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.

Park doesn't make work that is commercially viable. Does she spend time making work that is, and how does that cut into the time she needs for the work that matters to her the most? Or could she find a way to make the marketable work feed the installation work -- one pays for the other, the way William Wegman earns a fortune from those Weimaraner photos, then makes weird stuff that goes into alternative spaces? Does she stay in St. Louis, or would moving to one of those more vital art centers prove advantageous -- or disastrous? She could be spending more time paying for the apartment and studio than making art. Shouldn't she be making money to help her parents, who don't really get the art she makes anyway?

Every young artist is confronted with these dilemmas, but unlike most of her peers, Park isn't complaining about a lack of recognition. She's not getting surly in her garret, whining about how she's never going to make it into Elliot Smith's gallery.

Park has an extra burden: Her potential has been recognized.

Park with her boyfriend and fellow sculptor, Brian Burnett
Jennifer Silverberg
Park with her boyfriend and fellow sculptor, Brian Burnett
Park's rendering of "Transmissions," her installation at the Forum for Contemporary Arts
Park's rendering of "Transmissions," her installation at the Forum for Contemporary Arts

On a brilliant spring day in April, sculpture sprouted around the Thomas Jefferson campus in Sunset Hills. Opening festivities are planned for the weekend to celebrate TJ's inaugural artists' exhibition. The works are in place: Phil Robinson's cement imprints on the ground, Arnie Nadler's bright-yellow metal forms. Andrew McGuffie's "A Chair for Copernicus," an I-beam with a chair on one end and a large metal plate on the other, has already been spun around a few times by TJ students.

Burnett puts the finishing touches on the great excavation he's dug into the school grounds. He's collected the refuse of the school over the last few weeks and inserted it into the site, making his artwork an artificial archaeological dig.

Once rainwater has been pumped out of his site, Burnett is set for the weekend. Burnett talks excitedly about the installation, about the experience of doing such large-scale work in such a picturesque setting.

Park talks to her boyfriend for a few minutes, then trudges across the yard with a box of small plastic squares -- some clear, some white, some reflective silver.

Park's demeanor is true to her name. She really is sunny, and even with an epic effort before her -- as usual, Park is working right up to the last minute -- she stops and chats and laughs about the 10,000 plastic squares she has yet to affix to the netting, which she's installed in the grove of trees around a clearing.

The work in progress, "Moving the Air/Stirring the Gap," even in its unfinished state, reflects Park's ambitious nature. Although the other artists in the outdoor exhibition -- the guys -- have set works that stand out from the landscape (except for Robinson, whose works lie on the ground), Park's sculpture is more ephemeral. Park uses as material not only netting and those plastic squares but the natural elements of light and air. "Moving the Air/Stirring the Gap" gains solidity, even turns drab in gray light. But on this spring day, far way from those dark nights in January, the work shimmers and shines in the afternoon sun and trembles with an idle breeze.

Yet it's got a long way to go before the next day's opening. Lots of the netting is in need of the little plastic squares to activate the piece as a whole. Park sets to hooking them on, one by one.

But even in that act, so labor-intensive, with hours to go, Park keeps her aesthetic judgment at the forefront. She places a few squares, then stands back and considers how they look, wonders whether the mixture of clear, white, and silver be rearranged. Where to put more? Where to leave gaps? To her, she's involved in a process more akin to painting than sculpture at this point. "It was like a painting," Park says. "They were all hung by hand, but not randomly. I made formal decisions in placing the squares, limiting myself to the palette."

The work gets done. Those who've commissioned her work in St. Louis say Park always comes through. And the finished product is always amazing.

And Park, in retrospect, always wishes the work had a little bit more. "I wish I could control the space so it was only viewed at a certain time of the day," Park says in her heavy Korean accent. "I really enjoy this piece a lot more at night than in the day. It had this glow that I liked."

Many visual artists don't trust language -- that's one reason they're visual artists. Park thinks in terms of concepts, shapes, forms, materials and mathematics, but her native tongue, Korean, can get in the way of explaining the big ideas in her head. Born near Seoul, she didn't join her family in Florida until she was nine years old. "If our brain capacity, or our knowledge, is this long ribbon, in terms of language, Korean is like this much," she says, setting her hands in front of her to delineate an imaginary space. "Then I have the other 60 percent that I can understand in English."

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