We had the good fortune of connecting with Christine Yerie Lee and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Christine Yerie, what led you to pursuing a creative path professionally?
At a very young age, making art was the only thing that could hold my attention. I was a shy, sensitive child, so my parents put me into art and dance classes to pull me out of my shell. My mom is a dancer and she saw how visual and performing arts could be a cathartic pathway for me. It allowed me to explore materials and ideas through my own body. I was never a great student, even in college I was the black sheep of my department. Once I got out of the academic setting, I found ways to nurture and refine this creative expression and turn it into a viable career.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
Growing up in Memphis, TN as a Korean-American did not feel unique when I was living it. Luckily, I was surrounded by a diverse group of first generation kids that grounded my experience. Navigating the often invisible but prevalent racial and economic tension in our environment taught me how to be resourceful and resilient at a young age. But it also showed me how to forge connections with people who were very different from me through humor, music, and love.
Artmaking resources were nonexistent outside of art classes in my public high school, and I knew I had to pave my own way, mostly because I didn’t know anyone who had actually succeeded in that world. So I started researching pre-college programs for high school students at national art schools and was even able to get some scholarship money for some of it. I went to an art museum for the first time at fifteen and met fellow teenage artists who I still keep in touch with today. It gave me a sense of belonging and instilled confidence in my craft, and made me want to get better! I ended up attending the Rhode Island School of Design, where I studied Apparel Design, and graduated shortly after the ‘08 recession. I supported myself in NYC working three different jobs and seven days a week for the first couple of years. In hindsight, my upbringing and rigorous training at RISD helped me be creative in how to make a living, while also prioritizing my desire to find community.
After nearly a decade of designing for brands, I began to ask myself what I was working towards. I was physically and mentally exhausted from navigating unhealthy working conditions, moral dilemmas, and imbalanced power structures. With the U.S. in political upheaval in 2018, it forced me to dive deeper into my own entanglement with these oppressive systems through the lens of my own experience and family history. By engaging with these issues on a personal level, artmaking re-entered my life as a therapeutic and cathartic process.
The highlight of my art practice has been making work with my family. My mom, Younja Claire Lee, is a traditional Korean dancer and we would perform together around small town USA. The ancestral heirloom of movement and language filled the absence of physical memorabilia lost along migration and translation. Our first collaboration together was a site-specific performance/video piece called Claire from Memphis in 2018. The project began as a way to document my own family history to portray and reclaim an alternative portrait of the American South. In it, Claire performs her own choreography of traditional dances in my hometown of Memphis engaging with objects, sets, and costumes that I had made during my stay. The moniker questions the personal, cultural, social and political effects surrounding names and legibility at large, while also creating a cross-cultural dialogue about intersecting histories and value systems. Most of all, I wanted to create a space where my mom could be seen as her most authentic self, and for her, it’s in the movement. Also, my dad acted as the PA and my partner Calvin came to help me film it. I love these collaborative moments during production!
This body of work brought me to Los Angeles to pursue my MFA at CalArts. Engaging with a wider audience also made me realize that sharing the most personal experiences is what connects us, that storytelling is a tool for us to grow collectively. Transitioning careers in my early thirties and moving across the country wasn’t easy! It isn’t until recently that I am seeing how these skills and experiences have contributed and strengthened the art practice I am slowly and steadily building. I am constantly reminding myself that everything takes time and I’m in it for the long haul.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
I always default to Koreatown for food – Soban for Braised Black Cod and Marinated Raw Crab, Mapo Kkak Doo Gee for home cooking like stews and ban chan, Yuchun for Naeng Myun (cold noodles) and broth on tap. Weekends include Taiwanese breakfast from Today Starts Here in Chinatown, whip over to Elysian Park for a picnic, bottle of wine from El Prado or a couple martini’s at Taix, then pick up Kismet Rotisserie for dinner. During lockdown, I really appreciated how close we are to nature, so I would recommend driving to Angeles National Forest and Staircase Beach in Malibu for the views, and meeting friends at the Jolly Oyster Shuck Shack in Ventura where you can get oysters and BYOB + food to grill in their outdoor area.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
It took a village to get me to this point! Today, I am thinking of my sister Marie. I cleared out my childhood room this summer and came across birthday cards and letters she had sent me over the years in some of my darkest moments. We have a seven year age gap so she has helped me literally navigate the world since my first steps. What 13-year old would take their baby sister to a Boyz II Men concert with them in Lincoln, Nebraska?! She exposed me to so many interesting cultural avenues at a young age – music, books, food – that really shaped my interests even today. Marie continues to believe in me when I lack the confidence to do so and I am so grateful for our sisterhood. Love you, Marie!
Personal Photo – Anna Ottum Images 1-3 – Annika Klein Image 4 – Artists own Image 5 – Anna Ottum Image 6, 7 – Artists’ own Image 8 – Evelyn Hang Yin