Korean American artist Sammy Seung-min Lee’s first meal in the United States was a preview of the experience and dilemma of conforming to a new country and culture. Prepared by her aunt, who had immigrated 25 years earlier, the feast featured traditional Korean foods served as a buffet—a novelty for then-16-year-old Lee. “She gave me a large plate to fill with whatever I wanted,” recalls the artist, who was accustomed to eating from small vessels containing carefully portioned and presented dishes. “All the food and juices were mixing together, and I wasn’t sure if I liked it but I thought, ‘I guess this is a way of becoming American.’ ”
Years later, after studying fine art, media art and architecture then starting Studio SML | k—her art practice in Denver—Lee memorialized this symbolic meal by recreating the buffet table in her work space. She then draped it with sheets of hand-felted mulberry paper that hardened into an intricately detailed, three-dimensional cast of the scene.
“I call it a ‘paper skin,’ because I feel like I’m giving a shape to memories,” says Lee, who stumbled upon her paper-felting technique—which involves repeatedly soaking, squeezing, kneading and pounding sheets of handmade hanji paper until the delicate material is transformed into a leathery yet luminous substrate—while practicing bookbinding. “I was using wheat paste to fuse [the paper] layers to create thicker material, but then I discovered a similar, almost-forgotten technique existing in Korea that just required water, paper and busy hands to agitate the fibers,” she says. “It creates an amazingly sculptural material that can record so many fine details, from the movement of air to the weight of water, and with tension and relaxed draping existing together.”
Lee has applied these paper skins—stained using coffee and tea, then painted with varnishes—to a variety of objects embodying sociocultural issues related to immigration, home and belonging. Her ongoing series, “A Very Proper Table Setting,” encompasses more than 100 cast table settings from Denverites who have accepted the challenge of serving everything from traditional Thanksgiving feasts to lavish Southern breakfasts in Lee’s Korean tableware. “Setting up a meal for someone is very disarming,” she notes. “These questions and problems we have about the society we live in—this is a way to process, discuss and understand them through making art.”