Ahree Lee is an interdisciplinary artist whose work ranges from video to textiles across a material and metaphor-driven conceptual continuum of weaving as a visual and phenomenological expression. Her work includes patterns and portraits examining how social and personal identities are constructed and articulated. With elements of linguistics, data sets, cultural experiences, bridgings of the analog-digital divide, and storytelling, Lee is in a sense figuring out how humans figure things out. She is currently exhibiting as the artist in residence at Women’s Center for Creative Work in Frogtown.
L.A. WEEKLY: What is your short answer to people who ask what your work is about?
AHREE LEE: My work reveals hidden narratives and patterns embedded in identity, gender expectations, community, family and culture. My process lies somewhere between science and art. Like a scientist, I methodically conduct experiments, gather data and synthesize findings. But where scientists deal with facts, my data points capture human memories, emotions and experience. I piece together the larger truth that these data points reveal, creating videos, new media, and textiles.
What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?
The truth is, even as an artist I have to do something else to pay the bills. In my incoming college freshman poll I wrote that I wanted to be a starving artist who eats on the sly. Years later, I saw Adrian Piper give a talk to an audience of art students and one of her first pieces of advice was to get a day job so you’re not pressured to make compromises to your art for sales.
I had a career in graphic design before turning my focus to my art practice. I realized I had to separate my creative pursuit from my job — essentially follow Piper’s advice and turn my job into a day job. Now to balance my art practice I do user experience research and teach design thinking workshops, mostly for museums and nonprofits. I really love that in this work I help organizations empathize with and understand their audiences, and teach them how to think creatively to find innovative solutions to their issues. It’s a great complement to my art practice.
Did you go to art school? Why/Why not?
I was an English major in college and worked at a library one summer. They discovered I was really good at making signs, so they had me making signs for all kinds of things at the library. When I got back to school that fall, I discovered there was a class called Graphic Design that sounded a lot like what I did at the library, which I had enjoyed, so I took it. I really liked graphic design and was good at it, so kept doing it while I finished my English major requirements. After graduating I worked in graphic design for several years and then decided I wanted to go to art school and get an MFA in it.
When did you first know you were an artist?
I’ve always been an artist, but it’s taken many years to embrace that identity. Before I went back to school for my MFA I had always done artistic things on the side, like making image-driven nonlinear books, taking a class in making websites as art, and I even applied for and got an artist grant. In my graphic design MFA program I was making things that weren’t really what one would make for a client, and started exhibiting some of them in public open studios and was approached by a curator and ended up with a piece in a gallery show.
Ten years later, I was busy with a tech career in Silicon Valley and a toddler at home, yet my artistic side gig had evolved into a not-too-shabby resume of international film screenings and exhibitions. One day I hit a crisis point in my job and a thought popped into my head, “What’s stopping me from quitting everything and moving to Joshua Tree and just being an artist?” I realized the answer was “nothing,” or really just “me.” That was the turning point. I didn’t move to Joshua Tree, but everything I’ve done since that point has acknowledged my nature and identity as an artist.
Why do you live and work in L.A., and not elsewhere?
I grew up in suburban Philly and always thought I’d eventually move to New York. I would never in a million years have imagined that my future self would be living in L.A. and loving it. At age 33 I had never been to California, let alone considered living there, but through a series of events including a couple of film festival screenings and freelance jobs I found I had flown to either L.A. or San Francisco enough times in one year to earn a free ticket. Which I then used when I moved to San Francisco at age 34.
I later moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles when I turned my focus to my art practice. Being a bigger city, there are so many more opportunities for artists. There’s more geographic space, and the city itself is much newer and has less established history so I feel like there’s more openness, diversity and room for experimentation. I’ve been here six years so far and I’m still always discovering new things, and I love that it’s big enough and constantly evolving so there will always be something for me to discover.
When is/was your current/most recent/next show?
I’m currently the fall 2019 Artist in Residence at the Women’s Center for Creative Work and have an exhibition there. A few years ago I learned that the design of the first computers was derived from Jacquard weaving looms, the looms that weave intricate brocades and damasks, and was fascinated. I started researching this history and discovered that the first computer program was written by a woman, Ada Lovelace, the word “technology” comes from the Greek “techne” which means “art” or “craft,” and as I started to learn to weave I found that like computing, weaving is binary — either a warp thread or a weft thread is visible on the surface of the cloth, essentially a zero or a one.
For the residency exhibition I’ve created a series of weavings and a video that reactivate the innate connections between computing and weaving, and examine the interrelationships between technology, craft, and women’s labor. I’m also creating a large weaving, “Timesheet,” during the residency that you can watch me weave during weekly open studio hours. It documents the different categories of labor I engaged in for a week-long period last year and turns the ephemeral expenditure of time into a physical product.
I will also be one of seven featured artists in an upcoming exhibition at USC Pacific Asia Museum this coming spring.
Do you listen to music while you work? If so what?
I got this book, 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, ages ago and since the advent of unlimited streaming music it’s been amazing to flip through it, find something that piques my curiosity, and just listen to it. I listen to a lot of KCRW and KPCC. I also love the podcast Hidden Brain from NPR’s social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, because it’s full of insights into what makes people, especially myself, tick.
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