Drawn to Excellence: Artist traces her global fame to ISU
Wonsook Kim is true to her name, which in Korean means “seer.”
A native of the eastern Asian country, she is a prolific artist who conveys the beauty and conflict she observes in daily life—forcing contemplation of both through drawings, paintings and sculptures that are simplistic in form yet complex in meaning.
Kim has reached the pinnacle of the art world because of her ability to see opportunity and seize it through a determination and diligent work ethic that have defined her character since childhood. Raised in a family with seven siblings, Kim lived in poverty that she escaped with financial support from Illinois State, allowing her to complete three art degrees. A scholarship at graduation gave Kim $500 needed to make New York City her home.
It was from there she launched a career literally drawn from her appreciation and knowledge of nature, global cultures, personal experiences, and the human spirit. She is represented by six galleries, including ones in Korea, Paris, New York, and Chicago. She has done 67 solo exhibitions across the globe, and continues to faithfully work eight-hour days in studios at her homes in New York City and Bloomington, Indiana.
Kim has reaped the fruits of her labor and that of her entrepreneurial husband, Thomas Clement, resulting in a wealth she never envisioned acquiring but has no desire to keep. Having experienced the power of others investing in their lives, the couple made a transformational gift of $12 million to Illinois State that was announced in September.
In appreciation for the significant financial support that will empower students for generations to come, the University’s College of Fine Arts and School of Art have been named the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts and the Wonsook Kim School of Art. The honor is not seen by Kim as an opportunity to boast, but rather share her journey and allow others to envision what powerful possibilities exist in their own lives.
“This is not for my ego or a career dream. I rather see my name as a symbol that stands for America as a land of opportunity,” Kim said. “The gift to the University is a continuation of my American story as a poor, young girl who came to this country and grabbed every opportunity available.”
Kim was born in 1953 as the Korean War was ending. “Everybody was poor, so poverty was not a shame. Everybody had to share everything,” she recalled from her childhood. That was particularly the case in her large family led by parents who met at church. Both were accomplished classical musicians, with her father a journalist and managing editor of the Kyunghyang Daily newspaper. Together the couple created a loving, disciplined, and religious home life for Kim and her siblings, all of whom excelled academically and in music.
“I was not good at school and was not musical,” Kim recalled, which gave her a freedom to draw. “I had always wanted to be either an artist or a writer.” Inspiration for her earliest creations came from Christian bible stories and Korean folk tales shared by her grandmothers. Kim sketched the characters while listening.
She illustrated her life events in diaries as she aged into high school, where her interest in Western art traditions blossomed. So did her abilities. Kim vividly remembers enduring months of rigorous training in fundamental artistic skills.
“We drew one egg for an entire semester, then two eggs,” Kim said, admitting initial frustration over the tedious exercise that she later came to appreciate. The assignments gave her a solid sense of composition, shadows, and relationships between objects. She consequently knew how to draw exceptionally well by the time she finished a year at Hongik University in Seoul.
Her next goal was to gain an advanced art education in America, despite lacking the money to study abroad. Although accepted to several schools, including Yale and Berkeley, Kim chose to attend Illinois State because the University offered her a full scholarship. She arrived at the age of 19 as the College of Fine Art’s only Asian student in 1972, which was an era when international students were first being recruited to campus.
Although Kim had studied English while in Korea, her ability to communicate was minimal. “I think of silent movies when I remember my earliest days at Illinois State,” she said with her infectious smile. “My professors were talking, but it meant nothing to me.” The language barrier did not, however, hinder Kim’s ability to learn from faculty who she credits with defining her artistic path. Among them were Ken Holder, Harold Gregor, Rodney Carswell, and Harold Boyd.
Related Article: Artist and alumna Wonsook Kim ’75, M.A. ’76, M.F.A. ’78, honorary doctorate of arts ’19, and her husband, Thomas Clement, have made a $12 million gift to Illinois State in support of the College of Fine Arts and the School of Art.
