Ara Koh is not “feminist Serra,” as her grad school cohort affectionately nicknamed her. The Serra in question, of course, was famous American sculptor Richard Serra, whose large, sometimes-polarizing installations in corten steel have even inspired a federal lawsuit.
Rather, Koh is a ceramic artist working in raw and fired clay who creates wall-like structures in a scale that approaches Serra’s. Both artists share an interest in surface and materiality and it cannot be ignored that Serra’s work has an earth tone patina not unlike the clay bodies Koh employs. And yet, to relegate this young woman’s career to the long shadow of an older white male is to ignore the subtleties of Koh’s vision and persistence as an artist and a person.
Koh received her MFA from the prestigious Alfred University clay program during the pandemic in 2020, but her journey to Alfred was years in the making. First, while she was a fine arts undergraduate at Hongik University in Seoul, South Korea. Unsure if she wanted to switch to study art history, Koh attended Alfred’s summer program somewhat on a whim at the recommendation of a professor because she didn’t realize the school was located five hours from New York City.
She took a class in raw clay sculpture building from Walter McConnell, not expecting much. She recalls thinking, “Okay, after this I’m going to go watch a Broadway musical…” But McConnell’s class reinvigorated Koh’s flagging interest in clay and she returned to South Korea intent on nurturing her skills in ceramics.
A study abroad semester at California State University, Long Beach followed with Tony Marsh and Koh applied to Alfred right from undergraduate, figuring she would not get in the first time she applied. She was so sure she wouldn’t get in, she asked Marsh if she could do a post-baccalaureate program with him in California and he told her to buy a plane ticket. When she learned she had been accepted by Alfred, she called her mentors and asked them if they thought it was a scam. It wasn’t.
It’s really not about what [I] teach you. It’s about how [I] teach you so that you know yourself and you understand yourself and your work better. At the end of the day, if you’re honest about your work and if your work has honesty, then it’ll speak to other people too.
Two years after graduating, Koh talks about her time at Alfred with the reverence of a life changing experience she is still processing. For her, the culture shock of studying art in the US versus South Korea, “Felt like running full speed ahead and blindfolded. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know what I was making, and I had no assurance if I was doing this right or wrong. My advisors kept telling me there is no right or wrong. You’re just figuring things out. It’s okay to make mistakes,” she recounts.
Still, even though it was a lot to process, she refers to her graduate cohort as her “clay family” and explains, “I still have dreams of [reliving] the first day of grad school and signing out my studio and figuring out what kind of tools should I put in here?” Her parents, whom Koh is extremely close to, also noticed a difference in her, “After the first year of grad school, I went home to Korea to visit them for the summer. My mom said, ‘You’re different, You’re very different. You’re like a different person now,’” Koh laughs.
A current Hamiltonian fellow, Koh values the community of the fellowship program but misses the “everyday art conversations” she had at Alfred about the more mundane aspects of being an artist. She’s grateful to have found Red Dirt Studio, an old firehouse turned studio space shared by more than 20 artists.
Koh explains that even though she has to commute 30 to 40 minutes to get there, she is happy to do it to have an active community where she can chat about creative ideas daily. “Since the pandemic, I miss talking to people so much and have realized artist communities are a luxury,” she explains.
Currently, Koh is an adjunct professor at MICA as well as American University and she feels great responsibility to do the work well and thoughtfully, explaining that she tries to ask her students good questions so they can practice talking about what they are trying to do with their work.
Her teaching philosophy is, “It’s really not about what [I] teach you. It’s about how [I] teach you so that you know yourself and you understand yourself and your work better. At the end of the day, if you’re honest about your work and if your work has honesty, then it’ll speak to other people too.”
Suzy Kopf: During and after grad school, most artists change both visually and aspects of their processes, and as a result the work often goes through a major transition or change. Can you talk about your experience at Alfred University, the “Harvard of clay”?
Well, my undergrad was the number one art school in Korea and the students were very rigorous. I don’t know if this applies to other people’s experience too, but from my experience, it was always about competition. I know it’s stupid to put competition in art, but I learned skills that I needed to achieve in a short amount of time. But it wasn’t helpful mentally. And I think I just pushed myself to make something that would look good without really knowing what I wanted to do.
