Heather Kim: "Self-portraiture allows you to have a private conversation with the viewer in your absence."

By Jes Reyes

From being a painter to a pastry chef to a tattoo artist to herself, art is in everything that Heather Kim does. In this interview Heather speaks to her art-filled life, her experience co-curating with Altered Esthetics, and offers us insight into her artistic process. 

 Heather Kim, Artist and Ae Guest Curator

Altered Esthetics has been collaborating with artist Heather to curate I AM, our upcoming self-portraiture exhibition organized as part of the Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Take Over, which opens March 4, 2016. We knew right away that we wanted Heather to co-curate, because we have continually been impressed by her authentic artisitc voice and skill in portraiture.  Also, we knew she would take her work on this show seriously as art is her life.

Jes: Heather, we here at Altered Esthetics are so excited to have you co-curate our upcoming exhibition featuring self-portraits! This isn’t the first time that you have worked with Ae before. You are a past Ae solo exhibition artist and participated in last year’s Ae Art Club program. Can you tell me about this experience and what you gained from it?

Heather: I am seriously thrilled to be a guest curator for AE’s upcoming self-portrait show! When I heard AE was going to be a part of the Guerilla Girls’ Twin City Takeover I was excited to participate, be it artwork, volunteer--but I was happily surprised when AE tapped me to co-curate.  The process has been intimidating, absurdly overwhelming/underwhelming, and so much glorious fun. 

A year before I was accepted into AE’s solo exhibition program, I was diagnosed and registered as a smell-taste-sight synesthete.  Synesthesia is the involuntary blending of the sensory pathways.  Both my solo exhibition show and my art club show I was able to express what synesthesia is, how I experience life and make art because of it.  I have never been able to form my wildly interconnected discordance into art and I am so grateful that Ae has granted me the vehicle in which to do so.

How did you start making art? Why do you make art?

I grew up in a Korean-American immigrant family.  There’s no room for art.  I started making art because I couldn’t stop, even if I tried to consciously stop doing so, art still would come out in weird and wonderful alternative ways--a full set of beautifully artistic but physiologically incorrect dentures, incredibly intricate but low brow gas station inspired pastry.  I make art because I know no other function, like how others default to logic or religion, I default to making.

I am really interested in the layered symbolism in your paintings. Often when I look at your work 1940s surrealism comes to my mind. So it wasn't surprising for me when I read that automatism is a method in your technique. Can you discuss this a bit more and when maybe you realized that this was an important part of your process as an artist?

Good god, if you over think it, just like pastry, it will burn, flop, be disastrous and not in the good way.  You put one good thing down, one good honest intentional thing and let the rest flow--Heraclitus and Nietzsche are my proverbial angel/devil figures over my shoulder dictating what comes next.

Since you work in this process how do you know when your work is finished?

Hah! Often I have made jokes why can’t paintings be more like cake--the minute they’re done, you know.  If I think a work might be done, I stop and re-visit the work the next day.  You can always add more but it’s quite challenging to take out.

Is there an artwork of yours you are most proud of? Why?  

I am most proud of a piece I cannot finish in my studio right now.  It is a conversation with my Aunt Greta, in food, oil on canvas, a last supper of sorts.  Since Koreans write their ribbons upside down so their ancestors can read them from up above without craning their celestial necks, I have chosen to make this painting from an aerial view in the same humor. 

Last June, my Aunt Greta suddenly passed away.  She, and she alone, brought to America her 9 brothers and sisters, their 36 children, and both her parents.  She is my favorite aunt, one of my favorite people, and the very reason why I am a painter, a chef, a tattoo artist even.  When I went to go get a queen ant tattooed to commemorate her, I was unable to the day of her death. I went straight away and ordered an online scratcher kit, convinced that my skills as a classically trained portrait painter would translate into needle and skin. I was so wrong.  A year later on her the anniversary of her death, I tattooed that ant, as a fully licensed tattoo artist.  Funny how things turn out, like they were always meant to be.  And now they are. 

The artist as curator is a particular phenomena growing in contemporary art today. It’s definitely something that I think a lot about when I am curating, as I am an artist myself too. When I am curating it is difficult for me to leave the artist cap off when I am organizing a show. I like to consider exhibitions as critical mediums and an extension of my work as artist. As you approach co-curating Ae’s self-portraiture exhibition, what guides you as an artist as curator?

It’s definitely an intuition-based guidance.  When I’m eating new foods, I always think to myself of the basics--is it cooked correctly? Is it well seasoned? Is the salinity at 5%? Is the sugar at the ever-elusive perfect 3%?  When I look at artwork, it’s similar--does it best fit the show’s statement? Does it fit AE, the Guerrilla Girls? And if not where? Because all this making, all this art is not in vain. I cannot emphasize that enough. We had so many submissions, and all of this making, all of this art is equal in magnitude.  It’s just about finding the right match--the right audience, the right mission statement, the right venue.  It is such a responsibility to make sure we are enabling our community of artists and not discouraging them.

Art speaks, doesn’t it? Self-portraiture is one of my favorite genres in contemporary art. Whether a self-portrait is represented within a painting, photograph or video art, the work can evoke intimacy in ways similar to a literary poem. I often feel like I am listening to a self-portrait when I am looking at one. What is the self-portrait to you? What strikes you most about self-portraiture?

I have always been fascinated with self-portraits.  I had the opportunity to study under Harry Ahn, an amazingly gifted portrait painter, who ingrained in me that the best artists throughout their career produce self-portrait pieces to speak the truth of the moment.  Self-portraiture allows you to have a private conversation with the viewer in your absence.  Intentional fallacy theory allows the viewer to have their own conversation with the piece without theory or influence, just art, and I think that’s fantastic. 

Thank you for the interview, Heather, and co-curating our upcoming exhibition. What are your plans for future projects?

I would love nothing more than to have a show about constructs of identity and tattoo, which I feel is so relevant and now, especially here in our Twin Cities community.  Painting, cooking, tattooing--I want to share my discordant banging clamour/lovely white light, to make meaning, to make.  My mantra is art is everything, everything I do is art.  If it’s not, I’m not doing it right.

Heather Kim is a painter living and working in Minneapolis.  She is also the pastry chef of Hola Arepa and a tattoo artist at Twin City Tattoo. All images courtesy of the artist. Heather is currently exhibiting in Altered Esthetics 2016 Preview Show at The Southern Theater. 


More on Heather Kim:


Check out the accepted artists for I AM:  


More on the Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Take Over:


Come to the opening reception for I AM:


Ae's 2016 Preview Show: