A tiny ballerina, Soey Milk emigrated with her family to the United States from South Korea when she was 10 years old. As her creative career shifted, Milk fell in love with oil painting, finding the new medium fitted her in profound and archetypal ways. On the heels of her large solo show Inflorescence at Corey Helford Gallery in Los Angeles, PRØHBTD spoke with Milk about her journey and her desire to paint the female within on large canvases for the world to see.
How did you go from ballerina to painter?
It started with my love of the human body. As a kid, when I looked at all these ballet videos and when I went to shows, I was infatuated with how rubber-like and gorgeous the form was. I danced for a pretty good time, and when we immigrated to the states, I wanted to continue what I was doing. But, I had to be really honest here. When I saw the differences in the Asian and the European body proportions in my first and second ballet class here in the states, I lost my confidence completely.
It was devastating because I realized, no matter how much I try to dance better than these girls, they're just gonna look better at the end of the day because the proportions are different. I'm not saying that this is a better body or anything, but naturally, the roles are given to the best set, right? I was only 10 years old when I realized that. Now I don't agree so much about how I felt at that moment, because that was definitely a thought of a 10 year old. I remember talking to my mother about it, and she was not mad, but she asked me what I was going to do with myself. And then I was really shocked because she told me, "I will give you one week to figure out what you're going to do for the rest of your life." I had to figure it out. I remembered, I wanted to draw and paint.
It was a lot of that Korean training that got me turning my interests. But I don't think that was the only reason I wanted to paint. Even when I was dancing in Korea, I was always drawing and painting in class, or when my friends would go outside for volleyball for recess, I would rather paint and draw. There was a definite interest from a very young age.
In the beginning, I wanted to become associated somehow with entertainment arts. I was really into character designing, but in the middle of my college years, I fell in love with painting. I don't even think I changed my track. I was too young to realize. But as soon as I found out, [it became], "Wait a minute. There's this thing called oil paint, and I can do this with this." Oil painting is almost as if you're making your own potion because there's no set way of painting. I talked to a lot of my other painter friends, and they all have their own thing going on. I have my own methods, and mediums, and different ways I like to paint. As soon as I found out about what my deal was, my step-by-step or my potion-making skills, I fell in love.
Do you feel there's an aspect of you as that performer, as that ballerina, that translated into being a painter?
I don't think I feel like a performer when I'm painting. Instead, what's interesting to me is that I really get into this state of spiritual practice because I'm usually alone. I don't really talk to anyone. I'm not in a situation where I share with a lot of people. I don't see a lot of people when I'm working so it's very solitary and it’s what I sort of become when I'm alone. I think about everything that happened in my life, or for that day, or to my friends, or to my family. I start thinking too much, whether it is for the good or the bad.
It's not really a performance. It's more like self-evaluation constantly because when I'm painting, the only thing I can do is think about things, right? It's a constant battle of self-loathing and self-loving when I'm painting.
Has your identity as a Korean-American inspired your choice of subjects and the narrative that you're telling? Do you feel that connection in your paintings?
I am at the point of my life right now where I am exactly stuck between the Korean and the American. Maybe the American part is taking a bigger part because more and more, I'm living here longer than the time I've been in Korea. But with my work, unless I'm painting a piece about South Korea, I don't really think about it as, "Oh, I'm from Korea. I'm from the country. I'm gonna make sure that everything that I do has a little bit in it."
I'd rather think of it as maybe when you talk to Asian-Americans, and when they have a memory, or a loving memory, of their motherland, naturally they would talk about it in time. Of course, it's not the only thing they talk about, right? Because they're also Americans. I think my work informs the subjects and themes as far as it would for a Korean-American... as if somebody who is proud of the culture of their motherland.
Your use of color feels connected to the bright colors of Korean culture.
Definitely. Yes, color's a huge part of that because I can get it to work without being too literal. Something that I'm interested in and always inspired by is the lacquering on the edges of the traditional buildings in South Korea. They're called ban chung, and they always use these lights, like teal, turquoise, bright orange, this mossy, all these greens. They make these patterns, and they sort of paint the edges and underside of the roofing of these structures.
