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.

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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.

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.

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.

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."

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."

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."

Again, Park, with Burnett and artist Sarah Stratton assisting her, didn't complete the work until the night before the opening. "She always pulls it off," Fitzgerald says assuredly.

In addition to incorporating Park's basic elements -- light, air, surprise -- Fitzgerald says "Transmissions" held a subtext as well: Park's memory of the architecture of Korea, the floors and stairs and people moving up and down.

Park says of her basic materials, "I've been using air because I've been thinking about the idea of something tangible and intangible. You know, it's there but it's invisible. The thing that I like about using air as a medium is the buoyancy and impermanence."

Terry Suhre, director of Gallery 210 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, first saw Park's work at the Contemporary. "It was an enchanting piece, very smart, I thought," he says.

Sitting in his empty gallery, taking time out to pack up the last show, Suhre has more gray in his beard than when he came to St. Louis a few years ago. Like Fitzgerald, Suhre knows the cruelties and the kindnesses of the art world, yet with all this knowledge, he maintains a healthy lack of cynicism.

"I was really taken with Sunny," Suhre says. "She's so friendly. She's so open. At least as far as I could tell, there's sincere honesty and openness. I don't think she's anybody who's conniving or somebody who would use you to get somewhere else."

Suhre gets the sense that even if Park wanted to play a curator for favor, she wouldn't know how. "There's a naïveté that comes through in the work. There's a spontaneity there that keeps us guessing: Can she pull this off? Can she get this done?

"Even with the piece she did at the Forum, it was clearly in the vein of an Eva Hesse, or even [local artist] Sue Eisler: found materials, industrial materials, grand idea and then a very elegant understatement of it. She doesn't overembellish her work -- the right amount of material, the right amount of space, very carefully done."

"Transmissions" appeared at the Forum in the spring of 2001. That summer, Suhre curated a group show at the Park Avenue Gallery on Lafayette Square called Exposure. He included Park, who made "To Give Air to One's Theory" for the show.

A great translucent cloud, or pair of lungs, or geometric spheres -- however the work was perceived -- it took up a wall of the gallery and slowly, even grotesquely, filled with air and deflated, filled with air and deflated.

"I wanted holes where the air could seep out," Park says. "When inflated, it was happy, attractive, but, deflated, it's not attractive."

As memorable as the work is, Park has her reservations: "It was a little too sparkly, too Barbielike. It had a lot of pink."

Suhre remembers fondly the last-minute completion of the work -- at least, more than a year later he looks back with fondness.

"It was another grand idea," Suhre says. "It was one of those things that just got done on time. These are things that drive curators absolutely insane, but it's the stuff legends grow from.

"I was there at 11 o'clock, the night before the show was supposed to open the next day at 10 or 11 [a.m.]. She and Brian and another young artist were sewing this thing together still. Brian had engineered the pumps to make it work. It was 11 o'clock, and everybody else was done. I looked at Sunny, and she gives me that beautiful smile and says, 'Don't worry. It'll be fine. It will all be done.' I look at her. I don't know. I shook my head. I went home and went to bed.

"I come driving in at 11. I walk into the gallery. There it is, this enormous form, breathing. Two little boys were going, 'Oh man, that's so cool. Watch it do this.'

"It was almost like Christmas. You're looking at this. You see this work and you know she worked all night on it. She got it done. You look at it. There are no corners cut. It's doing what she said it would do. It's a certain type of genius that can make those things happen.

"One thing that infuses the work is that spontaneity, although it's very labor-intensive. These things still have a sense that they just kind of happen. That's exciting. It's refreshing. And it's very unexpected -- the forms and ideas seem to be gathered in the wind sometimes. I don't know where she comes up with these things."

There is no easy place to be an artist. Go to the cosmopolitan centers where art and ideas thrive -- or at least where they supposedly do: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, London, Berlin -- and, chances are, you'll spend more time working to pay your rent than devoting it to making art in the studio. That is, if you can afford a studio.

You can spend your youth trying to get in, trying to get recognition, trying to be seen and acknowledged.

And even if you get that acknowledgment -- shows, press, sales, a modicum of fame -- before you know it, you're yesterday's news.

Whatever became of so-and-so?

He or she got middle-aged, old hat. To survive as an artist in those places, you always have to be the next new thing.

No one -- at least no one in his or her right mind who's examined the evidence -- would argue that St. Louis has a thriving art scene. St. Louis has fine institutions: the St. Louis Art Museum, the Pulitzer, the Contemporary, Laumeier Sculpture Park -- but it doesn't have a scene that artists outside the region are clamoring to be a part of.

In St. Louis, a young artist with ambition, more often than not, is thinking about those other places and what it would be like to become a part of them and be discovered.

But St. Louis offers opportunities to a young artist as well. St. Louis may not be a cauldron of ideas, but it's cheap to live here.

To dwell in St. Louis is to dwell in possibility -- the field's wide open; and if you have the DIY spirit, you can make things happen.

"St. Louis has a lot to offer a young artist," says Suhre, "low overhead, an enthusiastic community, different organizations. You can stretch and do things and receive an enormous amount of forgiveness if things don't go well."

You can mess up in St. Louis and not watch your career go down the storm drain like black dye at 3 a.m.

The downside of that freedom is that there really isn't a lot at stake here, which can diminish ambition. The gatekeepers to the broader art world don't reside in the Gateway City.

And the gatekeepers to the St. Louis art world, observes Suhre, aren't who you think they are. Suhre, who's packing up a show he curated himself, certainly isn't one of them. "People think the gatekeepers are the curators or the directors," he says. "Very often you will find those people are at the beck and call of higher powers: board members, fiscal officers. The needs of the institution come ahead of what those people may want to do."

Suhre recalls a curatorial position he once held at an Illinois museum. Because the fate of the small institution could not be put at risk with controversial material, he says, "We did quilt shows instead."

An artist can survive -- and thrive -- in St. Louis, Suhre believes, who is both an artist and a curator.

Park can make a life and career right here. But it won't be easy.

"She has to do what we all have to do in our careers," Suhre says. "She has to make a lot of stuff. She has to be willing to hustle it: Enter shows, enter a lot of shows. Hustle the one-, two- and three-person shows. Sometimes that means doing it yourself. Get colleagues and friends and say, 'Let's go down to Memphis or let's go up to Chicago or over to Indianapolis and put a show together. I know somebody in Cleveland. Let's see if we can find a space.' People who are going to do that these days can really carve out a niche for themselves and start to build a regional and national portfolio."

Suhre says the most crucial element to any artist's life, and to Park's in particular at this stage of her career, is the work ethic: "She has to develop the discipline of doing it every day. You have to go in the studio every day. Even Robert Irwin [a MacArthur Fellow who designed the Getty Gardens, among other projects] said, 'Some days I would just go in and sweep in the studio.' But it's the discipline of doing it."

The voices that tell you to take care of the bills and the partner and friendships and Mom and Dad are tough to resist. "I should grade papers," Suhre speaks as the voice of inartistic responsibility, "but I really have to work in my studio. We should go out for dinner, but I really have to work in my studio.

"Those are the dues you pay as a young artist, and the rewards come back -- maybe not in the checkbook or in the exhibitions, but you build an artist's life."

For now, though, Park's payment of those dues has been erratic at best.

The Contemporary hosts a visiting curator/critic series. The out-of-towners check out a slide registry of local artists before coming to St. Louis, then select a small group of artists they think worthy of a studio visit. The situation provides the kind of contacts artists would die for. The show that makes your name, or makes your career, can happen from such visits.

Park has been selected for more studio visits than any other artist in town. "I feel terrible every time I get a call for a studio visit," Park admits, "because I feel I don't have enough to show."

The exhibitions at the Forum, at the Park Avenue Gallery, at Thomas Jefferson, at Lemp Brewery as part of a group show of St. Louis and Chicago artists that traveled on to Chicago -- that's pretty much the extent of Park's output in two years.

