Updated: 4 days ago
Written by Jasmin Dixon Photographed by Esther Eunjin Lee and Natasha Magino Contributing Reporting from Shaakira DeLoatch
The hallways leading up to Esther’s studio were neutral, brown -- normal expectations for a workspace. I was then greeted by a beam of light and an excellent playlist. Her studio was filled with colors, faux fur, and big white walls (that she painted herself). I wanted to pay rent and live there. “I try to come here when I can, as much as possible,” says Esther. We met up to chat about everything from inspirations to micro-aggressions against artists. Born in Korea, raised in Maryland, Esther Lee embodies the creativity that lives in the DMV. Having grown up in an artistic household, it was only a matter of time before she released her talents to the world. “My mom was an artist, so creativity has always been fostered in the house,” says Esther. As a kid, she played around with the idea of being an artist, “making stuff,” she says.
It was during high school that this University of Maryland, College Park graduate realized she wanted to pursue art seriously. As one of seven students accepted into the Studio Art Honors Program, she says, “It really helps me think critically about my art and what I want to say with my art and take it seriously.
I went from, ‘What ever’ to, ‘I have to know what I’m saying.’” The piece she is most proud of to date is one she used for her undergraduate thesis, FAULTY LEVEL / DRPKDMZROK which can be viewed on her website, www.eenjnee.com. Esther describes her work as contemporary and experimental. “I could not assign myself to any type of medium,” she says. Lately, faux fur has been the center of her pieces. Screen printing has also been an aspect of her practice, but she says, “I will always be a painter.” Her most recent venture is taking on sculpture. “But that’s just a whole other thing I’m trying to figure out,” she says. Her sculpture A Spoon Full of Sugar was part of DC’s IA&A at Hillyer exhibit, MICRO-MONUMENTS II: UNDERGROUND this past fall. Esther’s magnificent construction of steel, resin, toy soldiers, and neon colors stood in a semicircle ...as an homage to the historic site “the German Stonehenge” -- cool, we know! “What sparks me?!” Esther whispers. “Random chain of thoughts. I want to start doing things with little statements on each piece that are random as f*ck!” she says. She’s inspired by many things, but her birthplace is reflected in her art the most. Two generations ago, her grandfather’s family was separated by the Korean War, her grandmother’s side fleeing to South Korea.
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“It obviously still affects everything to this day; it doesn’t just go away … It will always just trickle down continuously. It’s inspired my art a lot,” she says. “It’s such a crazy situation. It really doesn’t feel real most off the time. It’s so hyper realistic to me.” The grind never stops, especially for this contemporary artist. Balancing a full-time job and pursuing art is an art itself. “It takes a bit of time to get in the flow of things and start creating, so it’s really tough,” says Esther.
The trials of an artist pile up when it comes to the little things. Paying show application fees, shipping pieces (which are also paid for by the artist), etc. “God forbid your art is large or heavy; you’re just f*cked,” says Esther. Being a full-time artist would be ideal for Esther. “The ultimate goal is to be content in what I’m doing and having it be something creative. If it could be my fine art practice, that would be tight.”
Among studio art, Esther also has other artistic interests “I like to mess around with music. I like to sing,” laughs Esther. An artist with many talents, she also does graphic design on the side, and in the future she wants to do more activism-related work. “I would describe [my work] as very experimental; what you see is not what you get. In all reality, I’m in the infancy of my artistic career,” says Esther. “I want people to know that art in general is not just about making something pretty. It’s not just about selling. It’s not just making money equals being a successful artist.” You can keep up with more of Esther’s art on her website www.eenjnee.com and on Instagram @eenjnee.