Visualize Magazine: Off the Wall "Open Studio: Interview with Mirang Wonne"
by James Nestor, October issue, 2000
Open Studio: Interview with Mirang Wonne
Past rows of industrial warehouses, used car lots and abandoned buildings, a pot-holed road snakes along the bay until the San Francisco skyline fades away in a matrix of freeway ramps and thick fog. Dirt lots and boarded-up building fronts give way to rows of huge white buildings, each weathered from decades of winds coming in from the bay a few blocks away. But once inside the Hunters Point Artist Studios complex — located in an abandoned naval shipyard — the scene comes to life with classical music, the dull thud of a hammer and other sounds of artists at work. Along the long, anonymous hallways, a colorful sign decorates a worn wooden door: Welcome to Mirang Wonne's studio.
The door swings open to reveal a scene full of color, life — and rocks, everywhere rocks: paintings of rocks, drawings of rocks, metal rock sculptures, on the walls, on the ground and hanging from the ceiling. "I really like rocks. To me each is a perfect form, a sign of nature and purity," Mirang says pausing before a canvas, then taking a seat on an old metal chair and in front of her work bench. "| have been fascinated with rocks since I was a child; each one has such character, such special meaning."
"When all the others kids were doing origami, I found a crayon and started drawing."
Mirang grew up in Seoul, South Korea. And from the time she was 6 years old she knew she was an artist: "I never thought of anything else. When all the others kids were doing origami, I found a crayon and started drawing. I was fascinated." This hobby soon became a passion and she began developing her skills in unusual — and very messy — ways: "I began drawing all over the house. I remember we sold my childhood house to one of my father's friends, they went up stairs to the attic and saw the walls covered with my drawings. It's a good thing they had a good sense of humor!" she says laughing. "I think I owe a lot of my career to my parents."
"I think living in many different places...makes your art more interesting."
After earning both a B.A. and M.F.A. in painting from the Seoul National University in Korea, Mirang left to study in Paris on a scholarship from the French Government Grant for Arts. "France was amazing. I met so many artists and learned so much." A dedicated student, she eventually earned a Ph.D. in Aesthetics from the University of Paris I before moving to New York City to begin a career as an art director. "New York was fun too. I think living in many different places and having many different experiences gives you a wider perspective on the world, and hopefully makes your art more interesting." Mirang married and eventually moved to the Bay Area where she has been for almost two decades and is raising two of her own children. I ask her what her response would be if one of her children happened to draw in crayons all over her house. "I would be thrilled!" she says enthusiastically, then pauses a moment. 'There seems to be so little time to do anything in America, so little time to observe and study nature and to create art. If that's what it took to get them more interested in art, I would love it."
"The rocks — and the other subjects in my work — come from my mind, not from pictures or places."
As Mirang talks, shafts of late afternoon sunlight stream in behind her, reflecting off the sheets of copper hanging on the walls and filling the entire room with streaks of red light. She closes a set of blinds, blocking the view of huge rock jetties, quarries and mountains of raw material from the processing plants surrounding the studio. "Contrary to what many people think, working out here in this industrial area, I am not influenced by my surroundings. The rocks — and the other subjects in my work — come from my mind, not from pictures or places." And rocks aren't the only things that inspire her; music is an equally powerful influence for her art. "It's visual for me, I listen to classical music and I can see all the lines, the shades, the space and color. I did a whole series of works like that, representations of what I saw when listening to chamber music."
From the numerous paintings covering the walls of her studio to the series of metal sculptures stacked up in practically every foot of the floor, it is apparent that Mirang's talents are diverse. She has won numerous awards throughout her career, including Best New Artist by the Ministry of Culture, Korea. And for the past several years, her artistic talent has become increasingly recognized in the U.S. In the past two months she has been selected by the curator to exhibit a sculpture for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and has just held a solo exhibition at the Pacific Heritage Museum, San Francisco.
"It's such a privilege for me to be an artist."
Of her success as an artist over the last 30 years, Mirang comments in a quiet voice, "I have had a lot of training, many years of schooling and spent my whole life around art. It's such a privilege for me to be an artist." She unrolls a huge abstract painting across the floor and stands back, pausing for a moment. "My husband, he's a businessman, he doesn't understand my work; he wants me to just draw landscapes or something. I say if you want to capture a beautiful scene, take a picture!" Mirang pulls up her sleeves, looking down at her unfinished canvas as though she had just found new inspiration: "I really want people to feel something - whether its good, bad or even confused. If I evoke any feeling I think my work is a success. My work might be more popular, and my husband might be happier, if I did it another way, but I just wouldn't be content. I need to follow my heart." She lifts her head and smiles, "You only live once after all."
- Interviewed by James Nestor