Finding Empowerment Through Illustration, Performance Art, and Boobs with Artist Hannah Sung
At St. Chéri, we pride ourselves with the ability to dive deep and explore the roots from which women find there inspiration and passion. With that being said we found ourselves lucky to interview an absolutely galvanizing artist, Hannah Sung, who opened up about her journey of self-discovery through her mesmerizing art and how living a history of domestic abuse empowered her to become the woman she is today.
How would you describe yourself – who is Hannah Sung?
'Hannah Sung is a Korean American visual artist whose work straddles the line between commercial and fine art. Her client list includes FOX, Sony, Disney Imagineering, Fisher-Price, A&E, and many more. Her work on the Deadpool vinyl won a Gold award at the 2017 Clio ceremony. At the time of this writing, she is delving into the field of modern-wave feminism with a focus on critiquing domestic abuse.'
This is my official bio. It's not entirely accurate. I should add a postscript that reads, "actually she is an emotional mess that pretends to maintain a regular level of sanity on a daily basis." It's funny because it's true. I like being open about this because it helps me heal and gives me hope that others who feel the same way find a kindred soul within my work.
I was born in Seattle, Washington in 1988, but from age 5 to 15, I lived in Seoul, South Korea. My family came back to the US as a teenager and tried my best to erase the memory of my life in Korea. My art is very much inspired these critical years in my upbringing. I use my art as a diary of that time.
How did you get into illustration?
As far as I could remember, I started drawing when I was a child. I drew things from the very first day that I could physically grab a pencil. My parents could tell early on that I would never succeed with any traditional route of academic success. Poor grades in math and the basic sciences essentially sealed my fate away from medical school or any other degree of higher learning. According to my surroundings, I was known as a wild character who was hard to control. Drawing was the only thing that seemed to get me to hold still.
At my 4th grade in elementary school, my parents reasoned that they'd put all their eggs in the basket of nurturing my artistic side. They got me an art tutor so I could be ahead of the competition. In Seoul, there's tremendous social pressure to see your child succeed. Since they knew I'd never get into law school, they encouraged a life path that played to my strengths.
How would you describe your illustrative style in three words? And when you are looking back at the past years, how do you see your style changing?
Emotional, Raw, Nostalgic.
There were many influences I had while growing up as an artist. During my college years, I was a big fan of Peter De Seve, and Chris Sanders. These men had a very bombastic, identifiable style. My early work was very cartoon-ish in nature. I drew fun characters with comical proportions and tried to throw in clues to the character's background through posture, clothing choice, and facial expression.
As my career progressed, I started to incorporate influence from the commercial art industry in Hollywood. I began to experiment with more surreal shapes of sculpture, heavy use of ink instead of painting, and a focus on female form.
Would you say that your illustrations play a big role in your self-discovery?
Yes, it definitely helped. While I was living in LA, I tried to find time to draw after returning home from work. This was very difficult. With an hour commute to and from a 9 hour work day, my energy was often completely sapped by the time I got home. My emotions were in turmoil at this time, as I never had the energy to truly focus on my own work in the evenings. This is fairly normal in Los Angeles - the world over there is so expensive that most artists need to work every day in order to pay the bills. There's not much room for relaxation when you're starting out.
Once I moved to Des Moines, the pressures of Los Angeles life melted away. I decided to draw more actively on sketchbook. When I started working on my sketchbook, I decided to treat it like my diary. I felt quite lost during my time working in the commercial field and it was a struggle to get back into rhythm.
I drew what I knew, and for some reason I kept drawing dogs. I was subconsciously obsessed with drawing dogs, as I'd throw them into almost any new piece of work. I realized that I was subconsciously thinking of my dog who had died years ago. His name was Blacky and the memory of him also brings up memories of my dad. I loved the dog, but I never knew how to love him properly. My drawings were coming from some sort of tangled memories of that old life that were never resolved. I missed Blacky and my drawings were proof that he never left my mind. Drawing him brought me back to an earlier time. Emotionally, the repetitive drawings of Blacky pushed me through the doldrums and into a new era of artistic exploration.
You brought your illustrations to life with your latest project, 'Boobles'. What sparked your inspiration?
Almost regularly, I hear stories from fellow women about their broken pasts. These stories are filled with hurtful memories, sad touches, and bitter regrets. I noticed a pattern emerge, as most of the hurt laid into them was caused by those closest to them. When family and friends are the source of pain, one often loses respect for oneself. I have struggled with this issue myself. I tried to fit into a world where family and friends thought I was never good enough. I sought outside approval more than anything else. I was speaking to a friend about the emotional abuse heaped upon her and she believed it was, "just because I'm a woman." This inspired me to start the Boobles project as a tribute to the strength of the female form.
