From above, the city of Busan, South Korea looks modern and pristine. Perched on the edge of the ocean, bushy green trees bloom on the mountains, making way for houses with brightly tiled roofs, which yield to a curved and sandy shoreline punctuated by glittering skyscrapers. Busan, poised between two oceans, is the city where Richmond-based glass artist Jubee Lee was born and spent the first 20 years of her life.
“‘Ocean’ and by extension ‘water’ has been the most powerful earth element to affect my state of mind, becoming the most potent muse for my art,” Lee recently recounted over an email exchange. During her childhood, Lee and her family took trips to different regions and provinces of South Korea, forever coloring her memory with impressions of those natural landscapes. “There was a big Korean Buddhist Temple in my town,” she told me, “Looking at those groupings of roofs from the mountain, I felt the ‘resonance’ of waves. When contemplating the rooftops, I could let my imagination run free.” This intuitive sense of the form and color of the natural world, combined with her inclination toward storytelling, has continued to influence the development of her artwork.
Lee studied art throughout her childhood in South Korea. “I’ve never stopped making art since I was a kid, so naturally I became an artist,” she explained simply. In 2009, she decided to come to the United States to learn English and study art. While earning her BFA at Southern Illinois University, Lee, who had up until that point focused her practice on making two-dimensional artwork, challenged herself to work in a new medium: glass. The material had fascinated her since observing glassworkers in Murano, Italy during a trip with her family as a teenager. “I had never seen people working with glass in person before and was just fascinated by that movement and atmosphere at first sight,” she said. “Since then I had dreamed of learning glass and finally had a chance to take a glass class at university in the U.S.”
As an MFA student in the Craft and Material Studies department at VCU—she graduated from the program in 2018—Lee continued to develop and refine her glasswork practice, creating large-scale, immersive installations which also incorporated light and sound. “I use glass primarily, not only formally, but also conceptually,” she said. “I think that because glass has such an inherent immaterial materiality, it is often seen as cold and clinical. One might be put off by its properties. I have found quite the opposite to be true.” Lee enjoys manipulating her primary material to evoke a contemplative, serene mood during the viewer’s encounter with the work, akin to entering a reverie or stepping into a memory. “For me, glass can embody the warmest, softest, and friendliest material to engage with,” she said. “By focusing so completely and entirely on the fabrication process, I have grown to cherish the dialogue I continue to have with glass.”
Pushing her installation work one step further, Lee is reinventing her MFA thesis work, After the big wind stops I see gentle waves, as an outdoor immersive sculpture for 1708 Gallery’s annual InLight Richmond exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts this year. “The work is composed in 136 black and white kiln-formed glass panels with seven individual frames,” she illustrated, going on to explain that the layers of glass create a grid-like template with moving water placed in the middle frame of the piece. “The water acts as an extension of image as a whole,” she said. “Its movement creates a meditative effect.” That aspect of introspection is both important to the experience of viewing the work, as well as Lee’s process of creating it.
Lee hopes that the sculpture will provide a respite, a moment of gentle contemplation, within the swirl of people sure to flock to the installations at InLight this year. “I hope with this artwork, people have a very sensual experience, by being given the opportunity to slow down a bit in the show,” she said. “This work springs from an impressionistic moment that I experienced, but asks questions as to how other people might take this moment and expand upon it.” While the atmosphere surrounding the piece will be influenced by its reimagined outdoor location, Lee hopes that each person who encounters the work will draw from their own reserve of memories and experiences as they interact with the piece. “I believe that this work will create different moods every time when it’s installed in all different venues,” Lee explained.
For Lee, creating artwork is as natural as breathing. “When I do something creative, I feel alive,” she declared. “While working on my artwork, I’m able to go back to the time when I feel the happiest, safest, and most comfortable, offering feelings of time travel or instant relocation recalling my old days.” Through her own meditative artistic practice, Lee invites her viewers along that path of memory, allowing them to make their own connections and experience their specific joys and sorrows throughout the journey.
Jubee Lee’s installation will be on display at the VMFA for InLight Richmond. The event will be held from 7 PM to midnight on November 16 and 17, more details at 1708gallery.org/inlight. See more of Lee’s work at jubeeleeglass.com.
Photography by Madison Earls