KiSung Koh’s exquisitely painted wildlife is truly something to behold. Floating in a sea of melancholia, they keep you in their muted stories, telling tales through their eyes, and through the deep world around them. Hailing from South Korea, and now residing in Toronto, Canada, Koh draws from a plethora of experiences and dream states in order to create each piece. Working with oils has always brought him the utmost pleasure, even when studying illustration. His love for nature is evident, but even more so is his unique ability to suspend them in emotional states that continue to draw you in the longer you stare.
These animal encounters – bashful deer, doleful polar bears, elephants, wild cats and more – captivate the senses and beckon one into full immersion, to partake in their emotions, their weirdly wonderful story. I had the privilege of interviewing KiSung Koh for Beautiful Bizarre Magazine recently, and was fascinated by his process and how he brings these animals to life. Here’s a deeper look into his psyche.
Interview with KiSung Koh conducted in conjunction with his editorial in Issue 20 of Beautiful Bizarre Magazine.
Every time I see animals in the wild, it’s an unreal thing. I get super excited, almost shaking my body as though I am sort of seeing the spirit around them.
Interview With KiSung Koh
How did you realise that a career in the arts was something you wanted to do, and what made you pursue painting in particular?
I was always very much in love with art when I was young… drawing and painting but mostly drawing. A significant point, I clearly remember my second grade in elementary school. I transferred schools due to my family moving. I was new and had no friends so I started drawing characters from Dragon Ball Z, which I always enjoyed. Dragon Ball Z was big deal back in those days! I became a superstar in my class (only for few weeks though) and even gave my friends some drawing with my autograph. When I was in junior high school, I was well known for drawing sexual comic books and got busted and slapped by teachers. I wish I still had those books, although they were destroyed by the teachers.
After I moved to Canada, I began studying illustration but after the third year of the programme, I found myself still wanting to pursue my dream in fine art. I had a big passion for it, so I basically did more ‘personal’ works in my fourth year of the programme, which I wasn’t supposed to do.
I try to capture the facial expressions of animals in a beautiful sadness surrounded by dreamy environments that you don’t really see in real life.
Much of your early work is lighter, more abstract; not as focused on wildlife as more recent work. How did you transition and develop what you’re doing now?
The initial concept of my earlier works was a portrayal of the world without being manmade. And yes, compared to my recent works, the older ones were more focused on different shapes, colours, my childhood memory, and my vision and excitement in nature. The themes were broader and not specific, whereas my recent works are bolder and more specific. The recent works have more meaning and stories related to my current life, as well as my dream behind how it looks.
You say the work you do comes from your love of and experiences in nature and your connection with it. Tell me more about this and about some of your experiences.
First of all, I just love animals and nature so much. Every time I see animals in the wild, it’s an unreal thing. I get super excited, almost shaking my body as though I am sort of seeing the spirit around them. I know it doesn’t make any sense; there are no such things as ‘invisible spirits’, and I guess it’s just me, psychologically, getting too excited. I’m sure there are a lot of other people who would understand what I ‘see’. These exciting elements were seen more in my older works especially, and they have been shown in a different way in my recent works. In addition, I find a lot of myself and humanity in animals.
Your work is often dreamy and dark, and you draw heavily on memories and dreams to create such imagery. What is your process from initial concept to final product?
I don’t personally think my work is dark, but maybe sad. I try to capture the facial expressions of animals in a beautiful sadness surrounded by dreamy environments that you don’t really see in real life. I have a lot of dreams about animals… but not only animals, I actually dream of many things I think are unnecessary. I never sleep deeply. They give me excitement and happiness, but also make me feel sadness. It’s not only just because of the era we live in, but I see myself and always relate to my current life. As a good example, in one of my pieces, On the way to see Charlie (below), I gave the deer an expression between happiness, sadness, and shyness, standing on a beautiful dreamy path. A lot of times, people look at my works and say they are beautiful, which makes me feel honoured and thankful… but the animals I create are actually me in my dream. My goal is to share my thoughts and feelings with views through my works even if it is sometimes not clear or specific.
One of my goals is to create something minimized but still bring the emotions and mood to my heart and others. I think that is very important.
We’re such a destructive race and are slowly dragging the planet along with us. What are your thoughts on this, and how do you feel we, as artists and creatives, can ensure we are contributing to the wellbeing of the planet through our calling?
Air and water pollution, global warming, deforestation, climate change, poaching… there are hundreds of things to talk about. I would simply say that it is a tragedy. Our subtle and delicate planet is in so much more danger than people generally know. I think they now realise, “Oh it’s real.” Humans have already ruined the world and I personally think, at this point, it’s too late to make it better.
What can artists and creatives do? To be honest, the question goes the same to everyone. There’s nothing much we can do besides the obvious things we already know to do. I won’t say many things here as I’m a no better human than others and not in a great position to criticize. Whatever I say might sound so cliché. But one thing I can say for sure (even if it still sounds very cliché) is that I hope the younger generations feel how amazing, precious, and beautiful our planet is after they spend time in nature, and are maybe even lucky enough to witness some wildlife. Once they get that, I hope people, in general, will keep our planet safe and act with respect as they develop a love for nature… I hope.
You use bright, saturated colours in your work, but still, want viewers to see the hidden sadness in your imagery. Why is this, and how do you properly convey these feelings in your artwork?
As there are already many other artists creating with animal themes, I always want to create some imaginary scenes that can be distinguished from what others do. One of the other intentional things I keep in mind before creating a piece is not to do something visually obvious. One of my goals is to create something minimized but still bring the emotions and mood to my heart and others. I think that is very important.
Who are your favourite artists, and who is influencing the work you create today?
There are many artists… but Klimt, since I was young. For artists who are alive (let’s stick with painters only here), I would say, Walton Ford, Aron Wiesenfeld, and Kerry James Marshall… at the moment.
Which of your own works is your favourite, and why?
My personal favourite is actually two: On the Way to See Charlie (2015, shown above) and Don’t Forget Me (2017, shown below). I don’t have much reason, but I just adore the pieces a lot; I think it’s also because I am connected emotionally with these two paintings the most.
How has having a multi-cultural background – being from South Korea and living in Canada – informed your worldview and your art?
I feel so fortunate to be living in Canada. I love South Korea too but I don’t think I would have pursued my dream as an artist if I still lived there. I moved to Canada when I was 21 or 22 years old; I only visit (South Korea) once a year, sometimes once every two or three years for a few weeks. After I turned 30, I realised that living in Korea is more difficult than what I remembered and knew as an artist. Things there are just too much for me. In addition, I also truly believe in God and that there was, is, or will be a reason for relocating to another country with a different view and culture.
The world has become smaller and more globalised, and by extension easier to navigate. How does this tie in with the increased digitisation of the art world and your place as an artist?
In my opinion, there are not many boundaries between Western and Asian culture anymore. Obviously, due to the internet world we live in, everything has become so much easier to expose and share worldwide. As an artist, I feel that it’s not only easier to expose your works, but also a lot easier to be forgotten at the same time.
Tell me about your technical process of creating a piece.
I love using oils, and these days I do underpaintings first, then start building the piece from there. I can’t really say the hours I spend on one piece as I do two or three paintings at a time; if we talk about 20”x20”, for example, I’d say it took three weeks – but sometimes goes to a month, actually many times.