Painter, Illustrator: Los Angeles
Think back to a much earlier time in your land’s history. 100 years. 200 years. 400 years. Or even longer. Think back to the time when those inhabitants first ventured out to survey the territory. Go back far enough and flip through images of those old maps, from decade to decade – once-blank areas fill up with rivers, forests, and deserts before your eyes.
In today’s age of web-mapping services and GPS technology it seems anything but fascinating. But put yourself in those olden times. What was the sophisticated equipment for those first surveyors? A compass? A sextant? A small boat? That’s about all. And then it was out to map the coastline. It was a time when the word uncharted literally meant uncharted.
Today, I’m not sure how many of those areas remain; certainly not in Seonna Hong’s locale. But after starting a new job, she did find herself smack in the middle of one of the biggest navigational challenges we face in our modern age: Overcoming Los Angeles traffic.
“I’ve been obsessed with finding the secret route/wormhole thorough all of it, as though thousands of people haven’t tried before and thousands of people won’t try after, but I’m just dead-set on outsmarting LA traffic. And in the three and a half weeks that I’ve been working here I’ve not taken the same route more than once."
"One time – and this is both amazing and frustrating to know that you can get here in this amount of time – but one time from my front door to this parking garage took only fifteen minutes when I left at 5:30 in the morning. It was still dark outside, but I felt such satisfaction I was like, yeeaah! But this morning, because I had to take my daughter to school, and because I can’t really leave any earlier than the time that I need to drop her off at school, it took me an hour and fifteen minutes. So it’s frustrating to know that the actual distance is one thing – but it’s just traffic. It’s not good.”
Not good, but a pleasant laughter did end her statement. When she’s not painting Seonna is a production artist, animating for television and motion pictures. And despite the frustrations of driving through Los Angeles at rush hour on a weekly basis she does thoroughly enjoy where she ends up, once she arrives.
“Everyone wants you to succeed here, and it’s just really supportive. I was talking to another painter and I was telling him how I gave myself a stomach ache because the learning curve here is really wide and fast. That stress that I have toes the line, definitely goes into the dark place where it gives me a stomach ache or it can even paralyze with fear, but there are other times when it’s a really amazing motivator, too. A lot of times that’s what helps me push through a deadline or get a bunch of work finished to cross that hump for a gallery show. It’s just white…hot…fear. But it has to be just the right amount.” [Laughs]
Being a visual artist during the day and painting at home whenever the time allows – they’re not completely different worlds. But they do allow Seonna to use different parts of her brain. In fact, moving back and forth between the two has helped her much more than it has caused stress.
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“I think it’s made me not necessarily a better painter, but a better editor, and more disciplined. I certainly don’t wait for inspiration to strike because I’d be waiting all day or all year. And I think being a production artist also helped a ton with this: not thinking of everything so preciously. I used to see a white canvas and I would be so scared to put the first mark on it, whereas now I just jump in. So instead of staring at a blank canvas for two days, I’ll just paint as many paintings as I can or draw as many sketches as I can in those two days and then at the end decide if they’re good or not. It’s more back-ended in that way, and that’s what affords me time to work when I’m not inspired, or when I’ve got two hours until I have to pick up my daughter from her gymnastics class.”
It’s taking the best advantage of an opportunity. And just as Seonna keeps working on finding those better ways to create, we all have our own challenges to work on. Ultimately, those challenges keep coming, so how we choose to face them can have profound effects on the directions we end up taking in our lives. Reflect on some of the directions you’ve taken, even all the way back to childhood. There’s a great importance in that particular time of life for Seonna – an importance that’s only grown since becoming a parent herself.
“You can’t help but see how you turned out the way that you did. So everything, good or bad, you have the template of, oh, I’m not gonna make my daughter finish her plate of dinner because I had to sit at the table when I was a child. Everything is informed by that kind of thing, and seeing this life form in front of you, and the decisions you’re making, it inevitably makes you think about your own childhood."
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"So I think the concepts and how I use kids as protagonists in my work is definitely from being a parent. And I don’t mean to be always putting them in perilous situations. [Laughs] I don’t necessarily think that childhood is represented by constantly having challenges or situations that you have to negotiate as a person, it’s just that some of my works are the ones that contain that.”
Be around Seonna for a short time and she’ll impress upon you a light-hearted nature: smiling, always laughing, always bright. But extend her company a while longer and you’ll realize, too, that she is wonderfully complex.
Look at how it all comes out in her work. It’s in that same gradual, subtle way: First it might be the little girls who stand out – their gentle poses, their charm, the detailed patterns of those dresses they’re wearing. Then perhaps it’s the textures and bleeds in those paint washes. Then those definitive scenes and actions join in. Eventually, every inch of the canvas just begs to be consumed.
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It’s only after that – a little while after – that the focus of those scenes becomes sharper. And what exactly is going on? The actions and motives can be much more intense than first imagined. Keep looking through Seonna’s work. Very deep things are going on. It’s an assortment of descriptions. Lonely. Somber. Frightening. Dark. Mysterious. Exciting. Upbuilding. Just plain brilliant.
Look at the three girls in You Can't Possibly Go Without Love. One points up at the bears in that tree, another rests on her side – it’s a serene little scene. But now look again. They’re being awfully cavalier toward those bears, aren’t they? Wonder why they’re so close? Observing those strangely dark silhouettes as if they were just little birds? The more you look, the more you wonder. And there’s a reason why.
“There are such universal themes about being a kid, you know? Everybody was a kid and everybody was shaped by that experience. And again, tying back to when I was a kid, or to parenting now, I remember reading somewhere that your personality is basically shaped by the time you’re six. And of course you mature and you gain experiences and stuff like that, but your first instinct for something and how you would react to it differently than how I would react to it is informed by who we were by the time we were six."
"So it’s just that everything at that young age is still very unedited and fearless. I think that’s why a lot of times I’ll have the kids in my work represent a pure emotion rather than how it gets super clouded over by all the stuff that we figure out by the time we’re insecure and in our twenties (or at least me).” [Laughs]
Isn’t that a true statement? Just look at Siren Song. Our little friend is playing that trumpet. Just playing and playing. Not exactly worried about balancing in that tiny boat, is she? No concerns about what might be lurking in that water. Or what the temperature might be. Not even a thought about falling in. It’s that fearlessness; that purity of decision making. A child-like boldness. I really like that.
And there’s definitely something about that time: childhood, adolescence. As Seonna said, there’s something ultimately relatable for each us. Something that brings us back. And what I might like the most about her work is that it takes a certain amount of looking, of searching, to really feel what’s happening; the emotion, or the action, or the catharsis, even. But when we feel it, it’s amazing.
“Music works in that way for me, too – in a huge way. There’s something about how it impacts me. It’s like you said, you play it over and over ten times until it’s in your molecules, and then I could hear that song years later and it’ll take me back to a place or a relationship or something – more than even a photograph can. Like, not only take me back, but it’ll almost shift the lens and make me feel like what it felt like to be that age, and what it felt like to be perceiving it.”
Images courtesy of Seonna Hong
All stories are copyright of Gregory Koutrouby and A Thousand Stories unless otherwise noted.