Art As Healing

Conversations with Jessica & Heidi
Written by Heidi Woo

Jean Rim is a Korean-American visual and performance artist whose oeuvre profoundly projects healing and connection. Jean aspires to transform art into tools that enable healing in human bodies and physical spaces. This stems from her challenging but inspiring life story. After years of managing feelings of displacement and disconnect as a woman split between two homes, Korea and America, Jean has learned to transmute personal pain into creative and transcendent work as an artist and healer. Jean is no stranger to chaos. Over the course of three interviews, she shares how she has repeatedly navigated the difficult task of removing expectations and working amidst uncertainty. Something we are all grappling with right now.

Identity and Art

You have lived both in South Korea and the U.S. What are some ways having two countries to call home has influenced you? JEAN: I really do see myself as a person of the world. My cousin likes to call me “gypsy”. I was very fortunate to live in two different places. Going home to Korea was about sisterhood. My mother has four sisters, and my dad has five. We immigrated to the U.S. for my dad’s career. And while living in New York, there was still a need to visit Korea. My mom is very tight with her sisters and having all of these women around me was so beautiful.

Being with family was a wonderful thing. In America, the situation was not always awesome. We lived in the back of my mother’s deli and we moved around many times because of financial challenges. My family didn’t come here because it was their dream. I supplemented my loneliness with creating because that was the only way I could connect with people. English was not my first language, so I connected with other students through drawing. I would draw classmates’ pictures. I think two parts of my identity sort of fused together through that practice and I think I’m still doing outreach — to keep connecting with others through my work.

Healing and Seeking a Path

Your artwork has taken on a spiritual essence with your mandalas and the shamanistic practices you’ve incorporated. Tell me about your spiritual journey and how it has influenced your art. JEAN: I’ve always been very spiritual, especially through times of darkness. I’m the eldest child in my family and there was pressure for me to succeed. So I ended up literally overindulging in anything that provided an escape – from drugs, to sex, to just pushing boundaries. It reached a point where I found myself in a mental hospital.

In 2001, I was admitted to Bellevue Hospital where my freedom was taken from me. I had to learn how to gain it back and build trust with people again; to create bonds with people in a way that was more authentic. I realized I really needed to stop and look within.

In high school, I sort of battled my spirituality. I wasn’t quite sure if it was authentic, but I felt it very strongly. It’s so powerful to tap into certain books, reach out to angels, the Tarot, or meditation, and have revelations come to me. It’s almost like a gift from spirits, or guidance, to protect me and make sure that I stay on this planet to do the work that I’m supposed to do. I realized I would die if I didn’t make art and to continue making art without the stress — to let it have its own energy — I needed to find a way to make money. That’s how my massage practice began. Of course, my family was very much against it, because women in Korea who touch naked bodies are considered prostitutes.

During moments of darkness, which have slowly been building throughout my teens, into my mid-20s, Spirit has always come in, and there has always been divine intervention. Different people came into my life to help me. They provided tools that I needed to keep living, making sure I didn’t go into what I call “the shadow lands”. Nowadays, I feel like I can visit those darker parts of my interior landscape, without it holding me down.

I have empathy for people who deal with mental illness. I have a whole new perspective on mental health. There are moments as a creative person, or even a spiritual person, where you are held under water, or you are kept apart from something, and you have to overcome it, whatever that is. Mine was being in the hospital and reexamining everything, and then being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and receiving outpatient treatment. I found that cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a preferred method for treating BPD, is very similar to Buddhism. It involves meditation, and focuses on being, nurturing oneself, and creating healthy routines. I had never learned these things before.

How have you evolved as an artist? What aspects of a project capture your attention and what is your process like? JEAN: My art is always going to be about color — whether I’m carving into paint, or if I’m making my own paint like I used to do with egg tempura, or if I was using fabric. Back in my twenties, I was sewing canvases to fabrics, and then stretching and painting over them. I lost all those pieces. They were awesome. Can you imagine the stretching? It was canvas versus silk versus cotton. The tension! Then using rabbit “skin glue” and seeing what that does to the fabric and then just putting down a quick mark. But it was always about color, and texture too.

Also, the underlying themes in my artist statements are myths and storytelling. A lot of my carvings are based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The love story isn’t my main focus — more so the duality of being a part of both water and land. What resonates with me most is her struggle to communicate in a world where she doesn’t speak the same language as everyone else. As an immigrant in America, this is something I had to deal with too.

