Timothy Hyunsoo Lee is a watercolor artist based in Brooklyn, New York, currently represented by Sabrina Amrani Gallery and is the recipient of the VSA Emerging Young Artist Award (2014) as well as the International Emerging Artist Award in Dubai. Born in Seoul, South Korea, but raised in Queens, Lee grew up in the midst of many debilitating conflicts. Navigating the clash between his American and Korean heritages as well as his identity as someone who has suffered from a panic and anxiety disorder since childhood, Lee's art has become a means of exploring, reconciling, and ultimately coexisting with conflict. His primary artistic technique is both ethereal and obsessive, and reflects the duality between the chaos of his anxiety versus the airy, meditative beauty he produces. I spoke with Lee about his personal journey unearthing the psychological challenges he's faced, combating the stigma against them, and how they ultimately led to where he stands as a professional artist today.
Moving to America: Caught Between Cultures
When you’re young, you’re very impressionable. You adapt very easily. I describe my childhood as a lot like … mozzarella cheese. You can stretch it and pull it as far as you can, but at a certain point, it’ll snap. The mind, when you’re that young, is elastic in that sense.
I came here at five years old with my parents. We grew up in some pretty awful conditions. I had to deal with that while reconciling with having to learn and speak English at school, but having to speak Korean at home. My brother was able to take it very well. He’s only 15 months older, but he and I had very different personalities growing up. Our teachers would describe us as two sides of a single hand. He definitely thrived, whereas I felt I more collapsed under the pressure.
I know that a lot of my anxiety stemmed from this cultural identity crisis growing up, which I might’ve not registered then, but has definitely affected how I perceive the world. So I understand that.
I understand that the extreme academic pressures that were forced upon me by my parents to achieve this American dream was a contributing factor. That’s part of the Korean heritage, but also part of the immigrant family experience: putting all your effort into your kids to make sure they succeed. And you succeed through an extension of them. That’s a very East Asian value.
My brother really emulated through those challenges. I could not. That was a contributing factor. Me having the tendency to shift through these different moods, that’s also a contributing factor.
Night Terrors: the First Indication
I used to have night terrors. They developed around 7th or 8th grade. They used to hit me once every two or three months. I’d wake up and know it was coming, and then it would happen. I guess that was the first indication that I felt different from a lot of kids my age. I was having a lot more nightmares. A lot of them would be so strong that they’d wake me up and I’d see them in real life. Those are the night terrors.
That was the first indication that something was very different. I still recall them. They’re strongly imprinted on me, which is not a negative thing. It’s a weird sensation I can’t describe. You just wake up, and you have this all-over body feeling as if you’re coming down a roller coaster. You know that push. And then you know it’s coming. I can’t really describe what it is, because the image is always different. But every experience is a very familiar one.
When “Panic and Anxiety Disorder” Becomes a Real Concept
[The concept of panic and anxiety disorders] became real to me in college. In high school, I had “episodes,” where I’d have weeks of very severe mood swings. My parents, my brother—they had no ill intentions, but they’d say I was being dramatic or having a fit. To be frank, I think that’s a very common thing, especially toward kids: “You’re being too dramatic,” “You’re going through a phase,” “You’re just growing up.”
So I always understood it as that. But in college, you’re around your peers 24/7. You start to, sometimes unconsciously, compare your behavior to theirs and understand why you react differently to the same scenarios. And the more I studied how the brain works, or doesn’t work sometimes, I started putting two and two together and really confirmed my suspicions.
College was also the time I had I think the biggest panic attacks I’ve had, some I just barely avoided collapsing under. That’s when I realized I had to do something. There was a big period where I would have these revelations that would trigger these very existential panic attacks.
The first real, full-blown panic attack I had was in Australia, my sophomore year. I was studying abroad. It was the second to last week before classes ended. I was sitting outside at 5 AM by myself, overlooking campus. Absolutely gorgeous. I had left Wesleyan to go abroad for a semester because it was stressing me out too much. I was trying to take art classes and neuro classes, trying to think about what I want to do, but also about how to make a sustainable career after college, and all my friends were already doing internships, and I had absolutely no interest in working like that—so I needed to leave.
