From Adoptee to Artist

Cindy and JooYoung

Cindy and JooYoung

Written by Cindy Nguyen
Photography by Thu Nguyen

*The following is a shortened version of the interview. Look for the full interview here in a few weeks!*

At 3PM on a Saturday afternoon, Thu and I arrive at the home and studio of Jooyoung Choi, a Korean-American artist based in Houston. She wears her signature look: a large pair of circle-framed glasses and her fashionably tied red neck scarf. She welcomes us enthusiastically into her garage-converted studio space. We are immediately struck by the band of puppets happily sitting on one side of the studio, and a huge sculpture, at the time a work-in-progress, standing in the corner. Choi’s artworks cover a range of mediums, including painting, video, performance and sculpture. Choi has shown work at Lawndale Art Center, DiverseWorks, Anya Tish Gallery, and others outside of Texas.


~seeing oneself in media~

Thu explained the mission of Rice Paper Magazine, and Jooyoung mentions that she also used to read alternative magazines. The Asian-American magazine, “Audrey,” was special to her because few Asians were  found in mainstream media. She showed us a piece of her work to demonstrate: a video segment that resembled a theme song introduction to a children’s TV show – complete with real actors (such as herself and her puppets), a storyline, and cheerful, sing-along music. With this, we learned about her lifelong goals to increase the representation of Asians in literature, music, and television.

Jooyoung: The purpose of this video came because of the challenge of trying to explain my imaginary world that the work is based upon in two minutes or less. If we had had a television show that had all of the main characters who just happened to be Asian and spoke English, and were immersed in pop culture - what would that look like? I made it to feed something my child self really wanted. When I watched TV as a kid, if you got lucky, there might be one Asian character in the team. I would have to decide whether I wanted to live through the Asian character or the main character, but it’s not like I got a choice which Asian person I wanted to be. There was usually one and she was good at science or played keyboards in the band or something. With this [video], you give people options to be one with the purple hair or the scientist. You have these choices. What kind of privilege happens when we get to have choices like that? How exhilarating and fun can that feel? You know, if we were all friends as kids: I’d want to be this character, and you might be this other character.


~a day in the studio~

Cindy: What is a typical day in the studio like?

Jooyoung: When I wake up, I study Korean. I used to think it was separate from my practice, but I’ve realized it’s integrally part of it. There’s a point in adulthood where you can decide to actively seek out moments of “not knowing,” or you become an adult that is more invested in knowing everything. For myself as an artist, so much of it is about embracing “not knowing”. Like, “I want to make a big sculpture! I don’t know how I’m going to do it. Let’s do it anyways, let’s figure it out.” I think language brings me back to that child state, where everyday I’m learning new words. As a kid, I remember thinking about the word “cannoli”. Like, that’s AMAZING. That’s an amazing word and it’s an amazing food. The way that Koreans say things is so different. This woman from China once said to me, “You are still speaking Korean with an American mind” and I was just like “whaaaa?” So now when I write a text to my birth father, I know it’s a good thing to say, “I ate this, what did you eat?” To change how I talk about things, it expands the self, so much more. It introduces a delight of not knowing. There was a point where we started to fear that, but really that’s how we were when we were children all the time.

Jooyoung: If I’m being good, I’ll make one of my Plan-Gendas, so that I’ll have my day already figured out. While I was in grad school, I developed this whole schedule system to keep organized. I have ADHD, and I was in denial for a very long time as a kid. Even basic stuff, like running three errands? My whole day is shot if I don’t write down things I have to do. So usually by 11 o’clock I start working, and I will continue to work until 11 o’ clock at night, sometimes 1am depending on how high the push is. When Trenton, my partner, comes home, we’ll go to the Denny’s nearby and talk about art. That’s usually a good, solid 10 to 12 hours a day. Someone mentioned I spend so much time in here, no wonder I make like a zillion imaginary friends (laughs).


~finding her family~

Cindy: Have your parents played a role in your art?

Jooyoung: My American parents were interested in me staying with music [piano]; art was very strange to them, but they knew I was interested in it when I was younger. When I started painting, I painted very strange stuff because I was trying to understand who I was an artist. I don’t know if they fully got it. I think my journey as an artist has really been me on my own. Not with my family, but more so with my professors I’ve been blessed to have in my life and comrades in art. The artists that I’ve learned about, I’m very grateful for all my teachers.

Cindy: What about your Korean parents?

Jooyoung: I was really nervous when I first them. I thought they would be disappointed that I was an artist, rather than a doctor or something - just because of stereotypes of being Asian. I didn’t know what to expect. Part of the thing about being an artist was that if I became famous enough, and if I went on TV my birth parents would recognize me and we’d find each other. I really thought art would be this way for us to reunite. It was funny because just a small irregularity in my adoption paperwork that helped me find them.

So I explained to my father when I met him, “I made all of these paintings for you, ‘cause I was trying to find you”. He looked at them and smiled, but then he just put them away and said, “I just love you for you. It’s great that you make art but I love you because you’re my daughter.” I don’t think I’d ever felt that before… not to the point of unconditional love. I didn’t grow up with that, so that was really amazing. Later on he expressed, within an hour or two, “Gahh my daughter, she’s a great artist!” (laughs) “You know, you come from a bloodline of creative people. I was a boxer, your aunt is a singer, and your eldest uncle is a musician. You were who was missing. We didn’t have anyone a visual artist. You came back to us and now you complete us.” It was amazing to see how creative and individual my family members were. I really do fit into this family. They support all aspects of my life.

Cindy: Can you tell us about your experience with your birth mother?

