Night and Day

Night and Day

Hoyeon Chung and Jiyong Lee Portrait

Hoyeon Chung and Jiyong Lee. Photo: Mark Katzman

His sculptures look like artifacts sent to Earth by an advanced civilization on a planet light years away.

Her sculptures look like recently restored relics made by an ancient tribe thousands of years ago.

Composed of high-tech glass and glue, his sculptures are inspired by science, the division of cells, the eternal mysteries of the natural world. Bearing names such as Cuboid Segmentation and DNA Electrophoresis, the 8- to-12-inch-long pieces are displayed in galleries worldwide, where they are viewed, not touched.

Made of rubber, cloth, window screen, and daily detritus, her sculptures are inspired by emotions, relationships, the ephemera of human life. Bearing names such as Dust, Noise, and Picnic, the 2- to-5-inch-long pieces are sold around the world to be worn.

The differences between glass artist Jiyong Lee, 42, and jewelry artist Hoyeon Chung, 43, are dramatic and numerous. But their common bonds are more powerful, meaningful, and – especially for other artist couples – instructive. Married for 13 years, these artists are each lauded for combining mastery of their craft with artistic expression. Equally noteworthy is that they are doing so while raising their son and two nephews, and supporting one another’s work – without interfering.

History is rife with famous artist couples who found success, many despite tumultuous relationships (witness Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz), and a few because of their artistic partnership (Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Gilbert and George).

Unlike the stormier pairs, Lee and Chung work harmoniously yet separately under the same roof – in a converted 1950s house located between their home in Carbondale, Illinois, and the campus of Southern Illinois University, where he has been an assistant professor and head of its glass program since 2005.

“I think Hoyeon and I try not to influence each other too much,” Lee says. “I see her as fellow artist or colleague. I think as a married couple we sometimes know each other too well and we do not want to step on each other’s toes.”

Their work styles are as disparate as their art, which makes them seem like the standard Mars-meets-Venus, opposites-attract odd couple. But a more apt analogy would be yin-yang, the ancient Asian principle of balance whose symbol, in fact, is at the center of the South Korean flag.

As if to exemplify the yang side, Lee works during the daytime in a planned, precise, and focused way. In his first-floor studio, he uses an array of power tools to transform the optical-glass cubes he buys or the ovoid glass forms he creates in a hot shop. Following intricate drawings, he slices the forms, then reattaches them with epoxy he has tinted with powdered pigment to create a sheer membrane of color. Days later, after the transparent form has cured, he will grind, then refine the surface to make it smooth but translucent. Because each sculpture takes about two to three months, he produces only a dozen per year; each sells for $7,000 to $15,000, and one has been added to the permanent collection of the Corning Museum of Glass.

In yin style, Chung works late at night in an intuitive, spontaneous way. In her second-floor studio, she uses only her hands to translate her daily diary of drawings into three-dimensional forms by bending aluminum window screen into a lightweight armature, then slathering it with liquid rubber that, when dry, she layers with Korean linen she has coiled or pleated or twisted, and with motley materials she gathers daily – recycled paper towels from home, notes from friends, pages from magazines. She aims to make at least one piece a night, sometimes three, and each sells for $300 to $900; the occasional framed and wall-mounted assemblages go for $5,000.

“It is not the fixed, static moments in life that inspire me but rather the in-between, fluid moments,” Chung says. “The time between real life and fantasy, between past and present, between gravity and flying.”

However balanced their lives now seem, the road to their mutual mid-career success has been bumpy and circuitous, filled with sacrifice as well as serendipity.

They were born and raised in somewhat Westernized families in Seoul, South Korea, where they lived for a time in the same neighborhood. Both graduated from Seoul’s Hongik University. Yet the first time they met was in 1998, in Rochester, New York.

Chung had come to Rochester Institute of Technology’s School for American Crafts in 1997 to earn her second MFA in metal and jewelry. Lee, who’d shifted his focus from ceramics, arrived a year later, to work on his MFA in glass.

The smiling young woman and the serious young man, introduced in RIT’s cafeteria, became friends while taking the same elective course in ceramics. They married in Seoul in 2000 and returned to Rochester, where he completed his MFA and began teaching at RIT and assisting glass sculptor Michael Taylor.

In 2001, their son, Kevin, was born, inspiring Chung to put her career on pause – and inspiring Lee, the son of a physician, to research embryonic cell development, which led to his ongoing Segmentation series. He credits his mother, however, with really encouraging his interest in art.

Chung extended her hiatus in 2007 when, in the wake of a family crisis, her 7-year-old and 10-year-old nephews moved in with them. Two years later, her beloved grandmother died at 89, leaving Chung feeling bereft, homesick – and desperate to channel her feelings into a medium “more natural” than metalwork. She began working with the variety of materials she now uses in her art.

\Lee’s career, meanwhile, continued its upward trajectory unimpeded. He has received top awards from the Glass Art Society and Pilchuck Glass School, and has taught and exhibited around the world, from Ireland and France to Australia and South Korea, to critical acclaim.

“Jiyong’s work exhibits the highest technical skill, but he does not stop there, like many artists do,” says CMOG curator Tina Oldknow. “He has balanced this skill with a rigorous conceptual development. To me, this is what makes his work superior.”

He could achieve all this because Chung held down the home front, he says. “I appreciate the sacrifices she has made. If we traded positions, I would go nuts.” 

In fact, however, they began trading positions three years ago, as her newfound medium opened new doors – including three semesters of university teaching in Korea and three solo exhibitions in Seoul that drew rave reviews.

“Her recent work not only shows a new approach to materials, but also a search for a new language, one of days and people,” writes art critic and curator Juwon Kim.“Her mixed-media works seem much closer to art that expresses one’s life rather than traditional craft.”

Now the two take turns being on the road, at home with their boys Kevin, 12, Tony, 14, and Mikey, 17, and in their studios. There, day and night, each creates work that appears unrelated to the other’s, yet shares a fundamental DNA: a balance of simplicity and complexity, of skill and serendipity, of yin and yang.

Sebby Wilson Jacobson is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher in Rochester, New York.