Sunny, One So True

Artist Soo Sunny Park is stubborn about the kind of art she wants to make and how she makes it. That could be a problem.

She could easily be mistaken for a Prada model -- thin like a strong vine, her short-cropped black Korean hair glowing with blond highlights, a stud in her tongue. But at 27, Soo Sunny Park's a serious artist with big ideas. She's ambitious, and her ambition resides in the things she makes: grand-scale, labor-intensive, site-specific, wondrous.

Take her commission earlier this year to create an outdoor installation at Thomas Jefferson School. Park spent hours late at night in the basement studio she shares with her boyfriend, sculptor Brian Burnett. She came up with something that looked like a big metal cage filled with pingpong balls. She wanted them to move within the cage, motored by the whims of the wind. Park almost went to college to study math or physics rather than art, and she's inspired by design problems.

Burnett, a tall, good-looking artist himself, serves as her at-home sounding board. She showed him the drawings, and although he knows Park can pull just about anything off -- no matter the difficulties -- he knew this wasn't going to work unless, say, a Boeing crew was hired to lend technical assistance.

The sculpture studio at Washington University, where Park teaches, could be mistaken for an industrial zone.
Jennifer Silverberg
The sculpture studio at Washington University, where Park teaches, could be mistaken for an industrial zone.
Washington University freshman Jessica Garz with Park in sculpture studio. “I just show ’em techniques,” Park says.
Jennifer Silverberg
Washington University freshman Jessica Garz with Park in sculpture studio. “I just show ’em techniques,” Park says.

Park came to a more elegant solution for her site, a clearing surrounded by trees on the campus -- elegant, yes, but in no way simple. Park conceived of draping white netting over the trees. Then, within the open spaces of the netting, she would hang plastic squares. Thirty-thousand of them, she figured by her calculations.

Before long, 80 pounds of white netting arrived by UPS. Park studied the roll of net, then realized the white would shine too brightly in the trees. Too obvious, too much of an object. She wanted the piece to merge with the environment. She had to dye it black.

"First, though," Park laughs as she recalls her process, "I figured eight pounds of net instead of 80. I needed two bottles of Rit [dye] per pound, so first I bought sixteen. Then I realized it was 80 and went, 'Oh my God!'"

"She bought every bottle of black Rit in town," says Burnett as the two laugh about the extremes to which driven artists will go.

Where do you dye 80 pounds of netting? Park and Burnett searched their urban St. Louis neighborhood in the wee hours of the morning, appropriating garbage cans.

"It was terribly hard to handle," says Park, who is known to push herself to physical extremes. This was a cold January, and the two worked from 10 o'clock at night to three in the morning. Park reports that 80 pounds of netting tangles much too easily.

The dye job was successful, but what to do with the dye? Park and Burnett trudged down the street with full cans of dye, then began to pour the liquid into the storm drains.

Burnett, who likes to tease his girlfriend, warned her about an imaginary cop driving around the corner -- that is, until the cop was real and shining a light in their faces at 3 a.m.

"What are you doing?"

"We're artists!" Burnett exclaimed, which should serve as a sure excuse for just about anything.

Park, the more grounded and unflappable of the two, explained that they were artists working on an installation project, which included the use of dyes. All the dyes are organic, she told the police officer, so they're not doing anything wrong.

Burnett invited the officer to visit her studio, but he rolled up his window and moved on.

Park, as is her pattern, passed over another obstacle and got on with the work: How could they hang the netting so that it would dry?

Every artist must negotiate conflicting voices. These voices are especially unmanageable when an artist is young and starting out, perhaps just learning what it takes to make that leap into becoming a working artist.

A small choir demands that you get into the studio: Think, draw, design, compose, manufacture, produce. That's art calling.

The major chorus projects more mundane, yet significant, duties: family, relationships, job, money, teaching, preparing for class, paying bills, socializing with friends, cleaning the apartment.

Soo Sunny Park is young, talented and highly respected. In a very brief time and with only a few completed works, she has garnered attention from critics and curators in St. Louis, as well as those from hotter art centers. They're telling her -- and sometimes just in these words -- "Get in the studio. Make some work." So Park has something more than an angelic choir calling her to action.

Yet for every artist, especially one like Park, who is at the threshold of her career, those other voices -- the ones that define what it means to be a good person -- those voices are hard to ignore. What's more, those are pretty much the voices that rage for a stable society and determine whether you're a good citizen or not: good girl, good partner, good daughter; pays the bills, pulls her weight.

How to live. What to do. Park is right at that place where she must choose her path. Does she pursue teaching? She's teaching as a full-time adjunct at Washington University. She loves teaching, but does that love distract from studio time? A tenure-track job somewhere could bring even more distractions -- or fewer.

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