Jooyoung: I had become so strong through finding my birth family. Could that strength go away if something was to change? That’s what makes the story with my birth mother so interesting. Unfortunately, she has kept me a secret from her second husband. Before I was adopted, she tried to run away with me, but my birth father found her and brought us back to Seoul. Then the second time, she left me with relatives and ran way. My father didn’t know this happened, so when he came back I was gone. My mother harbors a lot of guilt that she can’t talk about. When I would come visit, it had to be on the days her second husband wasn’t there, and I would be asked to leave whenever he came back. There was so much secrecy. I also don’t speak Korean fluently enough, so I needed to have translators help me communicate with my birth mother. This was too much for her-- to have so many people involved in her story. She needs space from me. I wondered if I would regress back to who I was before if I lost that relationship. I was scared of that. But after I returned to America, I realized that I am stronger than my circumstances. Nothing can hurt me now. Someone could try to challenge me about my art, and now I’m like, “You can’t hurt my feelings anymore because I’ve gone through the fire and the craziness and came out on top.” It helped me become grateful for the people in my life who are like mothers to me.

People kept saying, “Well, you don’t understand, she’s a Korean woman. It’s about saving face.” Well, what are they saving all these goddamn faces for? For like a good day? For a rave or something? Because I’m done saving faces. It’s your choice as to how you want to perceive the things that come to you. My mother is unable to have a relationship with me, but it’s my choice whether to feel despair. In the end, I have the choice to cultivate a relationship with other people, and to hope and wish for her to be well.

In the art, it will come out. That’s how I process almost everything. I started working on a new character: an armored woman. She’s had to wear armor her whole life to be strong, and now she’s scared to take it off because she doesn’t know what’s underneath it. This is my birth mother, and a combination of other people, too. When you’ve had to be so strong and finally look underneath it all, is there really anything left to you? I think we’ve all had these moments in our lives where we had to be so defensive-- we don’t know who we were before we became reactionary. Maybe in the future this character will come through in some way, so she’ll know that I’m still thinking about her, and bring us back together.

photo c/o JooYoung Choi

photo c/o JooYoung Choi

~being a responsible human being~

Cindy: You’re currently working on an installation at Project Row Houses. Tell us more!

Jooyoung: I was interested in black power. How does this idea of internalized racism and oppression affect people? How does this make someone standing next to you feel lesser than you?

I wanted to speak to that and create a small character that could make us recognize the love that has been in our own lives. The idea of black power healing came about because we always talk about darkness as negativity. “That’s some black humor” is like saying, “That’s some twisted humor.” Are you saying black people are twisted? There’s this negative association with blackness.

So in a room at Project Row Houses, you take an electric tea light, hold it, think about someone who’s in relation to you, and a time when they made you feel truly loved. You write their name on the bottom of the light, and then you go into this other room and place it in there. In the end, it’s this beautiful exhibit that just shows so much love-- all these people recognizing moments where they feel like they were more than enough. I thought it was something that would be helpful to people, especially in these times.

Cindy: How did you go about making the small-scale model for your bigger sculpture?

Jooyoung: Noiro will be about the same size as an eight-year-old boy. I came upon the story about this boy in Dallas, Donald Maiden Jr., who was shot by a white man. When they asked him, basically it was because he was a black kid. He survived, and he’s adorable, just the cutest little kid. His family’s strength and resilience made sure justice was served to this man. I wanted to do something to honor him because he gave me this glimpse of hope. Noiro’s shoes will be the same as Donald’s shoes in one of his photos –Nike flights. I’m always concerned about not profiting off the pain of other people. so I really want to do it the right way. I really do feel that just because I’m a Korean-American adoptee, doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be involved in what is happening right now, because if anything it’s part of my responsibility as a human being in this country. Black lives matter. How do I do it in a way that feels authentic? It’s really about how I can reach out to his family in a way that is healthy and not bringing back something from the past that is harmful.

Jooyoung: There is definitely the loneliness factor. When my friends who have grown up here want to do things like this, they hear “Oh, just be polite. Do what you need to do, and don’t cause problems,” because that’s the culture their parents came from. Being Asian-American is different - you have a certain face and look, but if you’re not what people think you are, then you don’t feel like you fit into your own community. You see that these injustices are happening, but you feel like you’re an alien, and really far away from anyone understanding. I feel like sometimes we just get a reputation for not being a part of making good change-- that we’re just doing our own thing. It’s so disappointing when that happens. I think we can take stand too, even if it’s not part of what our families came from. We are not them.

Thu: Seeing you on social media, I had this celebrity image of you whom I could never possibly relate to. But after learning about the mission behind your art and how you’re involved with Black Lives Matter… I identify with a lot of that...  I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m getting so emotional...

Tears fell from her face, and we all held our breath as we took in the moment. I held my own tears in, and when I see Jooyoung’s eyes, I could see the connection between them.


Thu: I’m really glad to have met you, just to see another Asian-American doing this. Some important people to me don’t understand why I’m involved in things like social advocacy. It’s very comforting to see you do this in art form. It’s hopeful to see someone like you in the community.

At this point, all Thu and I could do is keep listening to her and laugh with her. We were utterly speechless and still processing what came from this extraordinary conversation.

Jooyoung: Thank you, because sometimes even I forget why I’m doing this. Especially with projects, I struggle with how I talk about black power. I want all my black friends to feel safe and happy and loved and not feel bad about who they are, but I don’t fully know how to do that. To be able to share with you guys and for you to understand means so much to me. With the magazine or periodical, you’re creating written text, and that can be revolutionary in many ways. It’s a big deal if you want it to be.