I was born into an old-fashioned Korean family. My father was a pastor and my mother was a social worker. My mother wore traditional Korean clothing called “Hanbok” and was determined to only wear grey and beige Hanbok, to honor the sorrow and pain of those who had lost family in the Korean War. Aesthetically, my parents were traditional and old-fashioned, and yet nevertheless ahead of the times.
My education was ideal. I began studying art as early as elementary school. Eventually I found my groove working in textiles. After a while, I got to be quite good at it. I figured, “maybe textiles is something I can make a career out of.”
Many years later, I was married with a child when I was given the chance to take an unlikely path. I was offered a pathway into ArtCenter through their night classes program, where I studied illustration. My daughter was five at the time and my husband – who had atypical expectations for a Korean romantic partner – supported my dreams and encouraged me to attend.
And so it was that ArtCenter became the stage for my second act in life.
Until this juncture in my life, conventional Korean education had been the norm. What ArtCenter represented was the great unknown. My first class there was a complete shock. Every day after class, driving down to Lida Street, I felt like I had taken Hanyak Oriental medicine: the lessons were bitter, tough, hard to swallow, placing me completely out of my element. It was a whole new world that I was learning from.
I had yet to make the leap to the teaching and community outreach work that would define my later years at ArtCenter – I was still figuring out where I could potentially fit in. It was at ArtCenter that I came to understand the idea of what I call an “invisible support system.”
What is an invisible support system? It’s about bolstering someone else’s well-being without calling attention to your act of generosity. It’s about being there for someone, in the most pure and selfless way you can be.
When I made the transition from making to teaching, I told myself that I would provide an invisible support system for my students. I cherished seeing their growth and maturation. My goal was to give them more than I ever had, and to keep them motivated.
These days, I’m heavily involved in organizations such as Himango, an education-based international NGO where I act as the Secretary General. In February of this year, I traveled to the small town of Tonj in South Sudan to build a church for villagegoers afflicted by leprosy. While there, I made a meaningful connection with a ten-year-old boy named Moses.
I made a point to talk to Moses every day. Over time, we became great friends. He’s everything most people should aspire to be: confident, smart, and fundamentally kind. He was supposed to be learning from me – and yet I was learning from him in ways that I couldn’t have predicted.
Near the end of our time together, he looked at me in the eye and said, “I want to study. I want to be like you.” It broke my heart. If I can affect even one life in this way, then my time on this earth will have been meaningful.
I truly believe that the youth have always had, and will always have, the answers to the big questions. It is of utmost importance that we listen to our children, and allow them a platform to express themselves.
During my time as an ArtCenter family member, my job was to build bridges and connect people of all ages and backgrounds. At the end of the day, it comes down to three critical tenets: relationships, appreciation and respect. Without those, connection is impossible.
Jahee Kim Lee
MFA 92 Illustration
Secretary General, Himango
Former Seoul Chapter Chair, ArtCenter AlumNetwork
It was at ArtCenter that I came to understand the idea of what I call an ‘invisible support system.’ It’s about bolstering someone else’s well-being without calling attention to your act of generosity.Jahee Kim Lee