I’ve realized I am not one of those artists who follows a strict routine. My studio practice is a little bit erratic because my schedule is erratic. I’ve realized I don’t do well when I’m pinned down or when there is too much structure in my process. When there is a lot of structure, those works don’t seem to have the same energy. When I attack a piece of wood, go for it, and incorporate different elements, that piece has a different vibration than when I make 12 of the same kind of painting.

How has your community supported your work? What is the nature of your commissioned works? JEAN: I’ve been very fortunate with the massage business and my art. My art has always grown through word of mouth. I think if you have a natural way of talking about what you do, people get curious and they want to engage. And like I said before, the way for me to connect with people was: “Let’s talk about art!” Art has always been a way for me to connect, build friendships, and provide gifts.

A lot of times there’s crossover in my professions. I have clients who get massage treatments and also love art. Or people who know me as an artist first, and later want to be a part of my healing. The Venn diagram is becoming two superimposed circles these days. One of my current art commissions is for a massage client. She bought a place in Miami and was like, “I don’t have a lot of wall space. I love your work. Could you put it on furniture?” So we’re working on that now. And I’m working with an interior designer to figure out the details, because functional art is unlike decorative art.

I have two other commissions from friends. When I was younger all my friends wanted to support me, so they bought smaller pieces. As we all grew up and matured, and our bank accounts flourished, they started buying bigger and bigger pieces, or they’re buying homes and reconnecting. They keep coming back. I’ve been so blessed to have so many people supporting me. It’s great when people I love buy my work. I get to see the work again.

Pivoting and Evolving in the Face of the Pandemic

Healing remains a consistent theme in Jean’s work entering 2021. During last year’s government shutdown Jean invested much time and energy towards expanding her repertoire when she received training in palm reading and other shaman practices. These skillsets further enrich her visual and performance art, solidifying her aspirations as a healing artist.

How has your work changed due to the pandemic? JEAN: My massage business is always busy because I only have a few clients, but this time, I’m not quite sure that will be the case. They’ve been so loving, but it’s hard because I wear a mask and other PPE (personal protective equipment) throughout my sessions. With COVID-19 cases rising … I’m wondering if my practice has to shut down again. You can’t plan anything anymore. If you want to plan something, get ready to be disappointed.

What are some unexpected positive changes from the pandemic that you are grateful for? JEAN: I’m grateful my life was not affected tremendously. I do not have children. I do not have to go to an office. I go into people’s homes, but it’s worked out okay. People have bought artwork, so I’ve been in the studio. The one thing about me that could be seen as inconsistent or flighty was actually very beneficial in these circumstances. The unknown is a very comfortable place for me. I’m okay with detours and going backwards.

During the pandemic I had a lot of time to just hyper-focus on myself and I had time to learn. That break was so good for me because I got to reabsorb, go through all my books, all my tools and ask myself,” Okay, where am I with massage and art? Where do I want to go with it all?” And then things just started happening. Doors just started opening up!

What projects are you currently working on? JEAN: I have almost completed the furniture project, there are two big mandalas that I want done, and a performance art piece I’m working on related to shamanism. I’m trying to find new ways to continue performance art during the pandemic, so I can connect with strangers. Now that I’ve been apprenticing with Lakota elder, Janice Red Willow, and American shaman, Itzhak Beery, there will be more depth.

I’ve always worked with shamans. In Korea, a Buddhist woman who took care of my grandparents would read my birth chart. It’s very mathematical and similar to mysticism in South America where they tap into ancient practices connected to nature. It’s all about communicating with Spirit and empowering oneself through connecting to intuition. In Korea, shamans are usually women and they’re not revered like in Native American cultures, or South American countries, like Ecuador and Peru.

I’m also incorporating crystals in my work. The crystals are in the studio submerged in water. I use amethyst water to bless my paints and wash my paint brushes. I’m starting to talk about this work more because I want people to know there’s more thought and intention behind everything I do, which is why I am opening up more about my process for creating art as tools. I’d like my artwork to become a tool like in religious art; statues of the Buddha or Mary … they have a different energy.

Jean possesses the unique ability to bear witness to her past challenges, flow with external uncertainty, and juggle numerous life roles while maintaining a persistent sense of levity. She isn’t burdened by her past nor does she identify with victimhood. Instead, Jean uses her art as a tool to explore her multifaceted identity and honor her personal history. Her art evokes feelings of optimism and resilience as opposed to resentment and remorse.

Workshops and the zine are organized by Slow + Sustain through the volunteer efforts of our contributors. Funding comes from both the contributors and the public.