It's such a combination of psychedelics, yet controlled. A lot of times when I'm image making, I am always trying to find that balance of things, right? It's just like how you communicate with another human being. You can't do too much of something. Just like your eating habits. Everything has to do with this balance. And I think, when I look at this ban chung existing in these situations, I'm really just in awe. I might take those colors into my paintings and without using those patterns, I'll sort of work around my chaos with those points of color that I choose.
What’s your process for beginning a painting? How do you come up with your ideas, and how do they unfold for you through drawing first?
Sometimes I have a definite idea, something that I want to talk about. Or sometimes I'm really just in love with an image in my head. With an image in my head, I do a really quick scribble on a piece of paper, whatever I can find. The drawings, the little preliminary sketches, some of them are on Mercury Insurance envelopes that I have to draw on. I think it's kind of funny because a lot of people say that, "Oh well, being an artist has so much preparation to it. You're always at the drafting table." It really isn't like that for me. I mean, I'll be cooking something in the kitchen, and I'm like, "Oh my God, I have to get this thing down."
When I have an image in my head, it starts like that, and it becomes me looking for a perfect model. All my models are people that I know. I never want to, if I have a choice, I won't paint anybody I don't know, especially images I find on the internet because I think my work is so personal. So much about my life, and their life, that if I don't get to actually know this person, or already know this person, it becomes a little bit difficult to speak about that.
I'll get a perfect model, which is probably a friend, never even an acquaintance, and we have a photo shoot. Most of the photo shoots are very casual. I'm trying to just get the right feeling, not a perfect, beautiful photo. Sometimes I'm just looking for a feeling. I would tell my friend, "Hey, imagine something like this. Imagine your body's in the shower, and it was way too cold. You thought it was warm enough, and then it was way too cold. And then you turned the hot water up, and you feel that warmth all coming over your body, right?" Everybody knows that comforting feeling like, "Oh my God, thank God."
And I ask them, "Can you please think about that?" I think it works in my favor because it's a universal feeling and my paintings are about universal feelings. It only makes sense to communicate with a model that way, and from that photo, I create sometimes a really detailed drawing. Or sometimes I do a loop, or a line, in the drawings. And then most of the time that drawing becomes a painting. It's a seed-to-a-tree sort of situation.
What did you tell the model in The Inflorescence?
I told her to be comfortable because it was her first time modeling for an artist. And I told her, "Don't be afraid because this is going to be the most organic type of image making that I will be doing." And she's actually my trainer so she has seen so much of my ugly faces and so much of my sweat. I saw her sitting in my lawn chair thinking, "Oh, I don't know what to do." I remember telling her, "You've got to be comfortable. You're going to be beautiful. You are already beautiful so don't worry about that."
But I know that painting took a little bit of a different route because, in the beginning, I was just talking about how I have this idea of, "I've got this painting, think about a little bit of womanly things, how we like to be cozy. We like to roll around." I call it burrito-ing, when I'm rolling around on the couch with a blanket, and I think a lot of girls like doing that. Can you imagine having your girlfriends over, then you just share a bunch of blankets, and you're watching a movie, eating pizza.
I wanted to sort of have that movie in that painting. But then later on, that painting became something about thankfulness and awareness of your own harnessing of the mind. That painting definitely took a different route. With the tiger socks and all, like all the cozy feelings that painting has, you can still see that was where I was trying to go with it.
You paint in elements like cords, ribbons, cables or belts with the females in the foreground. Are the females part of the entanglements? There’s also a sense of connecting with nature where there’s flowers and leaves living graphically in the backgrounds. What’s the genesis of these details and their symbolism in this collection of work?
A lot of people ask me, "Why do you paint bondage, shibari?", the Japanese term for the tying of the human body with rope. I never really was thinking about that until somebody actually pulled me aside and asked me about it. As of now, the cords I use are my favorite metaphor because they mean experiences, the human encounters, and your status, happiness, everything that happens in your life on a daily basis, or not a daily basis. I try to use the cord as a lightening of experiences, like something that's piercing through you but not something that is sharp. Something that has so much meaning or so much power that it could go through your body and change you, but then also be left behind.