So I went to Australia, and it was so beautiful and so amazing that I wanted to stay. But there was deep inside something that pulled on me and said, “There’s no way you can.” A lot of these panics arise from two areas of my brain having an internal argument unable to reconcile each other, and you don’t know what to do at that point.
I entered a very dark period, until—I don’t know. For me, there’s no real way to let it go. It’s very difficult to explain to friends, or family, because if you live with anxiety, depression, all sorts of mood disorders, there’s no real easy way. People tell you to “think positively.” They try to make you feel better. It’s with good intentions, but that’s not so easy. You can’t think your way out of it.
One day, you either have to confront it, which works for other people. But for others, you have to wait and soldier through it until the moment passes.
College was a time where I really understood who I was a lot more, was able to finally understand the source of a lot of my anxiety and where the panic came from. Also, once you’re aware of the triggers, it’s like a double-edged sword, where you know what to avoid, but you can also sense one coming, and that’s like a feeling of dread that you don’t want.
Reaching a Formal Diagnosis
I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in college. I had to be very careful, very secretive, because there was so much stigma associated with having it on your record, and also with telling my parents. In a lot of East Asian societies, psychological disorders are considered a mental weakness, not neurobiological phenomena. Especially growing up in Korea, being a son, which represents a lot in this patriarchal society, having a mental illness is immediately associated with the most extreme, media-portrayed examples of those diseases and is also portrayed as being very weak-willed and weak-minded. No one wants a weak son.
I never could really talk to them about it, so I was constantly always letting them think I was having a fit or being dramatic. Even now with my art, I appreciate that they try to understand, but I know, growing up in such different cultures and mindsets, that they never will.
The Internet is a very dangerous place. And I say that smiling, because you’ll read something and you’ll think it applies to you so much. And you’re so convinced by it that you actually develop those symptoms, and then you realize it’s all in your head. I’ve definitely gone through phases of that. I guess it really took that first breakdown in Australia for me to be shaken enough to realize, “This is not something I can always think away. Something needs to be done about it.”
Of course, I always knew deep inside that there was something very different about me. Having it put into a formal statement, by an outside source—it was a cautious sigh of relief, to be honest. Partly, it meant I’m not completely crazy, but secondly, it meant there was something that could be done to help it—which I was super disappointed by afterward.
The medication, I just refused it. I’ve known friends who’ve taken mood stabilizers, Lithium. I know what it does to a person. Mental illnesses exist on a spectrum of severity. When people hear “bipolar" they immediately think of Jekyll and Hyde. Yes, people have experienced bipolar mania to that severity, but there’s an entire spectrum. A lot of psychiatrists are just prescribing a certain amount of the drug without understanding that maybe there are more holistic processes that could be used as therapy. They don’t really take time to listen. They just prescribe.
They prescribed me Lithium, and I got it, and I looked it. And I got too scared. I couldn’t. I knew that this would be a journey that, for me at least, was not worth it.
After that, I sought more alternative approaches, which is where I really started getting into my painting. The one thing I could always do no matter what was to stay up all night with my art. I started channeling myself into my studio a lot more. I started taking a lot more art classes. That’s when there was a transition between art being a hobby to being a full-blown passion.
Pursuing Formal Treatment
What I hate, especially now, about American medicine is most psychiatrists do not do talk therapy. Most often, the stuff they tell me I already know because I’ve done enough research. All they want to do is medicate you—not to make it go away, but to make you not feel anything at all. I don’t want to be a vegetable.
I write now. So I talk to myself. I’m sure I could find someone out there—but with American healthcare, everything costs so much money, especially talk therapy, which is not considered a necessary treatment. For a lot of people, they reconcile with what they have in different ways. Some people require medication. Some require someone to engage in conversation with so they can confront their own demons.
