Finding the Right Vessel | A Conversation with Sammy Lee


Written by Corianne Wells |  


(Denver CO)

In our last exhibition of the year, Saving Lions by Killing Them, we turn to two powerhouse artists. (One of which is the best landlord ever!)

Welcome to the studio of artist, and owner of Collective SML | k, Sammy Lee. A creator of space and collector of time, she captures something ghostly in the studio; all while bringing new, international perspectives on art-making and community building to Denver’s Santa Fe Arts District.

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The first thing most people want to know is what they are looking at… what materials do you use?

‘It's all handmade Hanji, a Korean Mulberry Paper, long fiber, which is unique in that adding stress and beating it allows the fibers to interlock. first, I apply a felting technique paper, then do things that will manipulate it to look like skin leather or fabric. It actually becomes very strong! The more stress you add the stronger it gets... it's really beautiful.’

After you’ve cast a form, how do you know if it’s working or when it’s done?

‘What's amazing about this material is that if I am not sure I can put it back into the water. Not until I am really sure (‘this I can part with’) do I varnish the work... a lot of works go back into the water."


Very Proper Table Setting #3 obviously isn’t the first. you keep returning to the table setting. Why?

‘The first one was, I think 2011, and titled Becoming Korean American. It was from my memory of the night I arrived in America in 1991. My aunt who had been in the states for 20 plus years, set up a buffet-style meal and gave us a big plate... In Korea it's small things, lunch has like 11 little dishes. Here all the sauces were getting mixed, and I wasn't sure I liked the experience but at the time I believed that's what it meant to be Korean American.’

‘I really like the vessel and the idea of what it’s holding... I set up two dining tables with east Asian serving vessels at a Sushi Restaurant in Platt Park, and as people came in I asked them to set up a meal for someone they love. Because of where we are, 90% were white American and had western meals in mind, but had to work with eastern dishes. It was an immediate reverse immigrant experiment. Like for me, it took me almost 10 years to find the perfect noodle bowl here. A cereal bowl was too small, a casserole dish too big. Serving vessels hold cultural norms, experiences, and traditions so I definitely want to see what this project looks like in different neighborhoods too.’

You've made work with personal items like onesies. Does this change your memory or interaction with time?

‘Yeah, isn't that kinda powerful! - When I hear 80's or 90's music it takes me to the time. In the same way, what I’m preserving brings there. Most of my works are like skin or a layer of memory that has been peeled off, it has a ghostly feeling.’


Most of my works are like skin or a layer of memory that has been peeled off, it has a ghostly feeling.

Sammy Lee


The suitcase keeps coming back in your work too, what's its significance?

‘It's from early on, I was in architecture school and we had a project on designing an Alzheimer's center. Having a sense of home is really nice for them to work with their condition. So they are designing the space to be more domestic - not like an institution. The professor challenged everyone to think about home, and for a lot of people it was a childhood home and whatever quality it had, was what they associated with a home. I had to sit down and think about how many times I had moved by that age, it was 27 times, by age 32. So for me, I didn't have anything, space-wise, to consider my home. It's never a physical space. I think that really influenced the suitcase in many ways.’

Your suitcases and artist books remind us of what it feels like to visit Collective SML |k. Are they similar practices to you?

‘In a sense, yes. Because it's magical what you can fit in a box! I love, and think it's a very precious thing, to create space and share it. That's why I created Collective SML | k to be both residential and work space! It's special… we’re sharing a home together!’

Come visit Collective SML | k for one last time as our home! In Saving Lions by Killing Them, Sammy Lee and Eriko Tsogo come together for a powerful examination on home, the freedom in leaving, and the consequences of time.

In this exhibition the artists use sculpture, drawing, and mixed media to balance the primal desire for safety with the spiritual longing for detachment; renegotiating identity and the self through cycles of displacement and preservation. Ghosts, shells and memories, that are here and not here, serve as a reminder that the time to move has passed.

Sammy Lee is an interdisciplinary artist and a founder of Collective SML |k (small k) in Denver, Colorado. Born and raised in Seoul, South Korea and moved to Southern California at the age of sixteen. By thirty-two years old of age she had moved twenty-six times spanning four different countries. She studied fine art and media art at UCLA and architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Saving Lions By Killing Them is open through November 29th, Wednesday - Friday, 12-6 PM. You can also view Available Works here.