I first started seeing Hein Koh’s work popping up in group shows around NYC in 2014. Once you get familiar with her style and sense of humor, they’re easy to spot. A knobby red and white sculpture that both hung on the wall and sat on the floor, from a massive show titled Shrink It, Pink It! In Brooklyn. A pair of hugging flowers with tears running down their petals at another in Ridgewood, Queens (Lorimoto Gallery) . Koh’s work is fun, dark and playful in all the right ways. I had the pleasure of sitting down with her during her solo show “Splendor In The Grass” at Marvin Gardens. We discuss the evolution of her work from painting to sculpture, and how Ivy League schools, a studio in the 5 Pointz building, web design and twin daughters have shaped the artist she has become.
How did you come to art-making as a career choice?
Well my parents have always been supportive and I started taking after-school art classes at age 9. I was always a good student and by the time I entered high school, I became much more academically focused and didn’t feel like I had time for art, so I quit taking formal classes. I didn’t make any art at all during high school - I thought I would become a doctor or perhaps an English teacher, because I loved reading and writing. I also developed an interest in languages, having taken Spanish, Latin and Japanese in high school, so by the time I entered college, I thought I would major in Spanish and become a Spanish teacher. However, I took art classes for fun, and by the end of my Sophomore year I decided I might as well major in it because I enjoyed it so much. I felt I needed to have a second, more academic major though, and that ended up being psychology, which is still a great interest of mine. By senior year, I decided I would take some time off after school and then apply to grad school for psychology and become a psychologist. I didn’t think being an artist would be a viable profession. However, after I graduated and stayed at Dartmouth for the summer, I found myself just wanting to paint all the time so I started thinking that maybe I should pursue art. By the end of the summer, I moved to NYC with my best friend who eventually became my husband, which really shook things up. I was stressed about trying to support myself and figure out what I wanted to do with my life, now that possibilities seemed wide open, so I questioned the idea of making art again. Also, I sang and played guitar for a riotgrrrl band at the time, Speedy Vulva, with my husband and one of my college best friends, and we took that seriously for a while. We played a number of shows in the city. As for work, I temped for a while because I didn’t want to commit myself to a job just yet. I ended up working in the fashion industry, but I was doing production work and found it pretty boring. Since it was 1998 and during the internet boom, I decided I needed to learn how do graphic and web design so I could eventually support myself by freelancing and still have time to make art. My husband worked at a software start-up company, just down the street from my job, and in the evenings after work his boss would generously let me use the computers there so I could teach myself computer programs. Eventually, his boss decided to hire me full-time as a web designer, and my husband and I also moved to Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and found an apartment that happened to have a extra tiny room that I could use as a studio. Initially, we ended up there because we wanted an apartment with a basement for band practice, and the extra room was just a bonus. I didn’t even end up using it as my studio until months later. However, with this newfound stability in my life, I was able to paint again, after taking a break for a year and a half after graduating from college. I realized I couldn’t live without making art, so I decided that I wanted to go to grad school, and after spending another year developing a body of work, I applied to grad school and got into Yale’s graduate program.
What was your work like after grad school, and how did you move from painting to sculpture?
My work at Yale was mostly big paintings. My thesis show was comprised of holiday scenes being destroyed by cats, which were humorous and dark but also charming. They were very sculptural, as I used every Golden medium to build up the surfaces. I even added real objects such as Christmas lights for the Christmas painting, which would plug in and light up. When I moved back to NYC I found a studio at the 5 Pointz building. The rent was super cheap there, so I had a lot of space and continued making big paintings, mostly of food and toys. I eventually lost my studio at 5 Pointz and had to move into a much smaller studio. Since I could no longer make big paintings, I decided to do a lot of drawings and small paintings, such as portraits of Muppets and other toy and childhood motifs. Eventually, because of the constraints of my new studio, I became very experimental with my process and abstract. Drawing freed me up a lot, and I started approaching my paintings differently, watering down acrylic paints and staining the canvas, as well as blowtorching it. During this time, I felt like sewing, and without worrying about the finished product, I ripped up pieces of canvas and sewed it back together. I just found the process to be meditative and relaxing at the time, and my interest in meditation at the time started entering into my work. Eventually I sewed together an eye out of canvas and painted it with acrylic, which was my first soft sewn wall sculpture. That was in 2011.
