, had imported fabrics from there. These different approaches to washing might seem strange, but there are various reasons for them. One is that westerners and Koreans (or eastern people) have different skin characteristics. Western people usually have more oily skin compared with Koreans, so the dirt can be easily washed from their body by just taking a shower. The soap bubbles easily remove oily elements from the skin. The skin of Koreans, however, is typically less oily, so Koreans usually soak their bodies in hot water and then rub off the dirt with the Italy towel.
The atmosphere is mesmerizing and tranquil. When I enter into this ‘world,’ I feel immediately at ease. There is no doubt that I attract attention and stand out as a foreigner, but I am accepted because I am a woman, just as the others, and can feel acceptance as I participate in this same ritual and take the same pleasure from it as the other women do.
In the sauna, I feel I get a glimpse of Korean women when they are unguarded. Through my depictions of these bathers, I aim to capture the beauty in what has become a ritual for many Koreans that perhaps only an outsider can view objectively. Without a grasp of the language, I have the special ability to see as only an outsider can, without prejudices or pre-judgments.
I don’t mean to act as a voyeur, just an observer of what is beautiful. I see compassion, love, caring, and peacefulness in the expressions and body movements of the women there.
My process for doing these paintings will be different than I’ve worked before. I am not going to use models. I am just going to use sketches I do at the sauna.
This, in itself, is an interesting endeavor. For a while, I wondered how I could manage to sketch unnoticed. I certainly did not want to annoy the women there. For the first attempt, I took the smallest notepad I had in there with me. I hid it in the bowl, amongst my washing things. When I got in a tub, I took it out and pretended to be writing. The women would glance at me, but then lose interest. So, I think they decided that I was just writing. Since they are used to foreigners there, I could do my thing without them staring at me. They are there to scrub and are not in an ‘aware’ state. The heat acts as a sort of mind eraser. No one would really want to engage me anyway, so me with a pad of paper didn’t attract much more attention than I would normally with my blond hair
However, I wanted to make bigger sketches. So, I decided I need to invite a Korean woman to come with me to act as a decoy. Fortunately there was a girl who was willing to do this. She is an art student and so understood my idea perfectly. We met on Sunday, February 19, and I got some great sketches. One of these sketches is now the reference for this painting. I will make more with her when I get back from NY. She said that now she does not look at the sauna the same way anymore. This is what I was hoping would happen