Talk therapy is super-expensive. For me, writing and reading, making art, I think for me did what talk therapy was supposed to do: It got me to really face the source of everything, to figure out what I could reconcile, if any, and how to go about living the rest of my life knowing that that’s there, but being able to manage it.
The Choice to Become a Professional Artist
I majored in neuroscience. There was something very logical about the sciences. I loved the chemical hormones in the brain and how they affect very arbitrary and abstract thoughts, emotions, memory. Then I started veering toward pathologies of the brain: anxiety disorders, psychopathological brain trauma, epilepsy, just to understand and educate myself better on what’s happening.
But I’ve always done art growing up. My mom was a ceramicist in Korea. She was super supportive. She let me just create and sketch and doodle in my free time. Around high school was when, I guess, she realized I needed a creative outlet. She really pushed me to do art. It was also another way to get to college, because to be honest, my grades weren’t spectacular in high school.
But college is a really interesting experience. It’s a four-year pressure cooker, in certain respects. I wanted to do art to have something to look forward to. My first art class kicked my ass so hard that I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the challenge. So I started devoting myself entirely to my art.
Until senior year, I was still thinking about going to med school. I thought it was the logical transition, but I was in my studio more than I was in my class. So I decided to withdraw everything and become an artist. It felt right. And it took a lot of convincing to my parents. They did not take it well initially. I might’ve actually lied to them at first. But I told them if I’m going to do art, this is the best time to try it out. I’d rather do this now, and if I fail, I fail. But if I don’t, I’ll regret it.
From Squatting in Brooklyn to Amrani Gallery
So I put everything I owned, all my resources, time, into my art, 100%. I worked at an after-school program that barely covered my rent and living expenses. I was living razor-thin margins every month. I was squatting in my studio for two years, in the top of a warehouse in this tiny room in Williamsburg. You weren’t supposed to live there. There were really no facilities. This was when my friends, my parents, my brother really showed their support.
It was two really rough years where I questioned myself a lot, but there was something in me that told me I couldn’t abandon it, as rough as it was, as tough as it was. Sometimes I was like, “This is a really shitty life to live,” but there was a part of me that said, “You really can’t do anything else.”
Art is, luckily, a profession of mine at this point. I’m working with a great gallery in Madrid, and they’ve really worked hard to put me out there, share my story, and realize that beautiful art can come from many different sources. My parents are 100% behind me now, particularly my mom, because she kind of gave up her craft to raise us in America. That was actually her first concern for me, but now she’s really proud.
As far as how I went from not being recognized to working with a gallery, it’s all just luck of the draw. One of my favorite living artists, John Baldessari, says every young creative professional needs to know three things: first, that talent is cheap; there are so many people out there who are just as skilled. Second, you have to be possessed, but cannot will. Third, you have to be at the right place at the right time. My entire life has shown that those three sentiments are really true.
So I won the International Emerging Artist Award in Dubai, which was juried by Sabrina Armani. We just got along so well. She’s from a French-Algerian background. Her husband who directs the gallery is from a Syrian-Spanish background. They were really interested in artists with multicultural experiences, so my work and how most of my life has been defined by these two dual segments fighting against each other really spoke to her. We started working together, and it’s been great since.
I’m still a starving artist. I put everything I earn back into my studio. I read this article that said most people should be putting only 30% of what they earn toward living expenses. Such a lie, first of all, for the average New Yorker, but for me, it’s 80–90%, and the rest is supplies. I’m always getting by no matter how much I make, but I’m fine with that. This is my life. Of course I’d invest right back into it.
Watercolor and Brain Slicing: the Original Technique
In college, I wanted to do painting, but they really just forced you to do oil painting, which I wasn’t a fan of. I could do it, and my first paintings were very hyper-realistic. But there was something too tight about it. I was frustrated; the technique did not appeal to me. So I majored in drawing, but I still wanted that fluidity of paint, so I did watercolor.
