Story by: Rajnesh Sharma, Daniel Vorderstrasse, Photos by:
For an artist, sometimes the creative process is inspired by curiosity, wonderment, awe of their subjects or surroundings. Other times it is fueled by reactions to love, life, pleasure, pain, culture or society.
This month, Groove Korea examines the journeys of two expat visual artists with very different approaches: one an optimist who finds inspiration in observing and embracing the world around him, the other a critic of society who practices no restraint in confronting the issues relevant to himself and his peers.
Wherever the artists find their muse, two characteristics propel both of their creative quests — questioning and perseverance.
The Journey of an artist
Filled with years of dedication, self-discovery and rejection, the quest of becoming an artist is challenging enough as it is. Throw in a venture into a new world, where communication is difficult and opportunities are hidden. How is it possible to overcome such obstacles? For expat Wilfred Lee, the artistic journey is a story characterized by questioning, perseverance, humility, optimism and a bit of artistic magic. Lee, like most anyone, first began exploring the world through the curious eyes of a child. Inspired by the wonderment of his surroundings, he picked up a pencil and began to draw. He would spend hours happily exploring his artistic abilities, unaware at the time that these creations were to shape his destiny. His interest in creating drawings simply provided him with an outlet for internal expression.
This is where his journey as an artist began. By immersing himself in comics, games, animations and movies, he started to develop his own ideas and wanted them to come to life. “I wanted to be part of that magical process of creating life from an idea,” he said.
His passion for this process led the Canada native to study animation arts at Seneca College at York University, where teachers inspired him with the life stories of master artists of yore such as da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso and Dali. It was there that he also got to indulge his interest in the pre-production process for creating art and understand “the collaboration of people to create a project bigger than yourself.”
Shortly after completing his formal studies, a yearning to learn more about his father’s culture led the young artist to Korea. Like many expats here, Lee’s early years in Korea were spent in a classroom. It didn’t take long, however, for Lee to hatch a plan to transition into the art world.
Soon, during his spare time, Lee was drawing caricatures at Lotte World, Namsan Tower and in Insadong. Further, creating caricatures as fine art opened up a door into the tight-knit community of local artists, he said. By his second year in Korea, an opportunity surfaced at his workplace. As a kindergarten teacher, he had exposed his incredible talent for drawing. His director, who recognized Lee’s skills, proposed a project to create illustrations for English textbooks. Lee seized the opportunity and spent the next year completing the artistic work for those textbooks as well as teaching art classes.
Amid these opportunities, Lee felt he still had more to improve upon as an artist. Another turning point in his journey as a burgeoning artist came when he discovered the International Artist Community (IAC). The community consists of talented artists, Koreans and foreigners, who live in Korea and share their creative ideas and styles. “Art is a very personal thing,” he said. “It’s very common to be by yourself and it is a very isolating process, but to go out and meet people, do life-drawings together, do caricature with people … you see their styles. It doesn’t matter where they vary but you get influences.”
Feeling motivated, Lee signed up for life-drawing classes. Every Saturday he would head to Myeong-dong in central Seoul to gain inspiration from other artists. He experimented with different tools and materials and learned new drawing styles. Eventually, having exhibited extraordinary artistic talent yet again, he was offered a chance to teach art classes. Accepting the opportunity, he began to teach caricature, figure drawing, life drawing, concept design and animal design.
Lee also teaches the importance of observation to his art students. “To be an artist is to observe life,” he states confidently. It is this observation, he insists, that elevates him to a whole new sense of awareness of his surroundings and people. “I just believe art is such a mental activity: like 98 percent mental, 1 percent the hand, the other 1 percent is people. You don’t need a lot to draw; you just need to see things. And then when you do that, you appreciate everything around you so much more. You look at people differently and it’s like a 4th or 5th dimension.”
After a year of teaching art classes, Lee still longed to fulfill his original desire of becoming a concept designer. His persistence finally paid off when he landed a job with the Nexen Mobile gaming company — becoming the first-ever foreigner in Korea to be hired as a concept designer in a company of 500 or more employees.
One year later, Lee moved on to Centum Interactive and currently continues to work as a concept designer for its new company Wisekids. “(This) is just the beginning in fulfilling a lifelong goal,” he said. “I am constantly learning something new about the field, both aesthetically and technologically … It humbles you into realizing there’s always a higher level of knowledge to achieve.” In his free time, he creates art exhibitions, attends events to do caricatures, makes art tutorials and teaches art classes.
In the near future he plans to hold more seminars and workshops, and complete and share his personal stories, which he has been working on for the past 12 years. Lee claims it is the opportunities he’s had in Korea that have continued to lead him on his journey — and the longer he stays in Korea, the more doors continue to open for him. “It’s a golden age for foreigners” who have the desire to become a part of the art community, Lee said.