Toronto-based Hae Jung Lee creates intricately rendered drawings as a way to obsessively document and archive her fleeting inner thoughts. Beautifully drawn and a little bit eerie, her pieces have been striking a chord with a lot of people lately, including the folks at Booooooom! and Hi Fructose—a wonderful thing for a newly minted graduate. We recently had the opportunity to talk to her about her practice and the role of pleasure in her work:

Fameless Quarterly: When did you first begin making art? Have you always had this particular drawing style?

Hae Jung Lee: I can’t really say there was a moment when I started to make art. I’ve always felt the need to write down thoughts I’ve had ever since I can remember. At one point in time, I simultaneously was writing in two or three journals about my surroundings. They were full of notes. I think I was always sort of obsessed with trying to capture my fleeting thoughts and had a fear of losing them or letting them fade away into nothing. Somewhere along the way, I figured out a way to capture these thoughts and emotions visually. As for my drawing style—because my thoughts are always so unorganized, messy, and often complex—I’m always trying to give my drawings a lot of breathing space while capturing the chaos and complexity of different thoughts through intricate details and with the use of symbolism in my work.

FQ: Tell us about your creative process!

HJL: It’s much like when a person writes in their journal. I have a thought or a moment I feel the need to capture, and I start drawing it. I don’t like to sketch my ideas because I don't edit my journal entries.

FQ: You utilize so many small bits and pieces of ephemera in your drawings—are there specific meanings to the odds and ends you choose to incorporate into your portraits?

HJL: All the bits and pieces within my works have meaning to me. I think it is my way of conveying the complexity of the subject matter because my thoughts are never simple. It helps me capture all those messy, complex, and contradictory details in one piece.

FQ: You selectively utilize color in your newer work—can you talk a little bit about moving from primarily black and white drawings to your newer, more colorful pieces?

HJL: Color was my enemy for a long time. I lacked the proper materials, techniques, and the skills to apply color while not altering the aesthetic of the overall piece. I found that color was an extremely powerful and sensitive element in depicting mood and atmosphere in a piece of work and I’ve just recently reached a point where I see the possibility of color becoming my good friend, soon. It’s an ongoing battle.


FQ: Your work features the literal unraveling of young women--who is the subject of your work? Are they self-portraits? If so, do you plan on expanding the repertoire of people in your work?

HJL: All my works are self-portraits. It has never crossed my mind to work with a different individual’s portrait because I only have my own perspective in life to document. I feel that it’s almost imposing or even offensive to depict my thoughts with a different individual’s portrait because I am in no position to illustrate another person’s perspective in life. Everybody has thoughts and struggles of their own; they should have the right to depict them in their own creative ways.

FQ: There is something decadent and tactile in your work—I am thinking specifically of your piece Binge. What role does pleasure, in all of its many iterations, factor into your art-making?

HJL: I think pleasure has a lot to do with my drawings. Because I have the liberty to embed any possible narrative and feelings into my drawings, many works often have notions of basic human desires and pleasures that may be considered unacceptable in our society. I find it unfortunate sometimes that we often define ourselves only with these names and characteristics that are constantly judged, crushed, molded, and remolded by modern society. I find pleasure in relating my experiences back to myself as a human being with basic instincts, drives, and desires that are not filtered through social influences.

FQ: You recently mentioned that your work has taken a more narrative direction. Can you speak a little bit about this?

HJL: When I was just starting out with visual documentation, I was initially more focused on developing a visual aesthetic that harmonized with the subject matter I was trying to depict. Now that I am more content with the consistency in which my works are being produced, I am able to focus more intensely on adding more narratives and symbolic complexities, which I wasn’t able to focus on before.  

FQ: For fans of your work—do you plan on producing prints anytime soon?

HJL: I’ve had conflicting thoughts about making prints of my originals for a while now... it won't happen anytime soon, anyway.

FQ: What are you conflicted about?

HJL: At the moment, I feel that repetition just dilutes the potency of anything. Also, I am still growing and solidifying as an artist and I don't think I'm able to fully comprehend the benefits and possible consequences of taking that next step. Maybe I'm overthinking this as I always do, that's where I feel conflicted.

FQ: In past interviews you have stated that you have faced a degree of racism where you currently live as a result of having immigrated to Toronto from South Korea. How does this inform your work?

HJL: That particular past experience is, I would say, the very foundation of my artistic practice and the way I think today. The constant isolation throughout my childhood made me believe that I wasn’t like anybody else. It also eventually led me to develop an intense curiosity for individuality and what makes a person unique. I’m so grateful for that experience now that I look back on it because it made me such a strong individual and it helped me to find my passion in life.

(I was living in a small, very rural city, an hour away from Toronto and that’s where I experienced racism. Toronto was already a very ethnically diverse city when I moved to Canada and I’ve never personally experienced racism here.)

FQ: You graduated with a BFA from York University last year. What have you been up to since graduating?

HJL: I’ve been drawing a lot more, mostly. As much as I want to work closely in the fine art field, I am just working hard to rid myself of the massive student debt that I have over my shoulders for the moment.

FQ: We hear you! So many of us have graduated with these massive education debts, forcing us to work full-time to make ends meet while pursuing our real passions outside of work. What is your day job?

HJL: I am a barista at a local cafe. I've got a great routine going for me these days, actually. Nothing better than a double shot of espresso at the end of my night shift to get my drawing session started.

FQ: Who are some of your biggest influences, artistically?

HJL: I was very much influenced by Eva Hesse during my university studies. I found her philosophy in art-making to be admirable, given her circumstances at the time. I was also very mesmerized by her choice of materials. The fragile and impermanent qualities in her works are so attractive to me, even to this day.