Boobles is meant to highlight beautiful human beings and encourage them to accept every part of themselves. Although the focus is feminine in construction, I wish for the masculine and grey areas of gender to reflect upon this image and find their own meaning within it. My goal is to consistently create art that can touch other souls and promote healing from any number of existential scarring. We all need to heal because we are all delicate fucking flowers that need love.
You recently took your work with you to Korea! Tell us about the mission behind it and what your main takeways were with your experience.
My childhood in South Korea was not the greatest. I spent a lot of my time trying to live up to the expectations of others instead of explore my own goals. The woman that Korean society told me to be was a far cry from the person I thought I was. Since moving to the USA, I have met other Korean American women whose stories rang similar to my own. They also had pain in their pasts that they sought to escape from. We were sisters, united in the sense that we wished for our scars to heal. The mission in Seoul was to challenge the gender roles in a city that I believe is still lagging behind in the fight for gender equality.
I was scared of people's reaction to the project. I had a lot of positive reactions for the show in the USA, but Seoul has a very different culture. For few days, I walked around Hong Dae street with the Boobles to see the reaction from people. A lot of people acted like they didn't look as they were passing by. They were avoiding my eye contact.
I decided to display the work by myself, blindfolded. I found that people are more engaging if they have an excuse to avoid looking me in the eyes. By standing blindfolded in front of the people, I wanted them to judge me comfortably. I stood at Gwanghwamun Square, where is known for tourist site as well as political landmark in Seoul, for total 5 hours on a Wednesday afternoon. It was about 95 degrees in Fahrenheit that day.
My big takeaway lesson from the project is threefold:
1. Bring plenty of water if you're going to do performance art in the summer.
2. The silent emotional exchange I had with strangers was indescribable.
The photos captured how people understood my art better than words could express.
3. My art will not please everyone. I would like everyone to love my work, but if not, that's okay, because I make art that makes me happy the most.
When you're not traveling- what is a day in the life of Hannah Sung like? Tell us about your daily routine.
During a weekend, I will spend at least 12 hours in an art session with my husband at home. He is a talented musician. He writes music and I paint. We work in silence most of the time and sometimes we take a break so he can make up a cheese plate.
Who are some favorite artists that you look to for inspiration?
During my college years, I was in love with Peter De Seve's work. Up until last year, I was inspired by Kim Jung Ki, James Jean, Joao Ruas, and J.A.W. Cooper. Lately, I am quite taken by performance artists such as Marina Abramovic and Yoann Bourgeois. Yayoi Kusama is one of my favorite artists. She is someone I could relate to, with regards to her journey and background story.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever done?
It took me a while to come up with this answer. I think the best thing I have ever done are the mistakes that I've made. I used to be embarrassed of my faults, but I don't feel that anymore.
What life experiences have forced you to come face-to-face with who you are as a woman, and who you want to be?
I visited Korea for the first time, 9 years after immigrating back to the United States in 2014. When I was accompanying my 6-year-old niece, I witnessed her falling and ended up scraping her knees. I was in panic mode. I immediately ran to her. My reaction was not to comfort her or treat the wound. It was to see if I can cover up so it looks like nothing happened.
This may sound very strange. Even up to this day, I am not certain if it was because I was afraid of her being in trouble for falling over or because I didn't want to be hated by her family. When her mother ran to her to comfort her, it felt so foreign. I cried so much that night, thinking of what happened that day. Then everything made sense.
During my youth, I was very devoted to the church community. I taught younger kids in classes every Sunday. My own personal therapy sessions came in observing the familial relationships all around me. These kids would leak out clues of the intense pressure put upon them as well as evidence of physically abusive households.
I got punished a lot when I was young. According to my brother and sister, I was punished almost daily. When I fell and scraped my knees, even harsher punishment awaited me at home. I was a very active kid. I scraped my knees all the time. This caused a rift in my self-worth. I was more concerned with shaming the family than with my own developing scars. As I got older, I realized I was a 'pleaser,' more concerned with the satisfaction of others than my own happiness. After I wanted to cover up my niece's injury rather than heal her, I realized I was part of the problem. From then on, I learned to think differently regarding my own self-worth.
Where in the world do you wish to travel to next?
I want to go to to Japan to do performance art.
Lastly, if you could send one message to young women everywhere what would it be?
Love yourself. Love yourself more than you would double tap a kitten on instagram, and taking duck-face selfies with facial filter on. Those are not really you anyway. Nothing wrong with being a slut, as long as you don't lose yourself to society's expectation. Be free. Your flaws are beautiful. You are amazing. Whatever you wish to be, don't just dream it. Be it.