Smile Politely

Yeong Choi’s abstracts are a beautiful exploration of life

An abstract painting of a deer head and antlers in a forest. The forest is pastel blue and turquoise. The deer head is made up of various shapes, and is darker than the forest.
Yeong Choi, Life-Deer, oil on canvas, 2018

When I attended this year’s Art Around the Block at Giertz Gallery at Parkland, I was immediately drawn to an abstract piece by an artist I wasn’t familiar with: Yeong Choi. In my review of the exhibition, I wrote that there was “something simultaneously effortless and intentional about her work; it’s one of those pieces that invites the viewer in as you attempt to decipher what exactly you are looking at.” As I explored more of her pieces online, I became more and more drawn in by her incredible use of color and the continuity between her artwork, even when at first, pieces may seem vastly different. I recently corresponded with Choi to learn more about her artistic process, her recent billboard with Sky Gallery, and more. Here’s what she had to say:

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your connection to Champaign-Urbana — are you originally from the area?

Yeong Choi: I was born and raised in Korea and graduated from an art school there. After getting married, I came to Urbana-Champaign, and settled here. I started teaching children and engaging in artistic activities little by little. For the past six years, I have been fully dedicated to my artistic endeavors and teaching children.

Abstract square painting; browns and black thin curved brush strokes on a tan and brown background
Yeong Choi, Glimmer of Awareness, oil and charcoal on canvas, 2021; photo by Serenity Stanton Orengo

SP: I really loved your piece at Art Around the Block, which is how I first discovered your art. Can you talk a little bit about that piece?

Choi: Thank you. The artwork Glimmer of Awareness represents the realization that beautiful melodies are created within countless moments that are difficult to describe, encompassing despair, sadness, and joy in life. It is expressed through the rough and raw texture of charcoal and the blending effect of oil painting on canvas, giving a sense of current existence.

SP: I noticed you often use really vibrant color combinations, but this piece Glimmer of Awareness is more neutral — how did you decide to showcase this one for this particular show?

Choi: Through the passage of the pandemic, amidst uncertainty and anxiety about the future, I submitted this artwork for the exhibition, symbolizing the ability to fully live life and discover beauty within it. The seemingly simple and mundane colors, reminiscent of earth and soil, offer empathy and solace to all of us who strive to live our lives to the fullest.

Yeong Choi, Euphoria, abstract painting in yellow, black, red, and blue
Yeong Choi, Euphoria, oil, charcoal on canvas, 2021

SP: A common theme in all your art seems to be this exploration of life, whether it’s your abstracts or something featuring an animal. The pieces, even when they look like different styles, still feel connected in a way I can’t necessarily articulate. How is your approach different, or the same, when painting something like Euphoria (2021) which is capturing a feeling versus Life-Oneness (2021) which is depicting a bull — a different kind of “life”?

Choi: My work is an exploration of what life is and the process of following it. It is divided into four main series. For example, the Life-Oneness which is a part of the Life-Bull series, as you mentioned, I approach the concept of life, which encompasses various meanings, through the perspective of simplicity and complexity, depicting the interplay between a bull, human figures, and myself. On the other hand, the Life-Euphoria series expresses the awe-inspiring beauty and vitality felt directly from nature.

The series I submitted for this exhibition is a personal reflection on life. It explores how true vitality emerges from the hardships and pains of life, and how everything, entangled like intertwined threads, comes together to create a symphony. Pain and life are fundamental aspects that I cannot separate from myself.

Yeong Choi, Life Oneness, abstract painting of a grey bull centered in a blue and black striped canvas
Yeong Choi, Life-Oneness, oil on canvas, 2021

SP: You currently have a billboard up for Sky Gallery, that must be really exciting! Can you talk about the process for the billboard — how did you decide which artwork to submit? How do you think through creating or displaying art at such a large size and probably a different shape/ proportions than you are used to working with?

Choi: Yes! I’m so thrilled that my artwork is being featured this time. Although the artwork wasn’t originally created for the billboard, I decided to apply for it because I believed that this piece, which showcases strong vitality, would look great on a billboard. Despite the challenge of adapting the proportions of the artwork to the enormous size of the billboard, I used a portion that depicts the face and body lines of a bull together to represent the resurgent vitality of the bull as it strives to live once again.

A billboard against a bright blue sky. A close up almost abstract image of a bull. The painting is mostly red, coral, and purple. The bottom reads "Sky Gallery, Yeong Choi, Living Ashes_3"
Yeong Choi, Living Ashes_3, billboard; photo from 40 North on Facebook

SP: When you are starting a new piece or a new project more generally, can you walk us through your process? Do you have a clear idea of how you want it to turn out before you begin, is there a lot of experimentation or improvising along the way?

Choi: When I initially start working on a piece, I usually have some level of clear ideas. However, I believe that creating artwork is a process of communication between myself and the painting. 
As I work, different thoughts burst forth from within, and at some point, my emotions become deeply immersed, leading me to use colors and lines that emerge from the unconscious rather than conscious choices. 
So, even though I start with a certain clarity of thought, ultimately unexpected artworks emerge based on the flow of both conscious and unconscious elements. It’s a fascinating process where I discover aspects of my unconscious self that I may not have been aware of within the painting itself.

Daydreaming by Yeong Choi; abstract painting in blue, yellow, pink, and red
Yeong Choi, Daydreaming, oil on canvas, 2019

SP: What are you currently working on?

Choi: Lately, I have been dedicating more time to my bull series, specifically the To Wrestle and to Dance series, which I consider to be a self-portrait of sorts. I believe that the intense struggles I experience in life may appear as a beautiful dance performed before a divine presence. This idea has inspired me to delve deeper into exploring the concept of my fierce physical and emotional battles being transformed into a captivating and graceful form of expression.

SP: What media do you prefer to work with? Is there a medium that you find frustrating?

Choi: I use different mediums depending on the series, but I primarily prefer working with oil paints, which have a tangible quality, and charcoal. Each medium has its own charm, so I haven’t encountered a medium that I find particularly challenging yet.

Two abstract paintings by Yeong Choi. The one on the left has a grey background, with blue, purple, and turquoise round shapes and lines. The one on the right is a yellow background with bright blue shapes in the center.
Yeong Choi

SP: What have been the most rewarding and most challenging projects you’ve completed to date?

Choi: One of the most rewarding projects I recently worked on was a collaboration with The New Era Korea, a major global company, for an exhibition celebrating Earth Day. It was an incredible experience to have my artworks featured on t-shirts that were released in Korea and Hong Kong. For me, the project was both fulfilling and challenging, as it involved working on a commission that could be considered the most demanding. Through conversations, I had to grasp the client’s vision and consider how my artwork could have an impact on them. 
The process required a different level of energy and posed challenges beyond what I typically experience, but it was ultimately a rewarding and enriching project.

SP: What’s next for you? 

Choi: I hope for more great exhibitions and numerous artistic activities in the future, and I also wish for these activities to have a positive impact on children when teaching them.

SP: Other than the billboard, is there any place in C-U where people can check out your work?

Choi: One of the paintings from my bull series is currently being exhibited at Busey Bank in Urbana until July, and two artworks are scheduled for an exhibition at CSI Project Space in Chicago until the end of July.

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