“They were surprised that I already had the tools to be able to draw anything,” Kim said, as her rigid training put her skill level above those ahead of her in the undergraduate program. They were all learning in an era when abstract expressionism was popular. Kim remembers classes that involved splashing paint on a canvas, then rolling or stepping through it to convey emotion. The process frustrated her, as she had developed a calligraphic style dependent on a mastery of lines and detail. Kim credits Boyd with affirming that such drawings were an art form worthy of pursuit.
Boyd arrived at ISU in the 1960s with the charge of developing the college’s drawing classes. He also started a printmaking program. Kim was well into her undergraduate degree by the time she enrolled in one of Boyd’s classes. He remembers seeing at the table where Kim was working a program from a performance of Mozart’s Requiem she had attended.
“I looked down and saw where she had taken a ball point pen and drawn little figures. I said to her, ‘You know that you can turn that into your art,’” Boyd recalled. “Characteristic of my teaching was to give permission, to let students find who they are. I saw her raw talent.”
The words of encouragement were all Kim needed to cement a path that led to phenomenal success, which did not surprise Boyd. “She arrived at ISU committed to be an artist. She was a worker who was 100 percent self-motivated, and she has always been prolific,” he said. “She arrived as a new student, but not in the same sense as other students coming to the University. She came as a very trained and educated person.”
Initially focused on black and white drawings, Kim learned how to widen her lines with brushes while at ISU. She also became skilled in printmaking, enriching her work unintentionally through a need to be frugal.
“Metal was expensive. A lot of students would work on a plate, make pictures, and abandon the metal. Kim used a tool to scrape it clean and use it as a new plate so she didn’t have to spend more money,” Boyd recalled. The result was a faded scratching background on finished pieces that added texture to her art.
“Money has been a consistent issue throughout my life. My parents were not wealthy, so I needed a job,” said Kim, who lived in Fell Hall. She walked into the Burger King adjacent to campus and was hired to work the drive-up window. Repeating orders was a comical impossibility, so she switched to the cleaning crew. In that role she was able to save from the garbage Whopper sandwiches that had been tossed after the allotted time in serving bins expired.
“I didn’t have a meal plan at ISU. I would eat burgers for two meals each day,” Kim said. She shared the food with other international students, quickly becoming popular among them as “the Whopper girl.” She later worked at Milner Library, all while taking a full load of classes. “I studied a lot more than other students because I had to keep my GPA up or lose the money to attend school.”
Kim finished her bachelor’s degree, then earned a master’s and a master’s of fine art degree. To fulfill an MFA requirement, Kim created an installation called “Normal Experience.” The work was a 118-foot-long painting on paper that reached nearly to the ceiling of ISU’s University Galleries and covered each of its walls. The piece was obtained by the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul, Korea.
With her studies completed in 1978, Kim decided to live in the hub of budding artists and moved to New York. She relocated using money received from the Elizabeth Stein Scholarship Award. “It took guts for her to get that last degree and then hike off to New York,” Boyd said. “She did a very courageous thing.”
Success did not come immediately or easily. For eight years, she worked a variety of day jobs that ranged from serving as a court interpreter to clerical assignments. “I did my painting at night,” said Kim, who managed the load because she is a self-described work-aholic. “I am addicted to being busy.”
She began introducing color into her art, increasingly building name recognition and respect for her work. Her earliest shows were in Korea, Tokyo, and Japan, followed by Germany, Bulgaria, Brazil, Mexico, and Madrid. In America, where she gained citizenship in 1979, Kim’s art has been displayed from New York to Normal, Chicago, and Los Angeles. She was named the Artist of the Year by the United Nations in 1995.
In the decades since, she began working in bronze to create sculptures that are as mesmerizing for their shape as the shadow each casts. She gathers ideas from all that she sees around her, drawing thoughts in sketch books that are always with her and piled high on her studio shelves.
All of her creations demonstrate what has been her strength since she began to perfect her craft at Illinois State, as they represent emotion and insights from her own life. For example, Kim’s series titled “Sparkling Light” was inspired by her mother’s death. Dots of white or yellow light added across each image demonstrate the comfort of knowing our loved ones always surround us.
