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Interview: Brittany Fanning

1) Can you introduce yourself? Where are you from, and how did you arrive in S. Korea and living there as an artist? How did you create opportunities for yourself in S. Korea as an artist?

I’m Brittany Fanning and I grew up in Florida and Georgia. I went to college in Dahlonega, Georgia, a small mountain town. I absolutely loved it there, but after graduation, I moved straight to south Korea to try teaching for a year. Quickly, I built a life there… or here, and began painting and sharing my work among the expat community. Over time, and after a few exhibitions, I was noticed by the Korean art market. This November, I’m exhibiting in Zerobase with Seoul Auction. I’m the first foreigner to do so, which is a huge ego boost. I’m excited to see where it goes from there.

2) How did you grow an interest in architecture of the South Korean landscape and cityscape? What kind of message or sentiment would you like to convey through your paintings of S. Korea?

Korea has this wonderful mountainous landscape. I think they remind me of Appalachia a bit. The combination of city and mountains is really appealing to me. In Seoul, you can see stacks of houses and buildings piled up on the mountains. They’ve all been altered over time with ad-ons and whatnot. So some houses still have the hanok-style rooftop, while others are very contemporary and geometric…. I hope those are the right words. I love how you can be in a neighborhood, look straight ahead, and see 50 homes.

Many of these neighborhoods are changing so fast with gentrification, so the work i’ve done represents a specific time in Seoul. 2018-2020.

3) Are you interested in the history of the places that you depict in your art, as well as the Korean history in general?

No. I’m laughing at myself for this answer, but it’s simply the truth. I wrote out a big long statement about my interest in history, but it was bullshit. If a crime happened in the building, I’m interested. I have two directions in my art right now- Korean architecture & my own narratives. The Korean architecture paintings are more about color, perspective, and composition. I love going on these peaceful walks in the morning and finding a new configuration of buildings I never noticed before. I would almost describe the process as therapeutic.

All of the Korean history I’ve learned has been on accident and through Netflix shows. I know that ancient Korean zombies don’t like the cold except sometimes when they do.

4) As an artist, do you visually gravitate towards the middle to lower-class neighborhoods, or upper class neighborhoods such as Gangnam in Seoul?

The upper-class areas are typically high rise apartments, or those walled off compounds like in “Parasite.” They are anything but interesting. I live in Itaewon, Gyeongnidan specifically. It’s a mix of classes. I quite like that about it. You have these great old Korean restaurants on one street, the next has wine bars and hip coffee shops. You see ferraris zipping up the hill and scooters covered in cardboard boxes coming down. A love motel on one corner and the Hyatt just up the street. I can keep going, but I think you get it. I’d like to visit similar neighborhoods and photograph them in the future.

5) What do you love the most about S. Korea? What do you dislike the most about S. Korea?

THE FOOD. I grew up in North Georgia and had never had, seen, or heard about Korean cuisine. There’s so much to it and it’s a shame that typical Americans don’t know more. There are 800 different soups for all seasons of the year. My favorite is the hangover soup, Gamjatang. Banchan is another favorite thing about meals. That’s the numerous side dishes. I could go on and on about food… probably more so than my art. Oh, and the saunas. I love getting a scrub down at the jimjilbang during the winter and soaking in the mineral water. I love how easy it is to get around. There’s always a festival or event on the weekends if you’re feeling spry. It’s safe and people are generally nice. I feel like I found a secret paradise at times.

When I first moved here, I disliked the lack of personal space. I suppose I got used to that. It doesn’t happen as much anymore (or at least not where I live), but I would catch young adults littering… everywhere.

6) Some people call South Korea a ‘hellish’ place because the competition among people is fierce there, and there is an extreme disparity in terms of wealth and opportunities between the haves and the have-not's. In particular, artists have a really difficult time surviving in S. Korea. Do you have any tips for young, aspiring or emerging artists who want to pursue a career as an artist in S. korea?

I really only have the perspective of an expat here. The salary for English teachers has remained the same for over a decade, while the cost of living is going up. It’s a great place to start a career for teaching, but not ideal for saving money anymore.

For awhile, I taught part time and painted commissions; most of which came from America. It took about a year to really get my name out in Korea, and even that was only among expats.

I hate it, but I’m very active on social media. That helps everything. I try to visit galleries and art shows when I can and participate in everything. That's the best advice I can give.

I start working on my art at 8am and finish around 8pm most days. Just. Keep. Working. Then do more.

7) There is a history of western artists depicting life in the distant and exotic Orient. How do you avoid a superficial lens for depicting life and architecture in S. Korea as an artist who is a foreigner? What makes you a Delacroix rather than an Ingres, for example (in their works, the Grande Odalisque and The Harem)? What gives you an edge in terms of conveying an honest yet beautiful image of S. Korea?

I thought a lot about David Hockney when I first began this collection. He moved from England to Los Angeles in the 1960s and began painting swimming pools- something clearly foreign to him. I feel I’ve done something similar, in a way. I moved here directly from North Georgia, where you may not see a building for miles. In Seoul, everywhere you turn, there are hundreds of buildings. All views were foreign to me, and instantly peaked my interest.

I haven’t painted actual Korean people… I rarely paint any people I don’t know- that leaves little room for inappropriate cultural depictions.

8) How you find the new and the interesting within the appearance of nothingness and plainness of daily life of the common people in S. Korea reminds me of the works of Shirley Irons, who teaches at SVA. What is the philosophy behind the choice of subject matter and the visual elements in your art?

That’s the beauty of Seoul; It’s constantly growing and changing. Most of my work is based on an area within a 10 minute walk from my apartment. It depends on the day and what colors I’m searching for. In spring, everything turns green. Ajummas plant plants on rooftops, next to buildings, everywhere. I look for those scenes that time of year. I also like to capture many buildings at once… and power lines. Sometimes, I will embroider my work, and I love having long power lines cutting across it. The streets are full of them and who knows how much longer that will be.

9) How do you incorporate the Korean alphabets, known as Hangul, into your work? Do you know how to read and write in Korean? What kind of character do you find in the outer appearance of the Korean language? What is the inner character of the Korean language?

I can read and write in hangul, but I don’t always understand it. Actually, I can only read food really. I’m the worst expat. When I first learned about Korea names, that there were three syllables, I named myself 비욘세 (Beyonce). I put that name in a few paintings. Lately, I’ve only added the hangul from signage I photographed.

10) What is your favorite South Korean city besides Seoul?

I lived in Daejeon during my first two years in Korea. During those years, I did the most exploring and learning. It’s a much smaller city, so you get to fully experience older Korean restaurants, markets, festivals and whatnot. There’s a river that runs through it. My friends and i would barbecue and bike the trail by it often. It might be where I fell in love with Korea.

11) What do you understand about the patriarchal traditions and ways of thinking in S. Korea? But what do you despise about the patriarchal society that is S. Korea? How do you see progress being made in S. Korea today in terms of women’s rights?

I’ve heard it described as 1950s America. The men work, women stay home and care for the kids. Childcare is no joke here. Koreans are expected to pour money into afterschool programs and other education resources for their children. It seems so exhausting for all parties to be honest. I even feel bad for a lot of the working men. The hours are strenuous and then you’re expected to consume soju during a hweshik. In recent years, I learned that many women are choosing to be single and live alone. I love that.

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