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Sculptor from Korea Seeks Career as an Artist in America

Hongsock Lee is a jewelry designer and sculptor from South Korea who believes that the United States provides him with the best opportunities to develop his talent - or, as he says, to see whether he has talent. We have his story on this edition of New American Voices.

In the past two years Hongsock Lee has exhibited his unique jewelry and small sculptures at more than 20 craft shows throughout the United States. He believes that the shows are an excellent way to show off his creations to a diverse public, and to get some valuable feedback on his designs.

“There's like ten great shows (each year) in the United States,” he says. “There's the Chicago-Evanston show, and then the Smithsonian Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum show. There's lots of great opportunities for me. These opportunities Korea does not have.”

Mr. Lee designs and exhibits contemporary, modernistic jewelry that he conceives as small sculptures. His inspiration comes from a variety of sources.

“Actually most of my work's design comes from geometric shapes,” he says. “I like geometric shapes. And then, I like nature -- shapes in nature, like a triangle, square, the lines. So most of it is geometric.”

For example, a necklace he displayed recently at the annual Craft Show in Baltimore, Maryland, consists of 36 small cubes strung on what seems like a fragile filament. Hongsonk Lee conceived this piece when he was a graduate student in jewelry and metalsmithing at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of America's premier art and design colleges, from which he graduated with honors two years ago.

“This one actually I made for the testing class when I was a first-year grad [graduate student],” he says. “We had to make one piece, and then use the one piece as a repetition. So I used a cube, and then made it like that [repeating it all around]. It's 18-karat yellow gold, sterling silver and 14-karat white-gold wires.”

Mr. Lee's creations are not cheap. The cube necklace sells for one thousand four hundred dollars. In addition to necklaces, Mr. Lee makes dangly earrings, rings, brooches, all imaginatively juxtaposing various geometric shapes and different colors, or recreating in precious metals and streamlined forms, designs found in nature. Mr. Lee has a studio in the northeastern state of Rhode Island where he creates the jewelry and small geometrically-inspired sculptures he sells at craft fairs and exhibitions. To maintain the immigration visa that allows him to remain in the United States, he also works as a master jewelry designer for a commercial company.

“I'm working for the jewelry company two days a week, because I have to belong to somebody, like a school, or a company, or somebody,” he explains. “So I'm designing for the jewelry company, I'm doing commercial jewelry design for them. And then after that, five days a week, I'm working for myself in my studio.”

Although he is making a reputation for himself as a jewelry designer, Hongsock Lee's ambitions lie in a different direction. “Actually, I want to be a sculptor,” he says. “But I'm making jewelry for a living. Because I can make money from that. But sculpture - it's really hard to make it [in the field], and it's also hard to get money for it. It's too expensive.”

Hongsock Lee grew up in Seoul, South Korea. His mother, an elementary school teacher, wanted him to become a painter, but he says that despite lessons starting at age 5, he showed no aptitude for painting whatsoever. Even as a child, however, he loved to visit museums and look at art. At Kon-Kuk University he studied metallurgy, and discovered a talent for goldsmithing and silversmithing. After the mandatory 26 months of service in the South Korean army, he studied for a while in England, then moved to the United States. Mr. Lee says Providence, Rhode Island, where he lives, is a calm, peaceful town full of kind people, surrounded by beautiful nature to which he looks for motifs for his designs. It is a setting in which Mr. Lee feels he can fulfill his artistic ambitions. A stumbling block is that he does not yet have permanent residency. But he sees a way, through his art, that would enable him to remain in this country.

“If I'm a famous artist, there's another visa type which is called the extraordinary ability area,” he points out. “So If I can apply, I can stay in the United States without any sponsor. I may apply probably next year. Right now I'm not able to do that. I'm not, like, that famous yet. So next year…”

Mr. Lee believes that he's getting closer to his goal. Last year he was selected as one of the six top artists in a group of 850 who were displaying their work at the huge annual Baltimore Show. He feels that's a good start. And he's confident about the future. “Someday I will make, like, a 10 feet (3 meter) tall sculpture in front of a building, that's my dream,” he says.

In the meantime, Hongsock Lee has created a 30 centimeter tall maquette of a sculpture whose main feature is a dramatic, sinuous curve. This curve echoes the architecture of the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Mr. Lee hopes that someday his sculpture will grace the front of that museum, or some other major museum in the world.