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.

Back in Korea, Park's father exported handmade silk. She remembers when she was a little girl, watching the women in her father's small factory making silk fabric -- another repetitive, labor-intensive activity. Her father was often away on business.

As with many immigrants, the Park clan moved to the United States in stages. Her father came first, and then her mother, followed by her sisters. Park remained with her aunt, and, Park recalls, she spent a lot of time by herself. She doesn't think the words "isolation" or "loneliness" are accurate in conveying how she felt at that time, but she grew inward, more contemplative. Park says that for a long time she felt everyday things such as fashion and socializing and television were irrelevant. "Thought, mind, spirit were the only things that mattered," she says.

When Park talks, she often struggles to find the right words, then phrases bursts out, as from a stream-of-consciousness poet. "I really love life now," she says, with a smile that warms the day. "I love socializing. I like makeup and fixing my hair. At that time [when she was younger], I was ignoring the physical, the outer."

A detail from "Moving the Air/Stirring the Gap" at the Thomas Jefferson School
Mark Kempf
A detail from "Moving the Air/Stirring the Gap" at the Thomas Jefferson School
At Cranbrook, Park investigated what would become her basic elements -- light, air and space -- as in this installation, "Interstitial Spaces."
At Cranbrook, Park investigated what would become her basic elements -- light, air and space -- as in this installation, "Interstitial Spaces."

Park eventually enrolled in the Columbus College of Art and Design, in Ohio, for her undergraduate degree. She began as a painter, but became fascinated with sculpture after she received a commission to place art in a local park.

In Franklin Park in Columbus, she wrapped two dying trees with what appear in slides as green, healing poultices. She also placed an organic form adjacent to the trees, making the greenspace into something that looks to be on the verge of regeneration rather than removal. The trees later were cut down, which didn't trouble Park in the least. She purposely doesn't make art to last.

When she entered grad school at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, she says, "I wanted to make work that would fall apart. I wanted to go through the process of physical labor but then let nature take control. Nature does its thing.

"By the time I'm done with a piece, I'm very sentimental, in that I've spent all this time and all this labor making it. But I like that accumulation of building and letting it go. If it falls apart, if it flies away, if it bursts, it's out of my control. That's an important aspect to my work that I shoot for, to always end up with nothing physical to hold on to."

Acceptance to Cranbrook not only meant that Park had landed in one of the hottest art schools in the country, she was going to be mentored by an artist sympathetic to her anti-gallery, impermanent aesthetic, the sculptor Heather McGill.

McGill, who had made collaborative, environmental works in California that attracted Park, had gone in another artistic direction, however.

"I got there, and it was totally different," says Park. "[McGill] was, like, 'Yeah, I did public sculpture and I used to show at these alternative spaces and I did a lot of work that involves no support from the gallery whatsoever and it all came out of my own pocket. But who was I kidding?'

"She told me, 'You're so young right now. You think that it's being a sellout being involved with the gallery, but you'll learn. You'll learn.'"

Park's still learning.

After moving to St. Louis to be with Burnett, who studied at Wash. U., Park received in one year the kind of recognition that local artists struggle to achieve in five. First she was awarded the highly sought-after projects grant from the Forum for Contemporary Art, now Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Curator Shannon Fitzgerald was part of the panel that selected Park; she then worked with her in the development of the installation, "Transmissions."

Fitzgerald is one of the young lionesses of the St. Louis art scene. With Nicole Kidman-like red tresses and a fashionable wardrobe, she still looks girlish, but she has an understanding of the mores of the art world that goes beyond her years.

"Sunny raised the bar for other artists," says Fitzgerald, still in her cramped office at the Contemporary as the staff awaits the completion of the new building, next to the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. "I think other artists got a little jealous because she was talented.

"Her name rose to the top," Fitzgerald says, "and her proposal was very close to the final realization. I think it was the most ambitious thing she'd ever done."

The Contemporary galleries are on the first and third floors of the building, with the Regional Arts Commission situated on the second floor. Instead of moving into the gallery, Park activated the dead space of the stairwell with "Transmissions." A sewn column of clear plastic contained moving air, which sent small envelopes from the first to the third floor, unconsciously activated by the movement of a person or persons in proximity to the artwork.

"She worked with gravity, space, mathematics," Fitzgerald says. "Her engineering was brilliant. Her interests in problem-solving is as interesting as the content. This was called 'Transmissions,' which is very literal. One of the great things about Sunny is that she is literal, as well as whimsical, and quite serious."

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