I really use it as, if a chain, if a rope, if two, three ropes are tangled, I can maybe be talking about my relationship or difficulties communicating with two or three people, four people, whatever it is. Or it's like that painting Inflorescence we were just talking about. She has one hot pink cord coming down from the top, around to her head, and all the little ropes going down. I wanted to speak about it as, this is something sharp that is going through you, and then possibly has hurt you, or made you sad, or made you happy, or whatever it is.
Then she has all these different sorts of cords coming down below her, and I want to call them our human filters because we are alive. And then there's no one way we're supposed to feel about something. Whatever experiences that you have, if you're able to go through it, and mend your heart with it, at the end of the day, you will see all the different paths that this one experience has given you.
These ideas tie into a lot of your titles. And again, the title of the Corey Helford Gallery exhibit itself is Inflorescence. Why did you choose this for the exhibition title?
Inflorescence has a couple of meanings. It literally means a formation of a flower, like from the stems, the node, and everything. It also means to bloom, the process of flowering. I'm using the word as a title to be the metaphor of life itself. I'm using the stem of the flower as a timeline and all the little bracts that come out from it as experiences. The pink things would be the flower formations of them. If you turn the stem of the flower sideways, it would become something that I'm talking about, the linear matter of time that we always think of when we think of a timeline.
The paintings are done with hours and hours and hours of work, right? I don't think I've ever created a painting that was done within a week. It was at least like a month because I have so much thought, and I feel like when a painting is done, who decides that? I decide it, but when I feel like I have more to talk about, I'll just go on and on and on.
The timeline, in a way, gets skewed a little bit. Your bad experiences sometimes become the only memory that you have of the person because it was most recent, and I don't think it's very fair, but I'm really talking about the fairness of time and analogy to a timeline. And the painting's becoming a question of whether it is about a good pinning [down] of an experience or a bad one.
What is the Soey Milk narrative that you're telling through all of the paintings in this collection?
I think the narrative is simply life itself. But some of the facts and some of the things I think I dealt with heavily in this show, especially this segment of my life while I was preparing for the show, is self-love, maybe an apology. Because I have a painting in this show that's an apology to my pet chicken that passed away, and because of that, I was talking more about love of self.
Word of Emotions is very much about that fiery love itself that people would rather not talk about for some reason, but I think the more you talk about love, the more you think about the complexity of it. But I feel that, if you put love in the simplest sense, it is an interaction of a kind, right? From that, I branch off to thankfulness, maybe kindness, or lastly, regret. Those are things that really happened.
How about Sadhana? I see a special story: The woman has a deep pose and expression on her face.
Sadhana is of a friend, and she’s a yogi. I did title that piece because she's a yogi, but also because of the fact that I am doing a self-initiated spiritual practice every day, beginning with me sitting down in front of my canvas and washing my brushes. It's a very repetitive motion, and they say it is a discovery of your likes and your dislikes, right? And Sadhana definitely has very soft approaches to this thing called self-evaluation.
Looking again at the materials, and part of what your process is, can you tell me about your experimentation with embedding objects into your background and how that has evolved?
Embedding with objects started when I was wanting to throw some dirt around just for the heck of it. I think there's a lot of things that paint and a paintbrush can do [as well as] thick layers of paint and scrubbing a bit of paint. But I think because a lot of what I like to do is pressing flowers, I think it just makes sense for me to introduce that to what I love to do, which is also painting.
I put them in when I think they can bring more than the paint can. Because they bring texture, or they bring a sense of agileness, something that may break. I really loved working on The Silence You Hold Between Us because I was able to play with a lot of that. These days, I am including a lot of chicken feathers in there because it's just hilarious. They come sit next to me when I paint, and they just kind of sleep, doze off on a little piece of furniture. They would finish taking a nap, and then they come over to me and kind of groom themselves and a couple of feathers fall off. It's almost like they're giving me those things as a gift.
I have chickens at the house, and when I'm painting, sometimes they'll come to the studio area and hang out. Sometimes I go outside and then they shed a lot of feathers. And there's just gorgeous, gorgeous feathers that I collect. Sometimes I just break them up into little pieces, and when I embed them into the painting, and I paint on top of that, it becomes part of the painting as a texture, not like a found object being embedded or the image that it makes. But it acts like a substance that becomes a part of the geography of the piece. I've been doing that, and it's super fun.
In-studio photo by Birdman.