Korean-American artist Sunyoung Cheong has called Topeka home for more than a decade. When she first moved to the states, she landed in South Carolina, but soon found her way to Kansas when her husband received a professorship at Washburn University.
Soon, Cheong began taking classes at Washburn and transferred to KU, where she received both her BFA and MFA in metalsmithing and jewelry. Now, she is an assistant professor at KU who encourages her students to integrate modern technology with traditional craft.
We talked with Cheong about her studies, the lessons she teaches her students and the increasing need for artists to marry tradition with modernity.
Tell us about your background and the process of becoming an artist. I didn’t have any art background when I was living in Korea. Once we moved to Kansas, we did not have any friends and family in town. So I spent time with my children, trying to make things at home for them—cooking and sewing. I didn’t have any intention to get into art back then. It was just the way I lived daily, doing things for me and my children.
What led you on a path pursuing art? Later, I was looking for something that I could do to actually spend a little time for myself, so I got involved with art classes. I like to use my hands. When I was little, my mom always made my clothes and she was really good. My mom always made something out of nothing. I think because I was influenced by my mother, when my kids were little I started making things for them. I actually had so much fun creating something with my hands.
What was it like going from taking classes at KU to teaching metalsmithing and jewelry? I made a lot of mistakes when I was a student. I think that experience actually became a good thing to teach the students. When they make a mistake, that’s not a bad thing—you learn more from the mistakes. I encourage them to try new things and not be afraid of making lots of mistakes because that becomes a part of their strength.
What currently influences your art? My interest now is how to integrate technology into traditional art and craft. We are in the midst of change in art and design—many disciplines use technology. For example, the metalsmithing department at KU has a long history. We’ve been teaching the traditional metalsmithing technique for a long time. And now we adapt to the technology. It’s like an oxymoron. You had to use your hand to hammer down the metal, but now your process is focused on the computer and you use the machine to create it. I’ve found that we have to adapt technology for the future. My focus right now, as a teacher, is how to use the technology with the traditional skills.