“People don’t have to know what each piece means or all the details, as long as they catch the sentiment that life is beautiful and worth living abundantly,” Kim said. She describes her art as a practice of emptying herself, with her goal being to make every creation represent a celebration of life.
“If I can make someone look at things a bit differently, brighten their outlook, make them think in a different way or appreciate what they see around them, that’s a great success. I want to be inspirational,” Kim said.
There is no question she has obtained that goal, certainly at Illinois State, where she was inducted into the College of Fine Arts’ Hall of Fame in 2010 and received an honorary doctorate at Founders Day in 2019. She was celebrated again in September at the event announcing her recent gift, which is not Kim’s first. She established the Wonsook Kim Art Scholarship in 2015 to encourage students.
Doing more for the University has always been a hope for Kim, who remains grateful for how she was embraced on campus with open arms and given abundant help, both academically and financially. Her husband is equally thrilled to support the University, as he too has been blessed by others who invested in his life.
A Korean War orphan fathered by an American soldier, Clement was left on the streets to fend for himself in his childhood. Adopted by an American family through a Korean orphanage, he was raised in Massachusetts. Clement went on to become a medical device inventor who holds 47 U.S. patents and started a laparoscopy equipment company. The sale of his business resulted in funds that the couple use to continue their philanthropic endeavors, including humanitarian work in Korea. Both delight in having the means to lift up others.
“I see money as a tool to get things done. It is only good when you can stay on top of it and can use it. I don’t want to become a slave to it or worry about money,” Kim said. “It is better to not have money around, and instead to have it in use where it does good for others.”
Kim admits her thinking may perplex some, given she and her husband were once beggars on the street. What those pondering individuals do not realize is that as with everything else in her life, Kim sees beyond herself.
She sees the dreams and struggles of art students, and knows how her investment in their college years will change the trajectory of their future. Ultimately, Kim sees another opportunity and, staying true to herself, she has once again seized it.
Interpreting the artwork of alumna Wonsook Kim
ISU Art Professor Emeritus Harold Boyd has a unique understanding of Wonsook Kim’s talent, having been her earliest mentor and still a close friend. He describes her work as intentionally autobiographical and inviting because of a simplicity that is deceptive.
“One reason people have an affection for her work is that when initially looking at it, her pieces appear simple, which is why most people underappreciate her art,” Boyd said. “Once you study the qualities, an enormous amount of content comes through, and it becomes clear that less is more.”
In-depth meaning is conveyed through Kim’s perfection of recurrent and existential symbols, such as a craft on water, a shelter, and figures interacting with shadows or traversing an object. Each is found throughout work inspired by Korean culture, poetry, human relationships, and all life brings—from joy to heartache. The series “In the Garden” depicts the bliss of Kim’s life with spouse Thomas Clement, while the collection titled “A Man With a Cane” evolved from the loss of her brother-in-law to cancer. The force of nature is a consistent element regardless of the story being told.
“I start by making drawings from everyday scenery, like making a shopping list, like writing a diary. As always, simple drawings come alive to become different works—some as colorful paintings, others as sculptures, and some fall flat on paper,” Kim said.
Much of her art speaks directly to women, including “Shadow Child.” The painting shows a female figure standing alone with her shadow holding an infant. The image speaks to every woman who has lost a child, as do others in the same series titled “Wings of Grace.”
“There are subtle signals of feeling the viewer must look for in Kim’s work,” Boyd said. Studying just the tones she selects and how the colors relate within a given piece or throughout a series forces a reflection of abstract ideas.
Regardless of how a viewer interprets Kim’s creations, there is an inevitable and gripping sense of beauty, elegance, and emotion conveyed. Her visual universe enriches the world for all who make the effort to see the meaning within her work, which creates a pathway to deeper insight.
“Art makes you think about things you didn’t consider before,” Kim said. “It enriches life and takes you to another dimension that the written language is not going to go near, and this is a fantastic place to be.”