Story by: Alex Verheul, Photos by: Bright Baek
Bright Baek is a Korean artist with a remarkable backstory. During a dysfunctional childhood she saw many dark places, but has managed to shine through it all and now wants to make waves in the local art scene. Here she gives her insight on what it takes to be an artist.
Groove Korea: Tell us about your childhood.
Bright Baek: I grew up in a very dysfunctional home, where my definition of normal never seemed to match anyone else’s. My dad was an alcoholic and a chronic smoker. The most vivid memories I have of him were when he slept, but, surprisingly, when conscious, he was a sweet man.
My mom was very controlling and really the dominant one in the house. I remember one day I woke up and my mom was gone and she didn’t come back for two years. We lived with our dad at the time, surrounded by cockroaches in a basement apartment, but it was home. My mom all of a sudden stumbled back into my life, as if to say “I finally found something better for us.” So she took my sister and I to her boyfriend’s apartment.
To my surprise, it was really nice and I wanted to live there at first. But it all changed after my stepdad abused me for the first time. He would give me impossible tasks, like remembering Chinese letters, and if couldn’t recall them he would hit me. The day came where I had enough and ran away. After this episode my father became ill with lung cancer, and shortly after he passed away. I struggled for a long time with depression.
I went through some dark episodes, many of which involved hurting myself. I would drink and hurt myself a lot. My mom knew but she avoided that stuff. She never wanted to face problems; in fact, I don’t think she knew how to.
When did your love of art begin?
Ever since I was young I wanted to do art, but Korean education just didn’t cater to it then. I would come home and never do my homework; instead I would sketch and paint for hours.
How did you first start out on your career path as an artist?
I studied fashion design for two years. I still loved art, but I didn’t understand how I could make money doing it here in Korea. The typical Korean plan is to get an education and then a company job. For as long as I can remember I never acted according to some plan, so fashion it was. It was a form of art that generated a paycheck. But after I appeared on the show “Project Runway Korea,” I saw people who didn’t care about the art of fashion, but only about the fame. That’s when I turned my back on it.
What did you do after fashion?
I quit everything and worked at a restaurant because I thought if I started at the bottom, I could only go up. I had so much extra time I started to paint again. Painting was just a hobby at first, but after people continued to encourage me to sell my work, my mind changed. I hung up some work at a friend’s restaurant and I sold my first painting for $70. The money wasn’t a lot, but the work wasn’t that great either. I thought, I’m only 23 years old and I haven’t begun to scrape the surface.
What was the next important moment for you?
I went to an art show one night, met the gallery owner and told him about my art. After I showed him my work, he instantly asked me to hang it at his gallery. I did and I sold two pieces for $1,200. That’s when I realized I could make some good money doing this.
Have you had any recent events for your artwork?
I just recently had an art show in September at House Ming. It didn’t go well because of poor advertising. It didn’t feel good to have such a bad turnout, but I understand that art is a process of ups and downs.
What parts of your life do you think inspire your art the most?
I used to get most of my inspiration from my past and my dreams. It usually translated into some very dark work. I would normally express my feelings through my work, where I’d close my eyes and see my visions and put them on canvas. I used to paint myself in sadness a lot, but I’m in a great place now. I paint from the heart and not from my nightmares; I no longer feel the weight of my past. It’s as if I am finally free and in control of my life.
How do you classify your artistic style?
My style has no limit, but right now what separates my art from others is my use of black and white paint. I primarily paint naked women with black wavy hair because Korean society is so uncomfortable with nudity and sex — so I mean to put it in their faces. I model cubism after Picasso, Henri Matisse and Salvador Dali, but primarily I work at developing my own style.
Do you have any advice for people who may want to follow a similar path?
I see people stressed out at work, hustling here, there and everywhere. I used to be them, working 9 to 7 or longer every day — you lose all your creativity that way. I remember when I did that it was exhausting. After work I’d go home and never want to paint; I just wanted to sleep. Now that I’m a freelancer I can work, paint and exercise with all my free time.
It takes a willingness to struggle through the setbacks and stay motivated. But I believe there are many people out there who want to break free and do what they are passionate about. They just need to take the first step and surround themselves with the right people.