In grad school, at Alfred, I had to figure out what I’m really interested in and who I am as a person, and why do I want to make this work, and why does it matter for me to make this work at this time right now, right here? That was hard. I remember one critique, we had seven faculty for half an hour, just me and my work in the room. I wasn’t given a chance to explain myself. They were just arguing over each other and I was like, “What’s going on?” And they said, “Just listen and whatever carves deep into your heart is the most important thing.”
I still do that now. I don’t like to take notes; I just listen because if it’s important enough that it will make a difference in my work, then I’ll remember it. I think you need a level of confidence to do that. Through grad school I learned that I have to trust myself, or who’s gonna trust me?
What I'm really interested in is how I demand people to move. That's the interaction that I want to see.
Your dad, Youngkyun Koh, is also an art school professor in South Korea. What kind of advice has he given you about teaching art at the college level?
I’m still pretty young, so being a professor is a big task to me. I asked my dad for a lot of advice and he told me that, you should think about why they hired you. There is a certain thing that you could offer to the school and to the students and that must be the reason why you’re chosen and that’s what they expect of you.
I just went through what [my students] are going through, so I understand them fully. I know what they’re scared of. I know when you graduate [there will be challenges]. I just wish somebody warned me about that when I was an undergrad.
I wanted to talk about your materials and methods. My understanding is you don’t actually fire all your pieces and for some you leave the clay raw. Why is that? Is it because they are too large to fit in a kiln? Do you like the texture of the raw clay better?
I work with raw clay because raw clay is a very different style compared to fired clay. With fired clay you have all different concerns such as what cone is this going to fire at and what is that going to do? To fire clay, I have to think a lot about logistics and do some math and measurements. Basically, I start with something that has a limit in size or shape.
Raw clay is a liberating experience to me because it doesn’t really care about gravity, it doesn’t really care about weight—I can build as big as I want or as tall as I want and I could make really weird shapes and it will still forgive me. With fired clay, you have to use the traditional ceramic building methods to not have cracks and folds.
One of the first things I thought of looking at your pieces is that this is somebody who’s really thinking about sculpture as a three dimensional thing and taking up space and creating shadows while using negative space. The work has a brightness about it that I love about landscape, if that makes any sense.
I like geometric forms and in grad school I was just thinking about why do I like them? I was driving to go grocery shopping and it’s about a half an hour drive, where I have to go up hills and ridges, hills and ridges and downhill then uphill for half an hour. I realized that, oh I have K-pop on when I’m driving. And I thought, something’s very odd about this drive.
I realized that when I listened to K-pop [when I lived in Korea] I was always walking around the city and constantly moving myself through architecture instead of landscape. And now that I [moved to NY state and was] actually in a bare mountain landscape, with hills and lakes and something was not working. I was talking to my advisor at the time saying, maybe I have all this in the wrong order.
I grew up in an architectural geometric vertical and horizontal neighborhood and I thought that was the landscape. But actually the land came first and then people built architecture. So I think my order was reversed and I don’t know if it’s reversed or not because that’s the landscape that I perceived as architecture was the landscape. What I’m really interested in is how I demand people to move. That’s the interaction that I want to see.
Who hates food? People who hate food clearly hate life. I love making meals that my grandma used to make me and traveling back to my childhood that way.
You mentioned you’re “a big fan of auras of things”, can you say more about that?
I always love talking about the aura of something. Maybe it’s because it’s so similar to my name! I think about [how I arrange the clay] then it takes away that much of the volume and energy of this space. So it’s an exchange that I reenact with raw clay. When I push in with my shoulder, I give this energy to clay and clay reacts in a visual way that it shows its movement and impression. And then the water moisture evaporates into the air and then I blend that in.
In grad school, I took a Laban movement dance class as an elective. The first class was so interesting, the instructor made us all lie down on the floor and she said, we’re going to breathe for a whole class. I was tired so I was just laying there and she said, think about your diaphragm and now be conscious about how it moves around and think about how you exchange air. That got me thinking, because I work with this visible material, what I always think about is the material itself and how tactile it is. But actually what I’m also working with is the material’s energy and the energy of the negative space as well.
