Meet Artist Sammy Seung-Min Lee

Sammy Lee uses Korean table setting traditions as a vehicle to form connections between people and transcend their differences.

Sammy Seung-Min Lee
Photo by Kate Rolston.

Sammy Seung-Min Lee is a Korean-American interdisciplinary artist working in sculpture, installation, artist’s books, and paper felting—a time- and labor-intensive material she makes by hand for her practice. The Seoul, South Korea-native moved to Southern California in 1991 at the age of 16. She studied fine art and media art at UCLA and moved to Denver in 2007 when her husband’s job transferred him here.

Belonging, home, cross-cultural psychology, and immigration are some of the main sociocultural themes Lee explores in her work, which is both collected and exhibited internationally. Here, Lee discusses how she uses her Korean culture and food traditions to explore these powerful ideas to bridge the differences between herself and others.

Georgia Alexia Benjou: How did this focus on meals and table setting traditions start?
Sammy Seung-Min Lee: I’m very interested in looking at food, table setting traditions, food traditions, and those kind of family narratives from different angles.

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GAB: Is that what your piece in the History Colorado exhibition, Colorado’s Asian Food Culture: Rice & Resilience, is about?
SL: The piece at History Colorado is important because it’s titled “Korean-American Supper.” The piece is based on a memory of my first meal when I arrived in the U.S. It was a buffet dinner at my aunt’s place, and she had been in the U.S. for over 20 years. She gave me this large plate and told me to get whatever kind of food I wanted and how much I wanted and then come back to the table and eat. So I picked different things and came back to my seat, and just watched as things started mixing on that large plate. I thought, I’m not sure if I really like this…

GAB: Is a meal served very differently in Korea?
SL: In the Korean food tradition, the one who is serving prepares the food and places it into individual serving vessels specific to each item. You’re served in such a way—and with so much love and care—that you can feel pressured to finish the entire meal, whether you like it or not.

GAB: So, the act of serving and the food vessel are important?
SL: Through using Korean serving vessels, it is really referencing culture as a container. I’m also thinking about the relationship between being served and serving and the labor behind serving.

GAB: How do you get people involved in setting a meal?
SL: My strategy with this table-setting practice is when participants, strangers, come to do this exercise with me, I ask them to think about someone special in their life. Then, I ask them to set an imaginary meal for this person. That usually gets very specific because they pick someone they really care for—sometimes it’s for someone who has passed, and it’s another chance for them to do something for this person, almost like a memorial.

GAB: That sounds very personal.
SL: When they come from a place of love, it’s easier to get to a place of understanding and empathy. I’m strategically setting up a safe place for this stranger to engage in contemporary art, which can be quite threatening for a lot of people. In the end, they feel like they’re just setting up an imagined meal.

GAB: It sounds like a learning experience for both parties.
SL: It’s very genuine. I feel like it is a more honest cultural exchange. Maybe they will feel something that immigrants have felt when arriving to another country—a strange place where they must use whatever resources are given to make the setting work for them.

GAB: What new meal setting explorations will you be taking this year?
SL: In August, I will start my Fulbright Scholarship. I’ll be in Korea for 10 months and based at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. The research and research-based art I’ll be conducting will culminate in an art exhibit to build upon my ongoing project, “Very Proper Table Setting.” This cross-cultural work has engaged over 150 Americans to provide table settings arranged using Korean dinnerware. I will continue this project in Korea to examine its social divides reflected in table settings. In addition to my academic research, I would like to take traditional cooking classes and learn how to set traditional Korean meals properly.