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Artist Sews the Complex Intricacies of the Korean American Experience onto Canvas

Callista Suh explores her own cultural identity in her intricately sewn bodies of work.

Andrew Nunes

Roof Top Marbles from LA Riots, Images courtesy of Callista Suh

Although she works almost exclusively with needle and thread, Philadelphia-based artist Callista Suh does not consider her artworks to be embroidery. Using her thread more like a pen, her sewing becomes highly illustrative, employed by the artist to create projects that explore the complexities surrounding the Korean American experience.

The LA Riots serve as a central subject matter for many of Suh's work. Sewing scenes like the famous photograph of Korean store owners defending their businesses on their rooftops from rioters below, her series is something of a tribute to that cultural moment, in an effort to preserve its memory. Curiously, Suh was born a year after the riots ended, a fact she acknowledges but does not believe interferes with her intentions with the body of work.

Hands from My Korean American Experience, 2016.

"I'm drawn to the event because of my shared heritage. The LA Riots series is meant to acknowledge the overall experience of the Korean-American community. Before the LA Riots, many Korean Americans were practically invisible, unacknowledged by the American media. The LA Riots represent a moment in Korean American history when they finally became visible in the media," the artist explains to Creators.

"I believe my LA Riots series is crucial because it shows the kinds of challenges and tensions that all marginalized groups face, and how communication and community are crucial for the harmonization of all people, so that they can hopefully coexist."

Two Flags from LA Riots, 2015

Shifting from shared cultural experiences to highly particular ones, Suh's series My Korean American Experience is more difficult to immediately grasp, but perhaps more gratifying for this same reason. Visual and written anecdotes are sewn onto muslin cloth, sometimes depicting recognizable scenes, like in American Prom Night (A Modern Romance) when a ghostly male hand whispers "Wipe the glitter off, this tux is a rental" to a female figure, and in other instances private moments like the floating fried egg and alarm clock denoting 4 AM and 4 PM in The Worst Times of My Life.

The Worst Times of My Life from My Korean American Experience

Using what is personal to reflect on larger, often concealed facets of Asian American life, Suh weaves together a tell-all narrative about her cultural identity. "I use this chapter of my work as a way of focusing on the formative and memorable experiences of my life," says Suh. "I realized that I have been through loss, fear, love, and discrimination, but that I never took the time to really address or process those moments. The older I got, the more frequently I found myself in dangerous situations just because I was Asian. The situations went from being routinely verbally attacked by strangers to nearly being kidnapped, and more recently, threatened with a Taser."

Lunch Box from My Korean American Experience, 2015

As appalling as her life experiences might seem, Suh repressed them until she eventually hit a mental breaking point, where she saw her art practice as a vehicle to express what had been squelched by a white-centric culture. She used her time at the University of the Arts Interdisciplinary Fine Arts in Philadelphia to work out the horrendous events with art. She says, "For years, I just dismissed my experiences until I ended up feeling exhausted and severely depressed. So, when it came time to make a senior thesis, I decided that it was time to make a body of work that spoke to my personal experiences, and I haven't' stopped since. I hope that, with my work, viewers can relate to some of their experiences, feel less alone, and ultimately become more open to addressing their own negative and positive experiences."

American Prom Night (A Modern Romance) from My Korean American Experience

For more sewn artworks framing the Korean American experience, head over to Callista Suh's website.

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