Park makes ambitious works, but not very many of them. She recalls one visiting critic's visit: "She was the most blunt, honest person I ever met. She said, 'Some people don't like me because I speak in such a blunt way, so I hope you don't take this the wrong way. But stop teaching! Work on your artwork. Don't ever think about getting a full-time job. Work part-time and work as minimally as you can and put the most hours of every day into your studio.'"

Park has yet to develop the everyday discipline and sacrifice an artist must cultivate. "Discipline," she says, is her greatest ambition right now.

"I'm in a big dilemma. I'd like to go to more residencies, because they're another opportunity, like grad school, where you get to drop everything and have a studio environment." Park speaks of her time at Skowhegan, after grad school, as a trip to Arcadia.

"Right now, all these things matter: Pay the bills, go to this [opening], car payments. The real world -- living and eating and surviving -- that's been a priority.

"I always have art stuff to do. Now I have school stuff," teaching at Wash. U.

"I come home. Which do I do? I pick school. I spend my whole evening, my whole weekend, preparing for school stuff. Sometimes I don't make time to do my art stuff."

This kind of talk drives Shannon Fitzgerald crazy. Fitzgerald curated both the shows at the Contemporary and Lemp Brewery, and she often hosts the visiting critics. She talks to Park often. Not only does Park fail to seize these opportunities, in Fitzgerald's estimation, she's not taking advantage of other approaches to support her own work.

Park's art, by its very nature, is uncollectable. It's a reflection of Park's nature, Fitzgerald observes: "This all relates to her work, because it's about transit, not being weighted down, having to move. This lightness is what she's looking for."

A girl left behind, an ocean and a continent away from her family, needs to travel light, be prepared to go in an instant.

Yet there are artists, artists Park reveres, who make objects that relate to their unmarketable work, both as a means of exploring those artistic genres and to help pay for the big projects. James Turrell makes gorgeous prints, as well as replicas of his Roden Crater site -- a visual experience within an extinct volcano in Arizona, years in the making -- to pay the bills. Christo, when he isn't wrapping buildings or islands, sells his diagrams for those projects. Such artists aren't selling out -- they're investigating other media and paying the bills, too.

"Documentation," Fitzgerald says. "Right now she's not interested in documentation. She's adamant. Can it become a photograph so someone can buy a photograph? Can she make multiples [of an object or an image]? She still doesn't want to do it. So she'll live a life of honoraria, which don't go very far and you end up spending it all on your work anyway.

"In Chicago, they asked her to make an inflatable ball made out of contact cement [in reference to her installation made of the same materials], which she could easily reproduce and show somewhere else. But she insisted that she would not do it.

"Her insistence," Fitzgerald says, exasperated. "She's gotta figure it out. She makes smaller pieces that are sculptural. She's doing great things with balloons that are becoming objects. Her handmade balloons have a weight and become an object you can look at. So maybe she can start making those things."

Yet for all her frustration with Park, even the pragmatic Fitzgerald admires the young artist:

"I see her as very noble."

"I'm stubborn," Park says with a flare of pride. She's still a young artist, she says. She's still working it out. Those other artists, the ones who turned themselves into small corporations, they figured it out their way, and she's going to figure it out her way.

She admits, laughing at the thought, that she cherishes her naïveté.

Yet she also cherishes her "young struggling artist" status. When she talks about her place in the art world, she talks like someone trying to figure her way in.

For whatever reason, she's not trusting those voices that are saying, "You're already at the threshold. You gotta move."

Yet when she talks about the life in the studio, Park becomes radiant. "I was working in the studio yesterday," she says. "I was making patterns for this idea that I have. It's a ceiling piece. I was thinking about in Gothic churches, the...." She searches for the right word for ribbed vaulting, but "umbrella arch" suffices.

"I wanted to create a space you could walk into. It would be head-height. But since I couldn't attach it to a ceiling, I'd attach it to a wall. It's a cone coming out this way from the wall."

The drawing is lovely, simple, elegant.

"Brian said it would be really interesting if I got involved with the architecture and the surface design. I'm totally interested in it!"

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