Denver artist Sammy Seung-Min Lee engages paper through unique and distinct processes in wall pieces, architectural installations, artist books, and performances.
An unassuming single-story building in Denver’s Santa Fe Art District houses Sammy Seung-Min Lee’s studio. The small black structure looks rather innocuous from the outside; but once inside, the exposed red brick walls, hardwood floors, and large windows offering plentiful natural light make for an ideal space in which the artist can create.
Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea, Lee immigrated to the United States at the age of sixteen. She eventually pursued degrees in fine art and media art at UCLA and a graduate degree in architecture at the University of Massachusetts. In 2007, she relocated to the Denver area where she has remained, establishing her unique artistic and curatorial visions. Although she calls Colorado home, her work can be found throughout the world in collections such as the Getty Research Institute, Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, Spencer Museum of Art in Lawrence, Kansas, the Denver Art Museum, and the Spanish National Library in Madrid.
Lee, represented locally by Walker Fine Art, experiments in a variety of media and modes that encompass wall-hanging objects, architectural installations, artist books, and performance. Throughout these various modes, though, paper is her primary material engagement. Specifically, Lee uses Hanji—Korean mulberry paper—in many of her projects. “I love the material and its character,” she says. Her knowledge of and relationship to it evidences this love.
“Mulberry bark is a common material that goes through one hundred steps of labor to create paper. There is a divine quality to this labor that transcends the material,” she notes. First, laborers “harvest the inner bark [of a mulberry tree] by stripping the fiber instead of cutting,” the latter of which is common in Western paper production. “The process is not invasive; it’s kind of like pruning.”
After stripping the bark, workers pound and steam the sheets of mulberry so that the long, sturdy fibers remain intact. This quality of Hanji enables Lee to felt the material by “soaking and agitating it, [thus] interlocking its fibers and layering multiple sheets on top of one another into a thicker substrate.” The felting process transforms the physical characteristics of the mulberry paper, providing it with an “animal hide [texture] and giving it a dry leather-like quality. The process takes a long time, but it builds character and adds a nice, tactile” sensation. Lee calls this felted substrate “paper skin.”
After she’s felted her Hanji, Lee employs three distinctive procedural modes. The first mode she calls “hung dry/pull dry.” In this process, she “either hangs or stretches wet paper skin—kind of like a tannery. Once it dries, the paper captures the shape of gravity and the weight of water.” The artworks that result from this method are abstract wall hangings suffused with twists and folds.
Encasing objects in moistened paper skin, then allowing it to dry over and around those objects, is her second procedural mode. She’s previously wrapped suitcases, chandeliers, and—in the case of her MamaBot series—family photographs. In doing so, the wrapping fosters productive tensions between the visible and the invisible, the public and the private, as well as interiority and exteriority.
Her most iconic procedural method, however, is that of casting objects. For this third process, Lee drapes wet paper skin over objects; when the skins dry, she peels them off the objects, leaving topographical imprints similar to bas relief. “What’s interesting about paper,” Lee says, “is that the material has a memory.” And this memory manifests itself in the contours of the shapes it once covered.
Her current project, A Very Proper Table Setting—which she began in 2017—employs this last method. “The project,” she notes, “is really about activating a sense of empathy from a stranger. I tell someone: think about someone special in your life and set up an imaginary meal for them. Then I present them with Korean serving vessels.”
In Korean culture, each vessel or dining tool embodies specific “social and gender roles as well as different customs and etiquette.” Since participants come from a variety of backgrounds and lack this cultural context, “they must reinvent” or imagine newly the placement and uses of the dinnerware “to meet their needs.” Once a participant organizes the vessels and dining ware into an arrangement upon a surface, Lee places wet paper-skin over it in order “to record the experience and narrative behind it.”
Lee hopes to bring the project “to five very different areas within the United States and cast at least one hundred imaginary meals at each location.” Once she creates five hundred casts, she would like to aggregate them into one, large “meal at a communal table. [It’s a] project that I really want to complete.”
While A Very Proper Table Setting allows participants from diverse backgrounds to re-imagine objects from Korean culture into arrangements most comfortable to their own experiences, Lee also strives to introduce and educate the public about the customs and cultures that are foreign to them.
“Denver has a healthy artist community,” she says, “but it lacks diversity.” When she arrived in town, “no one was showing or having a dialogue with contemporary Asian and Asian American culture. So that was the mission I’ve tried to fulfill. Since 2017, I’ve hosted more than fifteen artist residencies at my studio and led four curatorial projects, all focused on Asian American art.”
Of course, in an expression of gratitude and humility, Lee acknowledges that her curatorial work is “give-and-take. I’m not going to say it’s just ‘give.’ Because it’s amazing how much I learn and feel connected.”