I really love watercolor. A lot of my struggles have to do with lack of control or control. So my process is very tight, but watercolor itself is not a very tight medium. It’s very loose, which is why a lot of people hate it. I let it be loose within the boundaries that I create for it. It’s like a mini-gasp. I have no idea how it’s going to turn out, but I know if it turns out within this confine, it’ll be okay. I’m okay with that unpredictability.
The pattern seen in my work was because in college, I was working in a neuro-stem cell lab for two years. I did a lot of brain slice stemming, looking into neuro-stem cell transplants into a mouse brain that has temporal epilepsy. I would stain the slices of brain with these chemicals and look at them under a microscope, doing a lot of cell counting and tagging.
But they looked beautiful. There were all these very beautiful reds, yellows, blues, purples. Something about that visual imagery was so appealing, because within that image, there was so much information. But to the untrained eye, it’s a beautiful image.
Then I realized it looked a lot like snakeskin, and I love the idea of molting of a skin, and how once it peels, for a moment, it is in its most vulnerable state. But once it hardens, it’s such a thin layer that offers so much protection. And I thought that was such a great metaphor for the human experience, where you shed through all these moments of your life, and for a split second when that happens, you’re super vulnerable. But with that shedding comes strength.
A State of Meditation
If you look at the works I do, they’re very repetitive, almost like little mandalas. And with each one, I can have hours go by without knowing what time it is, without knowing that the Sun has already risen. I want to say it’s like a state of meditation. In that state of meditation, you don’t even think about it. You experience, and then you let it purge out of you.
More often than not, in the midst of this, you enter a moment of clear-headedness, where you’re able to think out a lot of thoughts in the back of your head. You don’t directly view it, but you know it’s playing in the back. It’s an easier way of confronting them. I want to say it’s like daydreaming with the volume on very low. You know it’s playing in front of you, but it’s in such a demure way that you’re able to look at it without reacting so strongly.
You asked me before how much I remember my night terrors. I can feel those feelings, and they are triggered sometimes when I’m painting. But they’re done in such a way that I can almost break down systemically what those different sensations are, and not so much figure out how to defeat it—but just the act of analyzing it makes it not so intimidating. It’s not an “I don’t know” force to be reckoned with. I know what it is. I know what it’s composed of. Some of the fear of that mystery goes away.
Or I’ll think of various scenes, memories. My grandmother—I spent seven years sleeping in the same bed with her. She sung me this lullaby, which, when I was a kid, I thought was the most haunting sound ever. She had a great voice, but just the way the inflections, the tones, and the bass went—it just reminded me of a deserted landscape, pitch black at night.
I recently created a few blue paintings, and in the process, as I’m in this quiet, shallow breathing state, that song just came into my head. And it triggered all these memories of me lying in bed, in Woodside, what the night sky looked like, the song, her voice. It flashes back a lot.
“Art did not cure me.”
I’m sounding very spiritual here. I’m not a spiritual person, but the process is very spiritual for me. Everything I do in terms of my art and writing is engaging with myself, starting a conversation with myself: me being one part of the conversation, and my process being the other part. So in my process, I talk to myself. I understand myself better and face a lot of issues that I otherwise would not be able to in a “sober” state. That’s not to say it treated anything. This is not a coping mechanism. I always make sure I tell people, art did not cure me, but it allowed an outlet. It allowed me to get lost in a trance-like state.
And since I’ve gotten into this practice, I’ve been a lot better at curbing the triggering of a panic attack. I’ve become a lot better at understanding what kind of environment I need to be in to facilitate a calm, happy, productive lifestyle.
For example, I know when I’m in the right condition to have a panic attack. There are days you wake up where you’re just a little bit ansty, and there’s a moment when something’s happening in front you and it just doesn’t feel right. A lot of people who do have anxiety attacks will tell you: something just doesn’t feel right. You feel super restless all of a sudden. You feel a queasiness.
Once that happens, I know I’m in a prime state. I will do more breathing exercises, which I’ve learned over doing my art: just very shallow breaths, trying to mute out all external stimuli. With enough practice, not always, but you can calm yourself down enough to a point to say, “Okay, I’ve managed it. This is fine.”
