Artist-in-Residence Julia Chon: Finding Inspiration in Family
Better known as Kimchi Juice, Julia Chon is a Washington, D.C.-based artist and muralist. Her work explores the relationship between cultural tradition and its effects on generational identity and the decisions Asian Americans make to form their identities. With a prominent Korean aesthetic in each piece, she merges her ancestry and traditions with the contemporary to convey the nuances of the Korean diaspora.
We had the chance to speak to Ms. Chon about how her art career started, how a family photograph sparked the idea for her show at Pearl River Mart, and her first muse.
Tell me a little about your childhood and background. Where did you grow up?
I was born outside of Washington, D.C. My father is English so we lived in London when I was very young. I was there for about six years. We moved back to D.C. in 2007, and that's where I've lived ever since.
How did you get started with your art career?
When I was 13, I was going through a very hard time. My parents were getting divorced, and I turned to art as therapy to process my emotions.
When I was 14 I decided I want to be an artist full time, and I realized that if I went to a regular high school, I wouldn't have as much time to focus on my art. So I asked my mom if she could homeschool me. My mom said, "I will never homeschool you." [Laughs] But, she said, find an alternative. So I ended up finding this online high school program, which I posited to my parents. Luckily they agreed and let me pursue it. So I was able to spend my high school years at home, and I was able to paint. At 16 I had the chance to exhibit my work for the first time and at 17 I had the opportunity to paint my first mural.
How did that mural come about?
In 2017, I met an artist named Kelly Towles who’s the director for DC Walls, a mural festival here in Washington, D.C. He took a chance on me and invited me to be a part of that year’s roster. Having never painted a mural before and spending most of my online high school years isolated from day to day socialization, DC Walls gave me an introduction to an artist community, and I was able to find peers and friends through that community.
What's the inspiration behind your work?
I come from a very large Korean American family. My grandparents immigrated to the U.S. in 1970. They had two daughters at the time, and eventually had seven. They had no sons and kept trying. So I grew up surrounded by a very matriarchal presence what with my mom, grandmother, and aunts.
When I began to paint, the influence of my family and Korean heritage was subject matter that I naturally gravitated toward and was where I wanted to focus my work. So I started with painting portraits, and my grandmother was my first muse.
How has the response been?
My grandmother cried when she first saw her portrait, and my family has been overwhelmingly supportive. I'm very lucky.
Are any of your other family members artistic?
I would say all of my family members are creative, but none went down an artistic career path. My grandparents hit the jackpot with their daughters. One aunt is a judge while another is a doctor. Very handy occupations when you need medical or legal advice. My mom is the most untraditional out of her sisters. She does so many things. She works in hospitality and restaurant spaces. She’s an advisor for women's leadership programs. She helps women in hospitality take that next step. She’s been my rock and biggest supporter.
What do you do for inspiration or to get re-energized if you're feeling burnt out?
Art can be so consuming. It's not only my career — it's something that I think about constantly. To take time away from that is the most reinvigorating thing I can do. Even if I'm not focused on painting, I'm usually thinking about other artforms. Reading poetry and literature, going to museums, looking at ceramics. To see how other people create their work is inspiring.
Tell me about your show at Pearl River.
A lot of my work is influenced by my Korean heritage. The symbolism and culture. I recently discovered my grandfather's sister practiced shamanism when she was younger. She wasn't a mudang — the actual shaman — but she would consult them. She held that belief system.
It wasn't hush hush but it wasn't necessarily talked about. It came out when were looking at pictures he took in the 1970s and '80s. My grandfather's revelation opened this whole world to me that I've always been attracted to. Since then I've been exploring this aspect of Korean culture that's not necessarily very popular, and my show at Pearl River will also explore those themes.
What's something you're obsessed with right now?
I'm kind of obsessed with tennis. When I'm preparing for a show, I have to sit for a really long time. Upwards of 18 hours a day. Having something on in the background helps me to focus.
My nature is to be competitive. In art you don't have an obvious opponent that's not yourself. In sports you can cheer people on as bystanders. That gives me energy and helps motivate me.SPIRIT DREAMS is on view in our SoHo gallery from Sept. 21 through Jan. 21. Free and open to the public every day between 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Join us for the opening reception on Sept. 21 from 6 to 8 p.m. Attendance is free but registration is required.