Sanghee Ahn’s whimsical paintings invite you to explore sweet landscapes.
Many artists dream of the day when they can walk away from a job and invest all their energy into their art, but the uncertainty can feel like standing on the high dive for the first time. Sanghee Ahn, a painter who hails from Seoul, Korea, knows that feeling well. The artist, who creates whimsical paintings of sweet—even sugary—landscapes, shared what inspires her work and the rewards of taking the courageous leap into a full-time career in art.
How has your geography influenced your art?
I was born in and am currently based in Seoul, but grew up in different places around the world—America, Europe, Southeast Asia, and Africa. I believe moving to completely different places across continents every few years must have profoundly influenced my visual archive of childhood and adolescence. From the sceneries of great nature—ranging from endless void desert to tropical rainforest teeming with life—to the different cultural zones of different cities, I was exposed to all the worlds that existed.
What are the inspirations for your designs?
I think my inspirations mainly come from everyday life and how it triggers memories built from experiences in different places around the world where I grew up. In a way, I think what has consistently interested me is how people seem to strive to build and mostly maintain their version of beauty and human value in their communities, and how nature, along with occasional inevitable flaws in human thinking, contest them. Ultimately, I think the inspirations that drive the development of my work come from the ongoing inquiry into what it means to be happy and progressing into an ideal, perfect community that includes everybody in it.
What materials do you work with?
I mainly work with acrylic paints on canvas, though I occasionally make three-dimensional works, such as small clay sculptures and installations taking up the whole space using fabric, foams, and fillings, paper, and various found objects. I also enjoy making digital works—from still life to gridded geometric abstractions. In terms of the contents, it can be anything: thousands of photos I take in my everyday encounters, anything I read or see, magazines, press images, ads, media contents, and so on.
What are the greatest challenges of your work?
There are many small and big challenges being a full-time artist—from traveling and handling shipment of works for exhibitions, especially abroad, to streamlining different development of works to meet curatorial consistency for a show, and so on, but at the moment the one challenge I am focused on is further developing the technical skills required to realize the image in my mind. Realizing the soft cloudiness, making the shadows and light sit in their right places all takes a volume of different trials. There is no denying that my studio progress suffered when I tried to paint while having a full-time job for years, which increasingly required longer working hours. It was only last year that I took a big leap of faith to become a full-time artist, so I have been working very hard to catch up since.
And the greatest rewards?
When I complete a painting or a work, there is an intense sense of serenity and wholeness that settles in my mind. It is a moment where all the things floating around in chaos and mess are put into something of a fundamental order, be it temporarily or not.
Also, there are moments I feel like I have connected to a complete stranger through my work. It’s hard to describe, but I think it’s like a feeling that somehow they also went through some of the thoughts and sentiments that occurred in my mind.
These are the greatest moments that I simply cannot explain with words. I think, in a way, it is a reward made possible by the perseverance to maintain the faith in something that is meaningful and beautiful in the human world.
Outside of making art, what are your everyday inspirations?
I enjoy going to a range of art events and exhibitions—from blockbuster exhibitions to lesser-known fairs and art and cultural venues. It’s always very interesting and stimulating to see how other creative professionals approach and realize their subject matter and vision, and how different organizers with their set of visions and beliefs present them.
What’s one truth you’ve learned as an artist?
I learned that in life you really have to do what you love and make it define who you are. I was very afraid when I quit my job to become a full-time artist. The thought of not having a steady source of income was quite frightening. But it has been a very fulfilling experience of finding myself and knowing the support and the love of people who believe in me.