People get concerned, too. I have good friends who always want to talk to me. They’re great friends, but at this point, they understand when I sometimes need time alone, and they’ll respect those boundaries. Conversation with another person is not always the best thing. First of all, there’s the matter of just not being able to relate. When you talk to someone about this, you don’t always want them to relate, at least for me. It’s like inflicting pain on someone else. But most people, they want to listen, to empathize. They have all these good intentions, and that’s the last thing I need.
What I need is a space, and in the end, that’s why I have conversations with my practice, with myself—because there’s absolutely no judgment. There are absolutely no limitations on what I can and cannot say. It’s very uncensored, very raw. And through that process, that literal purging, you’re able to pick out the pieces that are good and start to rebuild yourself.
The Impact of Environment
I grew up [in New York]. My parents gave up everything to come here. New York was our anchor. We went through really, really tough years, really bad years, but I think we’re at a point where I can confidently say “our” American dream has been accomplished. Not to say we’ve amassed success in the commercial sense, but that through all of our trials and tribulations, we remain this core, loving, strong family, and we’re all rooted here.
This place, walking around to older neighborhoods, brings back so many memories, both good and bad, that I can never leave. A part of my life is tethered to growing up in New York, and whenever I go somewhere else for a long period of time, I start comparing everything to New York.
But if I’m here for too long, it’s too much energy. There’s just something about this place. It really is like knowing how to swim slightly and being thrown into the deep end. You’re either going to start swimming and kicking, or you’re going to struggle and potentially drown.
I want to go to more isolated areas. After I had the panic attack in Australia, two weeks later, I went to New Zealand with four of my friends. We rented a five-person camper van and went to the south island and just drove around. That was one of the only experiences where I felt true serenity.
We climbed up this mountain for three and a half hours. We’re like, “It better be a gorgeous view. I’m so exhausted.” We get to the very top, and it’s a giant lake on top of a mountain, surrounded by peaks of other mountains that were snow-capped. It was so quiet. There was absolutely no one there. And we just sat there for an hour, without talking. We couldn’t. Because if we even tried to open our mouths, it would steal our breath.
It was such a moment of complete clarity for me, because I felt nothing. I felt, for the first time, no tremors. It was complete relief.
[And I find that] in my art. I find tranquility in just being able to sit down and experience, or not experience at all. Or just engage in something, not mindlessly, but without so much intention.
“A Nightmare Creating a Dream”
When people see my pieces, they don’t see that they’re the result of this process. I don’t think, ever, what I’m going to make until I actually start putting watercolor to paper. Two years ago, I named the series Traces. It was all about, “If I don’t dictate what I’m going to draw and just let my breathing create forms, what would they look like?”
And they look like these very ethereal, dreamy nightscapes, landscapes. The experience of drawing them is very similar, but the actual source of it, why I’m doing it, completely betrays that notion. These drawings come from me having a way to reconcile with what I experience on a daily basis, but the end product looks so beautiful. It’s kind of like a nightmare creating a dream.
When I look at my own art, I just see a process. Very few works trigger distinct memories, because the process is so long. For the most part, I see what most people see, which is a beautiful pattern. And I love the ambiguity of it, because I don’t want them to experience my pain. I want them to, for a moment, get lost in the immersive process. To get hypnotized by my work, and to have a moment of stepping out of their reality.
Beyond the Technique
Then I went through times when the technique didn’t work. I was burdened with it when I graduated and started working professionally. This technique was so beautiful, I thought it defined my artistic career—and that really stressed me out. I put myself into a confine.
I also had these grandeur ideas that now that I’ve left medicine, I have to become a great artist. I needed a goal, and my goal was to become this great, acclaimed artist. Now I realize it’s such a great outlet for me, that I just create. The first time I abandoned this technique and started drawing in these types of ways (image below), it was such a release. When I was only painting with my original technique, if I had moments where I couldn’t, I would just brew in my studio by myself, unable to do anything. Frustrated with myself for not being able to paint, but still not being able to paint.