Do you pursue any hobbies? Do you think that these hobbies have any influence or impact on your work or do you view them more as a stress relief or way to unwind?
Ice cream is my passion, it is my everything. It is not healthy, but it is mentally healthy. I love ice cream. It is funny to say that ice cream is a hobby, but I just get too excited for ice cream. My favorite is Dark Chocolate from Cosmic Bliss. It has a rich, dark, nutty chocolate flavor and it is dairy free! I was obsessed with it in grad school.
How much ice cream do you consume regularly? Do you consider it a hobby because you love it so much?
I try to limit myself with how much ice cream I consume, but I go through a pint a week. And that is hard. I also love to cook Korean food. Food is something I can rely on when I am homesick, it takes me to Korea in a few bites. Also who hates food? People who hate food clearly hate life. I love making meals that my grandma used to make me and traveling back to my childhood that way.
I noticed your outfit was from small label designers, would you describe yourself as interested in fashion? What’s your philosophy about dressing yourself? Do you have a small wardrobe or a huge one? Are clothes a way you express yourself?
So my top, YUNE HO, is actually my mom’s friend’s design. He is now in Seoul, but he used to have his own line based in NYC. I think fashion is a great way to express yourself. The outfits you choose to wear tell a lot about you. I take a lot of time choosing which piece I want to invite into my closet. I think about if each piece reflects my personality, even partially.
Do you have a favorite local restaurant or a go-to order? What is it?
There’s this place called Little Miner Taco near my studio. They have the most amazing shrimp quesadilla I’ve ever had!
What’s the best career advice you received? How about the worst?
Best— always be curious, even with the things you might think you know. Worst— you don’t need sleep in grad school, sleep is for the weak.
You mentioned there were professional development strategies that you didn’t get to learn in undergrad, that you try to give to your students as part of what you teach them, could you say a little more about that?
What I do with them is I try to give them awareness throughout the semester that this is why you need to document your work professionally because you’re gonna do X, Y, and Z and if you have this ready right now, then it’s gonna take you a day or two to document. But if you have to write up a proposal and it’s due in three days, most likely what you’re going to do is just give up. That’s why I tell my students that it’s essential to stay ready because you don’t know when that opportunity is going to come to you and you will need that photo. People say luck is a big thing in life. I think that is true, but in order for that luck to not fly away from you, you need to be ready whenever.
What are the last three emojis you used? Have you given up emojis?
Simple red heart, teary eyed emoji and bashful emoji with hearts around. ♥️🥰
What would your teenage self think about the direction of your life so far?
I think she would think I’m pretty cool! I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grow up, and would really be relieved that I have set my mind into something and really dedicated myself to it. Teenage me wanted to be married and start a family young, so I think she might be surprised at that. But I’m happy to live my life and feel so blessed to have all these great people around me as friends and family, so I’d say she’ll like it.
You mention your parents a lot, so it’s clear you have a close relationship with both your mom and dad. What did they really get right when they were raising you?
My dad and my mom–they’re meant to be. Much love and respect to them. Living thousands miles away from home is not easy, missing my loved ones, but they also taught me to be strong and independent.
My mom is a badass fashion designer and she is the biggest supporter, always keeps me in neutral, bouncing me back whenever I get too emotional. My dad’s is more straightforward. He always gives me constructive criticism, which was hurtful, but now I understand where he is coming from and fully appreciate his concerns. They always taught me to be hardworking, classy, and funny. I look up to them and they will always be my role models. I owe them so much love and dedication.
Three semifinalists will be selected for the final review for the Sondheim Art Prize, which will award $30,000 to a visual artist or visual artist collaborators living and working in the Baltimore region.
This year’s panel of jurors — Noel W. Anderson, Connie H. Choi, and Aaron Levi Garvey — have selected 18 visual artists and visual artist collaborators for the semifinal round.
Baltimore news updates from independent & regional media
William S. Dutterer in Forbes, A corner bar exhibition at Museum of Industry, Growing Pride Parade Changes Venue, SAAM's new chairman, Equity at the Pratt, Farm Alliance of Baltimore Dinners, Synthesis at Frederick Arts Council, The Afro's archives, 2024 MD Heritage winners, and more