Artist Julia Chon Creates + Archives Korean American Culture
One of the biggest gripes older generations have of Gen Z and Millennials is their indecisiveness and lack of commitment. Artist Julia Chon, better known as Kimchi juice – challenges this stereotype.
“I was maybe 13 or 14 when I decided to be a professional artist and do this forever,” Chon recalled.
Working with an art tutor after school at age 12 to learn the basics, in eighth grade she made her career decision. Chon used art as an emotional outlet during her parents’ divorce, wasting no time in pursuing her aspirations.
“I realized that if I went to a physical high school, it wouldn’t give me enough time to practice or pursue art because I would be so busy with [academics]Chon says. “I offered homeschooling to my parents or this online program to get my high school diploma.”
The Korean-American artist was surprised when her parents agreed. Chon enrolled in an online high school program, noting, “My parents kind of took a chance on me.”
Luck paid off. She began showing her work at age 15 and quickly became part of the DC arts community when Kelly Towles invited her to the DC Walls Festival (Pow Wow DC at the time).
“When I did my first mural for Pow Wow DC at 17, everything was very new and exciting,” Chon says. “[It was] also nerve-wracking because I felt enormous pressure to prove myself and show that I was just as talented and deserving as long-working artists.
Now 22 – still considered quite young in her field – Chon has drawn attention for her mural work, which often incorporates Korean imagery and women dressed in traditional hanboks. With crisp, clean lines and a punchy color palette, Chon’s two-dimensional illustrations are refreshingly modern while honoring the past. She has painted murals for the Metropolitan Bike Trail and Culture Houseas well as working on murals beyond the DMV, including for the Mural Festival in Seoul, South Korea, prior to the Covid-19 shutdown.
One of the biggest changes that spurred Chon’s growth was the pandemic. With the quarantine in place, Chon could no longer travel to do wall work and instead refocused on creating pieces for shows. As I sat with Chon at his first solo exhibition at MAN Gallery on L Street, which ran from April 2 to April 16 last month, she once again proved her ability to turn dreams into reality.
The room is full of portraits of her family based on photographs from her grandmother’s scrapbooks and collections.
“I’ve been playing with this body of work in the back of my mind for a long time. I wanted the theme to be family friendly because I am very close to my family. I come from a large Korean family. My grandmother had seven daughters.
Two of the portraits are of her grandmother, displayed side by side.
“In one, she is holding my mother in her arms,” Chon points to the painting where a young woman is holding a baby, “and in the other, she is in yellow. She is a bit older and wears her traditional hanbok dress.
Another important painting includes a full portrait of his grandfather’s family. Each of the paintings offers a window into a moment and moment of gratitude and love.
Though too premature to be a full moment, she made it a point to center her first DC solo show on her family as a thank you.
“My family has supported me my entire career, so I wanted to pay tribute and honor. I wanted to dedicate them.
The flowers are also central to the exhibition and the larger narrative of Chon’s work. Many portrait settings include flowers, some symbolizing a larger meaning. Specifically, a painting that shows a woman dressed in white holding a child, based on a photo of a client whose mother died in childbirth.
“Mums are traditionally seen at funerals,” Chon says of the painting. “It is a flower of death. That’s when I started doing this freehand drawing of tiny flower designs in the background with prominent, larger flowers to juxtapose them. [From there] it evolved into more than one theme.
The theme carries over to its painted kimchi jars, which are adorned with various intricate floral designs and motifs, with each jar dedicated to a monochromatic palette. Switching to ceramics is a new venture for Chon, but the new medium is still focused on celebrating her heritage.
“I bought them from H Mart and painted them. It’s a tribute to that memory of making kimchi with my family. It was my last work for this exhibition. The yellow pot took about six months to to paint.
The yellow kimchi pot, which includes an array of different flowers in shades of yellow, was nothing short of a labor of love. The piece was recently acquired into the Smithsonian’s permanent collection through the Anacostia Museumresearch project on Korean American cuisine.
The Smithsonian’s acquisition of his work carries a lot of weight for Chon, whose favorite part of life in DC includes accessibility to museums — even if contemporary Asian artists aren’t often highlighted.
“I realized there weren’t a lot of Asian Americans represented [at the Smithsonians]. I just want Asian American artists to be represented and reflected in museums. It’s just a matter of bringing it to light and paying attention to it.
Creation of the projector
Chon’s work often falls into the category of honoring and uplifting the Korean American community by highlighting the past to uplift those in the present. The Korean Archivesa photo archive that Chon runs dedicated to preserving the Korean diaspora and sharing people’s stories, is a prime example.
“I originally just wanted to share family photos of my ancestors that looked so cool and stylish,” Chon explains. “Then it became a grassroots community effort where people just started submitting their family photos and it grew from there. We now have over 10,000 subscribers [on Instagram.]”
The project’s rapid success caught the attention of journalist Lisa Ling, who featured Chon on her HBO Max series “Take Out” and for her efforts to shine a light on Korean Americans through her archives and stories. works of art.
“It was unexpected and I’m very grateful for that,” Chon says of the experience. “I don’t claim to represent the entire Korean American community, but being part of it is really cool.”
Chon’s activism is organic. When she started out as an artist, she didn’t focus on a broader message of social justice. She was inspired by her surroundings and the people she loved and cared for.
“My grandfather always told me to paint with the heart.”
And for Chon, her heart is family and her broader Korean heritage and community – especially the women in her life who have encouraged and guided her as an artist.
Her mother is an entrepreneur herself who works in the culinary industry. She was instrumental in making sure Chon considered the business side of becoming an artist so she could successfully pursue her dreams.
Over time however, Chon realized that painting Asian women as an Asian woman carried a larger narrative.
“As I established myself in my career and became more aware of what was going on in the world, I realized that there weren’t many portraits of Asian women from the perspective of view of an Asian woman. So I think that has become more of a consideration over time.
The exponential increase in AAPI hate crimes during Covid – particularly towards women – has also affected his work.
“It was a very difficult time for people in our community and it made me think a lot more about the intent behind my work and the message I want to convey going forward,” Chon said.
Part of his efforts include creating more platforms for Asian American artists, such as partnering with other AAPI artists last year to host an AAPI show in Los Angeles. They plan to do it again this year as well.
As for Chon’s immediate future, she is currently working on a mural collaboration in Los Angeles with another Korean American artist, Annie Hongto commemorate the LA Riots and has an upcoming solo show in Denver that will feature all new artwork.
For most, finding the job and life’s mission takes many years and is constantly evolving. Chon is a true outlier, with an unwavering belief in who she is and what she can bring to this world.
“I always knew, without consciously knowing it, that art was the path I had to take.”
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