I was stunned by the detail and depth of these amazing pieces when a friend showed them to me in Cabinet Magazine. At first I thought they were photographs, but then realized that they were actual paintings by artist So Yoon Lym. And not just any paintings, rather LARGE paintings! I’ve always thought that cornrows were works of art, and the artist really took this concept to the next level. I connected with her to ask about the inspiration behind and reactions to the pieces and she explained it more artfully than I ever could. In her own words on her series titled The Dreamtime:
I first became inspired by this series when I started teaching at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, NJ in September 2001 up until June 2010. I loved the many beautiful hair styles of both my male and female students as well as the many students who I would see in the hallways who were not necessarily students I knew.
I would sometimes run after students in the hallway and request that they stop by room 108 briefly to allow me to take a picture of their hair and braid patterns. I was always pleasantly surprised and pleased that everyone always stopped by and allowed me to document their hair style. All my students if they had an interesting or unusual hair and braid pattern always allowed me to take pictures as well. I knew I wanted to use these photographs as reference material for a future art project but wasn’t sure what I would do with them until the summer of 2008.
During the 2008-2009 school year, there was a series of art exhibitions that were to feature art educators in the Paterson Public School District, who also made their own artwork at the Passaic County Community College Art Galleries which is also in Paterson, NJ. I decided to do a small series of acrylic on paper paintings (14″ x 17″) that would somehow reference Paterson as the exhibition title for the 3 person exhibition I was in would be titled: Inspiration: Paterson.
The response as far as art submissions I made following this exhibition to other exhibition opportunities was so positive, that I decided to work on a larger scale and larger body of hair and braid pattern paintings, still using acrylic on paper, but this time on 22″ x 30″ paper.
I would print out a photograph of the hair and braid pattern I am interested in painting, usually having to lighten the photograph considerably, so that I can see each distinct pattern. I begin with a light pencil drawing on the 22″ x 30″ paper. I then spend many hours building up the painting with acrylic paint, using the acrylic paint almost in a watercolor technique. Since, correcting a mistake is difficult especially with works on paper, I always try to work when I know I am able to concentrate and focus 100% without any distractions.
People always comment on the fact that the paintings “look like photographs”. I have never particularly been interested in the genre of photorealism in painting. I think of my paintings as being “naturalistic” as opposed to photo realistic. To depict and render hair and the various intricate hair patterns as authentically as possible via the medium of painting, I felt that a certain degree of natural representation was important for this particular series.
All the hair and braid patterns I have documented over the course of 8 years are all patterns that were found on students. I would ask various students who made and/or created these designs and/or did the actual braiding or styling? They would tell me it was either a family member, a friend they knew, a family friend, etc. But they were all done by either girls or women….girls and women in their lives. I view these hair and braid patterns as a kind of living craft form. Although I was a fine arts painting major in both undergraduate and graduate school, I have always had a great interest in the myriad of art forms that are often classified in the realm of “crafts”: such as knitting, crocheting, cross-stitching, weaving, embroidery, dyeing techniques, paper cutting, paper marbling, knotting, etc.
Most all these hair and braid patterns were not created in any kind of formal hair salon, except perhaps for some of the female hairstyles. From the many exhibitions I have shown these hair and braid patterns at, I have received a wonderful response and appreciation for these paintings particularly from art viewers who are of African-American heritage and from other practicing artists as well as various curators.
Perhaps one of the most touching responses I have had was from a local reporter of African American ancestry who met me at the Paterson Museum when I had a solo exhibition of this hair and braid pattern series, back in November 2010. Her eyes welled up with tears and she told me that when she looks at my hair and braid pattern painting series, she feels pride.
I was fortunate to have gotten Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, who is an Associate Curator at El Museo del Barrio in NYC to have written the text for my hair and braid pattern series. Although I have a artist statement for this series, I feel that she expressed more beautifully and eloquently all that I wanted to achieve with this series:
Aren’t these amazing, y’all?? Now the cool part is that I couldn’t even show HALF of the series in this post. I highly recommend you check out the rest of the series as well as the So Yoon Lym’s website!