Can you walk us through your process of making sculpture? Where does the first idea come from and how does it end up as cheeseburger with and eye or a seven foot tall flower?
It starts with a crude sketch. I’m always inspired by my daily life. I find myself making things that my kids would love. So when I’m with my girls we’ll play around and make things out of Play Dough, I’ll make a little pizza or ice cream cone. It’s so satisfying to have them recognize and interact with the things I make. They’re very entertained by it. Afterwards, when I’m drawing in my sketchbook, sometimes these things will show up and I think about how I want to make a sculpture of a pizza. Most recently my girls and I were drawing with sidewalk chalk outside and I drew a little snake and thought oh snakes are fun to draw, they have this cool line that can be really fun to work with and there’s so much possibility. Now I want to make sculptures of snakes.
As I make multiple sketches, I figure out size and shape, and then what materials and colors I want to use. Once I figure this out, I’ll start drawing a bigger version on muslin to make a pattern, cut out two identical pieces, pin them together, and stuff them with polyfill to get a sense of the final form. It usually goes through several iterations before I decide it’s finished and cut it out of the final material. For this show, I also starting working with copper pipe and concrete to build the armatures. I think I may need to learn how to weld to make the things I want to make, although I’d rather not because it’s going to be a pain. However, the visions of my sculptures motivate me, so I end up learning new skills and challenging myself because I really want to fulfill my visions.
What role does your own artistic community play in your life?
In recent years I’ve met a lot of great artists, particularly women artists. We’re very supportive of each other, like the “Lady Painters” group you started, and I’ve gone to some of the “Women Sculptors” meetings, which are great. So it’s really awesome to see so many strong women artists finally emerging. I’ve been working at it this a long time, since graduating from Yale in 2004, but it feels like I’m just emerging now, having reached a new level of exposure. At the time I graduated from Yale the market was booming and the culture was so youth obsessed. There was this pressure to become successful immediately for fear it wouldn’t even be a possibility as I got older, especially in a society where women become less visible as they get older. So it’s reassuring to feel like I’ve gained visibility and success after 40 and after kids.
I think the landscape is really changing and I’m learning how important it is to be connected to a community. After Yale, I stayed connected to my grad school friends but since I had them and also a lot of friends who are not artists, I didn’t really expand my art community until in recent years, after I had kids really. After having kids, and also because Instagram makes it easy to connect with other artists, I just felt more of an urgency to connect with other artists because I didn’t want to get completely swallowed up in motherhood and disconnect from the art community. So I made extra effort, more than I did before I had kids, and it’s paid off as far as support, opportunities as well as just the joy of camaraderie.
How does sexuality come in to your work?
Currently, I think it’s more present in the photographs but it does make its way into my sculptures as well. It’s a powerful tool - it can be fun, dangerous, degrading, fraught, so many things - that make it complicated. I think it can be difficult for women to navigate their sexuality in our society, because of how we are objectified, reduced or branded, so it’s something I am interested in exploring in my work. In doing the photos I was asking myself a lot of questions, like, Can a woman be overtly sexual and still be respected? Can a woman objectify herself and use that for her own empowerment? What happens if the female nude, traditionally passive, is also the creator and has a voice in the artwork? I can’t say I have all the answers yet, but my photo series is helping me to explore these questions and slowly figure it out. However, the goal isn’t necessarily to have things figured out completely, rather just contemplate them and gain a better understanding of these things.
What has being an artist taught you?
I love being an artist because it’s taught me that life can always be fun. No matter how old I get or how my lifestyle changes - I’m over 40 and married with kids now - life can still be fun and interesting. I feel lucky to have access to so many creative and talented people and events. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Koh’s dedication to being the best person, mom and artist she can be is truly inspiring. She has a strong sense of discipline that is only rivaled by her ambition. It’s really fun, if not wacky, to see the world through her sculptures and I look forward to seeing what comes out of her studio next.
For additional information on Hein, please check out her website.