Art is a vehicle in so many ways. There’s the original process, but there are also those times I cannot paint like that because my hand is shaking too much. I do more visceral, more aggressive drawings on canvas. This is not the only way. I make works to just release. I destroy a lot afterward, and I’m fine with that, as long as it’s been created at one point. Something was let out. Art has become an all-encompassing way of having conversation with myself, not just one style.
A Ghost Identity
The conflicts? The best way to describe it is that now, I’m standing in between them all.
They don’t really define my anxiety anymore. They’re all there, and I see them all. Because I know what possibilities there are, I’m better able to manage how to overcome it if a panic attack happens. And I haven’t had one in months, which is great. It’s been a while.
There are certain times I think, “Wow. That’s a very Korean thing to do.” Or, “That’s a very American thing to do.” I used to bow a lot. Now I do in Korean contexts, and I realized it’s a little weird in American contexts. Even now, I’m super uncomfortable speaking to people who are older than me by their first name, because in Korea, you absolutely can’t call an adult by their first name. That’s the best way to get a smack to the head. But the first time I went to Korea, it was such a culture shock. I left when I was five, went back when I was 17. I was blown away. I was like, “What? This is not the family I come from. This is not the culture I come from.”
For my personal values, I think it’s a mix of both. It’s a unique combination. I used to often describe myself as having a ghost identity. Actually, there was a book I read in class once that resonated with me a lot by Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior. In the book, the narrator describes herself as being a ghost, not belonging to a Chinese identity, and not belonging to an American identity.
That’s what I always considered myself as well. Because I was never able to fully assimilate, or thought I couldn’t, to the American culture I was raised in, and equally never able to assimilate into my Korean culture, I was able to look at both. I could see when their cultural values really rammed heads, psychological disorders being a very good example. America is so much about, “Don’t worry. There’s biological reasoning. It’s all about medication,” whereas in Korea, it’s completely shunned.
There are times when a lot of my values conflict with each other. I’m finding something in between. That’s not to say I’m agreeing half-and-half, but I’m finding something in between and reconciling those two.
One of the more recent instances of that is talking about it. I used to not talk about it a lot, and let people think I had typical mood swings. I let them think that, and I thought that way because there was still this very ingrained Korean ideology that what I had was shameful, would make me weaker. Surprisingly, also, was this American portrayal of mental disorder, especially on film and TV, as being this very intense experience. Schizophrenia, for example, can be very mild. People can live with them and not tell anyone, because it’s mild enough for them to manage, because if they do tell people, they’ll think they’re hearing and seeing things all the time.
But I realize that I’m not alone, as much as I think my experiences are unique to me—and they are, based on my personal circumstances. But everyone, based on their personal circumstances, is battling something.
Hope for the Future
I want to reduce the stigma.
I told all my friends, and little by little, it’s changing the way they view mental illness as well. I think it’s great for everyone if we start a conversation and remove all these schemas associated with what is and is not mental illness. It allows them to converse and have conversations, and not be afraid to have questions, to better understand not just their friends, but also anyone they might come across in life. The only way something stops being a social stigma is if people confront it and talk about it. I will continue to do that for the rest of my life. Regardless of whether it has an impact, just having that conversation, allowing people to process it over and over again reduces the stigma associated with it.
A lot of young artists ask me, “What was your secret? What advice do you have?” I just say, when I do art, it’s something you should be able to give to 100%. If you do, it’s like a saving hand. And there are so many creative outlets. I’ve seen amazing people do stuff with their body through dance, or do writing. I just say create. Creating is a conversation, a confrontation. Creating breaks down barriers. Just create.
Interview by Caitlin Shih
Caitlin Shih is just another millennial with a B.A. in English and a deep-seated interest in the human experience. She lives on Long Island, New York, and currently struggles with spending too much time out of her home and not enough time with her cat.