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Fiber Artist Folds Nature into Lynden Sculpture Garden Exhibit

Kyoung Ae Cho is the third artist featured in Lynden’s Women, Nature, Science series.
Cho teaches at Peck School of the Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

The series was the brainchild of Polly Morris, executive director at Lynden Sculpture Garden.

“I started this series a year or so ago, because I was interested in connecting what goes outside here, with what goes on inside,” Morris says.

The Lynden Sculpture Garden is located about 10 miles north of downtown Milwaukee. The 40-parcel was the estate of Harry and Peg Bradley, whose legacies includes the Allen-Bradley Co. and a breathtaking collection of art. A smidge over four years ago, the “Bradley place” opened as the Lynden Sculpture Garden.

Executive director Polly Morris says many of the people who visit Lynden are interested in the “nature side of things; the sculptures are not foremost in their mind. The fact that we have galleries is not their primary interest.”

Morris started the series last summer with artist Emilie Clark. She’s immersed in the work of 19th century scientists. Next, Morris showed Sheila Held.

“She makes tapestries many of which have to do with women and nature and science. Her tapestries have titles like ‘Ecotourism’ and they’re all very mysterious,” Morris says.

Morris says it took some time to pin Kyoung Ae Cho down to a firm exhibit date.

“Kyoung Ae was on sabbatical last year and we agreed that when she came back we would do a show,” Morris says.

She was determined to feature both Cho’s formal work, Morris describes as “contained in many ways, very rigorous and full of repetitive action”, as well as the artist’s “alternate personality work.”

Morris is referring to the hand-stitched quilt that floats from the rafters of the high-ceilinged space. It’s a mass of colorful fabric petals. Cho worked on the piece for over eight years. Morris also convinced the artist to share a wall’s worth of photographs. They serve as Cho's research log.

Credit S Bence
One hundred photos Cho culled from thousands of photos taken over one year.

“They’re incredibly close examinations of bugs and flowers. Kyoung Ae doesn’t like to show any of these things. But we made this arrangement that it will all face away from the gallery; her real work could turn its back on her colorful work,” Morris says.

Morris explains says the artist’s REAL work, deeper within the gallery, reflects her connection to nature, the exploration of mortality and, Morris carefully adds hair, Cho’s own hair.

Kyoung Ae Cho says growing up in South Korea, she had known nothing about fine art. As a child she loved snapping photographs – as you’ve already heard – and “creating things” in school.

“I learned sewing very, very young from my grandma; so I made doll clothing and that lead me to go to art school,” Cho says.

She planned to become a fashion designer, “because that’s all I knew; there were no artists around me.”

Once in college, Cho’s world expanded. She discovered her passion - fiber art for art sake.

”I found out I love doing it. I never grow tired of it. So I decided to go study more,” Cho says.

That’s when she came to the United States. Cho earned an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. She later taught at the Kansas City Art Institute before coming to Milwaukee.

Cho returns home to South Korea every summer to spend time with her parents. They still can’t quite fathom what it is she does for a living.

“My parents keep asking when I m going to make a dress, because that’s what they thought I was going to be,” Cho says with a laugh.

Kyoung Ae Cho and Lynden executive director Polly Morris flank two of the artist's Tree series.

Cho shows me a series fashioned around maple tree “sprouts” she collected in her yard. Cho says she grew up with a reverence for trees.

Cho feels a degree of guilt every time she weeds a wee maple out of her garden. She saved, actually still does, the most beautiful ones – carefully washing, dries them, before coating them with polyurethane.

Cho positioned each mini tree on pieces of salvaged gold-edged paper used to frame photographs. She accents each with series of artfully burned delicate dots. Each work has its own personality which the tiny pricks accentuate.

“I make them with a burning tool, engraving tool. It’s a sort of ying and yang; fire and wood can be a perfect match in the right place; in the wrong place it can be a disaster,” Cho says.

Cho says the idea of incense-burning also influences her work.

“A lot of cultures use incense to memorialize the dead; something physical becomes smoke and disappears. That whole idea is behind my work; but if people don’t get it, that’s okay, it’s still beautiful,” Cho explains.

Credit S Bence
A variation on Cho's M-A-R-K-I-N-G series.

The artist acknowledges some people might feel a bit squeamish with the raw material of the shows centerpiece – 24 pieces – each 30x24 inches, titled M-A-R-K-I-N-G.

Cho has always worn her hair very long, much to her mother’s chagrin.

“South Korea is a much more formal country, I guess, than the Western countries. There are certain expectations. Older ladies don’t wear their hair down in public. My mother gets really annoyed. She says ‘do something with your hair.’ So I knew I had to do something, because I still respect the culture,” Cho says.

As Cho approached her 50th birthday, she decided to do something dramatic; when she made her annual trip to visit her parents, she would have her hair cut. But Cho lost her nerve when the only hairdresser she trusted retired.

Cho shifted creative gears, instead of cutting it, she would collect her hair as strands naturally fell out, roll it into small balls – dozens and dozens balls later, “I decided to make a calendar" - 24 of them - upon which she fused layer upon layer of fabric, adding fine even stitches to create a quilt effect. Cho added a ring of her hair in the center of each calendar.

This fiftieth year commemoration links back to her native land. She has long lived away from South Korea, but Cho says with every year she realize the depth of her roots.

As for the “hair thing”, that goes back to her grandmother. She lived with her family when Cho was a child. She too had long hair.

“My grandmother and great grandmother both wore their hair in a traditional bun. Every day they combed it out and saved the hair. Once a week a lady came to buy it. She paid us ‘candy money’; not much but it was a nice ritual,” Cho says.

The hair was used to make wigs. When the era ended, Cho’s grandma found another use for her hair.

”She started making pincushions; so she never did throw her hair away,” Cho says.

Cho says she seldom does so much talking about her work – she’s much happier fashioning it.

One day earlier, she spotted a poppy blooming in her garden. She dashed to capture a picture of it. One photograph turned into 250. Cho has no idea, yet, how that image will make its way into a future creation.

Kyoung Ae Cho's show titled One at a Time  is on exhibit at the Lynden Sculpture Garden gallery through July 13th.

Credit S Bence
A glimpse of sculpture found on the Garden grounds - The Lovers by Lindsay Daen

Susan Bence entered broadcasting in an untraditional way. After years of avid public radio listening, Susan returned to school and earned a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She interned for WUWM News and worked with the Lake Effect team, before being hired full-time as a WUWM News reporter / producer.