Through otherworldly and surreal illustrations Jee-ook Choi strives for “unrealistic beauty”
Look out for the Ones to Watch eye in this article to find out more about Jee-ook
Regular It’s Nice That readers will be no stranger to Jee-ook Choi’s enigmatic illustrations. We have written about her so many times, it’s hard to know what else to say about the Seoul-based creative. But with the help of a rather poetic Korean translator, we discussed the ins and outs of the artist’s creative process. From a young girl in the countryside whose imagination grew out of sprawling nature to a successful illustrator in Seoul striving for personal growth, Jee-ook tells us about her life and an artistic practice that constantly strives towards an “unrealistic beauty”.
“I spent my childhood in a rural landscape where a small stream flowed through our backyard and fireflies could be seen at night on lucky days”
Jee-ook is one of those illustrators whose personal projects and commissioned work don’t stray far from one another. Whether she’s doing a magazine, book cover, poster or simply a sketch for her own enjoyment, Jee-ook’s work always possesses an element of sublime intrigue that makes us do a double take. Otherworldly and surreal, her illustrations often flit between stark realism and vivid imagination. Small idiosyncrasies reveal glimmers of personality, showcasing the artist’s process and causing us to look again and make sure we haven’t missed anything within the dense layers of composition.
The illustrator’s visual inventiveness has been brewing since she was a young girl. “I spent my childhood in a rural landscape where a small stream flowed through our backyard and fireflies could be seen at night on lucky days,” she recalls. “I was able to catch and eat frogs and grasshoppers, and sometimes I even came across snakes while picking wild berries in the forest.” In one noteworthy memory, Jee-ook remembers a normal summer’s day, when suddenly “fat caterpillars fell out of the trees onto me in their hundreds like heavy rain”. Even after all these years, this memory – and many others – still springs to mind as she remembers “that bizarre sight and feeling”.
Jee-ook grew up in a small town called Onam-ri, just an hour outside Seoul. Sadly, the house where she grew up was knocked down and is now an apartment complex, and the flowing stream that she describes is no more. This is one of the few photos Jee-ook has of herself as a child. In 1996, a devastating flood destroyed all her childhood photos and this is the only one she has with remnants of the village in the background.
Although her childhood in the country was “not always beautiful”, she says it was filled with “mysteries and refreshing jolts”. To this day, Jee-ook attributes her “continued search for unrealistic beauty” to her childhood in such an idyllic rural landscape. Upon moving to the city when she was seven years old, over time Jee-ook inevitably lost the sense of innocence that pervades all childhoods. But through illustration, she continuously tries to recreate this unattainable feeling of youthful delight that seems perfect when seen with adult hindsight. With this in mind, Jee-ook’s works possesses flawless perspectives and clean colour palettes that enhance the beauty of the image; encapsulating this idea of “unrealistic beauty”.
When asked about the meaning of her surreal drawings, Jee-ook comments on how they reflect her frequent feelings of “walking in the air without my feet touching the floor”. In turn, her work is light and airy in its lines and textures, which reflect her imagined world where time and space “are outside the laws of physics”. For Jee-ook, her tendency to depict celestial objects and bouncing beams of light is her way of elevating our daily lives , giving her illustrations what she calls “their own dimension completely independent from the external world.”
In April 2018, Jee-ook shared her series Sprinting Balls with us at It’s Nice That. The series exemplifies Jee-ook’s powerful imagination that floods the page with dynamic beams of light. On the execution of the series, she told us last year: “I wanted to incorporate contrasting time flows within each frame. I got the idea from a technique used in cartoons to represent a sense of speed while viewers imagine the escape of the ball.”
Though it seems as if Jee-ook can effortlessly pop out these arresting illustrations in no time, she actually explored many different art forms before deciding on her chosen medium. While studying fine art in Seoul, Jee-ook presented her stories in myriad forms including performance, installations and drawing. “During my studies,” she explains, “I was able to express myself with different materials and methods for each project… keeping myself open to all possibilities.” But once it came to kickstarting her career, Jee-ook chose to embrace the print-based limitations that come with being an illustrator. She has since found that her “continued search to be creatively challenged has, in fact, become deeper and more all-encompassing”, focusing on the restraints of working within one discipline alone.
“My student works are mostly boring video recordings,” says Jee-ook. “I’m not sure that you will be so interested in them, because it is so different from my current work.” That being said, we thought we’d share a piece from Jee-ook’s studies called Thoughtful Shoes. “I did a very careful and slow walking performance [while wearing shoes] and recorded the performance through video.” The piece told a story about someone who “walks on the sidewalk without actually stepping on the floor”, the illustrator adds.
“Taking notes is an old habit of mine. Just like collecting a stone that you notice while out on a walk”
Having now perfected her drawing style while simultaneously garnering masses of commissions for the likes of Anxy magazine, NBC News and Apple, the illustrator has also fine-tuned a much-envied balance of personal and commercial work. On this matter, she says, “I have a habit of working on an editorial illustration like it is my own personal work, and vice versa. In turn, the editorial illustration becomes more unique, whereas my personal work becomes well organised and coherent.”
Perhaps this healthy balance is actually a consequence of the “process of discovery” that Jee-ook adopts when developing her stories. While working on projects, she constantly takes detailed notes of words that pop into her head at any given time. “Taking notes is an old habit of mine,” she tells us. “Just like collecting a stone that you notice while out on a walk, I also collect sentences or combinations of words that pop into my head.” It is from this bank of terms that Jee-ook then crafts illustrations. From “unorganised mumblings”, she devises a narrative-based image. And whether that image captures a moment from an editorial piece, or summates a personal question she’s been asking herself, this method allows Jee-ook to approach every project in a manner that leads to consistently unique outcomes.
Currently, Jee-ook is also embarking on a “process of discovery” regarding her career plans. “I enjoy joking around about my future career. A few years back, I used to tell people that I was going to be an artist, but these days, I often think about becoming a diver. If I keep myself open to all possibilities in the belief that there are many alternative paths available to me, I will be able to make brave choices.”
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