John Pai Interview

Can you briefly describe your artworks?
I wish I could do it in few words, but I think I’ve gone through several stages. Probably the beginning was when I came to the Pratt Institute in 1958. Pratt was kind of a special school because it began as a school for people who worked for Charles Pratt, who was very wealthy with the oil industry. So, in the processes of teaching the workers, somebody had the ideas that they should learn to draw. They taught drawing and engineering in the 1800s. At the time of Industrial Revolution, engineering became very important. Also, there was a sense that they needed to be art that would match the revolution. In Germany, Bauhaus gathered artists, architects, poets, and composers. Bauhaus was very important, all methods of teaching arts and design. However, after the World War in between I and II, many of them came to the United States and started similar programs. I think it was the Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, Chicago Art Institute, and then Pratt Institute. Pratt didn’t call it Bauhaus, but the influence was very clear. So, the course was like 3-Dimensional Design, and it was the most innovative thing to me. I had long experience in drawing and sculpture, but I never thought about forms, structure, space, or abstraction. It just opened up the world. I always loved music, and I play saxophone and clarinet. The concept I learned in 3-Dimensional Design was like learning composition in music, but happening in 3- dimensional space. Tangible things that I could touch… It changed the ways of looking at things. I began to think about forces that are interacting underneath. I just fell in love with New York, the school, and with the modern art movement. Also, I immediately wanted to dance after when I saw George Valentine’s New York City Ballet and Martha Graham’s troop. I didn’t have the personality for it, but I was also crazy about American football, also very athletic. I played American football for six years. So, the idea of body movement in space in relation to others reinforced my idea in 3-Dimensional Design. I didn’t recognize the difference between sculpture and design, but at the time, Industrial Design department at the Pratt was the best department.
I didn’t want to go to college, but Pratt gave me full 4-year scholarship, which turned out to be 6 year scholarship because I did my master’s there. But, the teachers were mostly designers and I wanted to do sculpture not designing products. So, when I decided to leave school, one faculty made a program like drawing, painting, and sculpting for me. I loved it. Strangely some of the faculty worked really hard to keep me in school. After graduating Industrial Design, I was starting my graduate school, and there was the fine arts graduate program. Ironically, I was asked to teach a course in Industrial Department. I think teaching was a revelation for me.
The more I did, the more I would reduce to basis. I realized that I could handle a lot of different problems because I was able to analyze and to reduce it to simple forms, and I think that is the main foundation of my works. For instance, one of the things you learn as an abstract artist is how to reduce things. So, literally taking a drop of molten still and it's a dot and if I use a rod, and it would be a line by joining the lines to that piece and this piece here. If you look at this carefully, it’s built up of a tiny little rod. To help students understand, I started reading books relating science, to learn to reduce things down to irreducible. When I was studying chemistry in high school, I thought it was just letters and numbers. But, when I started thinking that everything is made up of simple units in a different configuration, I thought this periodic table with numbers is about the most exciting thing you can learn. So, I think it affected both my teaching and learning, and my work because I try to deal with abstract forces. When I listen to music like harmony, I realize counterpoints are magical and think how two notes at the same time can produce such magical effect.
So, I think Bach was a very important influence on me because he does so much with so little changes. There are many composers I like, but Bach makes tiniest changes, and it opens up so many doors. I felt like welding. I want to be able to put two things that may be different and even the idea of counterpoint creating harmony.
In a sense, your units are like notes, and you’re the composer.
Yes. Also, working is a way of discovering and way of searching to me. I was reading about anthropology. There is archeologist named Schliemann. He was looking for Troy. He thought he found it, and he dug and dug and he kept on throwing things thinking it wasn’t Troy. He thought Troy was way underneath. But, archeologists make a grid now because of his mistake, both two dimensionally and three dimensionally. They take each layer very carefully. I think an artist and writer has the same problem. He needs to dig imagination, memory. You can’t throw away things that you think is not important. You have to learn from each layer. A lot of students tear up and throw away their drawings. If you are an archer or shooting a gun, you should know how you missed, so next time, you can aim higher or right to the left. Learning from your own mistake is very important.
When I was finishing my master’s, they asked me to take over the sculpture program. It used to be part of art education and several other departments. I didn’t know, and I literally built the classrooms. I hired and fired faculty. I renovated the space. It was unbelievable, 3 or 4 years there was a movement that changed. Art division, design division, and they asked me to be the director of the art division. That gave me the opportunity to integrate the broad design, science, engineering, and all into art division curriculum. For about 4 years, I was deeply involved.
Based on your experience?
Exactly. After 4 years probably, I didn’t have the excitement anymore because the creative part of designing the program was done. I had to see a lot of students having trouble with faculty. I began to think very deeply about what I am doing and what my goals are. I was so involved with the education. And, I really focused on my works, and I got a commission from the New York City to do a lot of sculpture. It was just enough for me to buy a building in Brooklyn, 10 thousand square feet. It was a revelation that one piece could be more than an entire year salary. Also, Whanki’s wife started a foundation after he died, and she wanted me to participate in a two men show in Paris. I was reluctant because I felt so responsible for teaching. The dean encouraged me to go, and I went to Paris to do my first show. Whanki happened to be doing dots, and it worked out as if it was planned. I met a Korean dealer there, and he said that he wanted to show my works in his gallery in Korea. He bought all the works so I wouldn’t worry about selling. That was the beginning. I still taught until the year 2000. Since then, I wasn’t teaching. I taught for 37 years. It is ironic because I had more to offer as a teacher now then back then.
I feel like I am still learning. Doing sculpture is a way of learning. It’s gone through a number of stages. At one point, I was like why am I doing this? Color, texture, and all these things. So these works brought me to more complex, but then some of these pieces took me 3 to 4years to finish. I realized that I was losing spontaneity. So, I began to do more like drawings. So each period is like examination of the period before and adjustment and going against what I did before. Question and answer.
Some people mention musical rhythm and geometry, can you talk more about that?
My whole family was very musical. My sister majored in voice and piano organ, my father played the flute, and my brother had the dreams of becoming a brighten singer but became a philosopher. At family gatherings, because we lived so far apart, my father, my mother, sister, and brother all went to the piano and sang a quartet. Everything in harmony, so I was always left out because I was so much younger, and I didn’t have the voice. So, my mother taught me how to play the piano, but I felt silly because my sister was already playing all the great composers. My mother made me repeat during the lessons, and I just wanted to get away and play baseball or something. One day, my mother came home with a saxophone in West Virginia and asked the music director if I could play it in the symphony. I learned quickly. I thought I would play classical music, but I discovered there weren’t many saxophone pieces for orchestra. So, I got a clarinet and learned to play by myself. Summer in college, I just felt the urge to play the piano because I could play one note at a time with a clarinet. So, I bought a piano for 45 dollars and sold the saxophone. I tried to play basic Mozart, but it seemed to satisfy the curiosity to counterpoint. I didn’t play well, but it was just satisfying to know that I could play more notes at a time. I think Mozart, Bach, and later on Chopin. Especially the emotional aspect, and I cannot even explain how it all happened but each change is like a movement of music. I began to understand the abstract language. For instance, you can’t see the wind, but when a branch or a cloth creates a wave shapes curves, it’s again like music. The idea of a unit, a dot, so small you don’t really know a dot is related to another dot, and there comes the geometry. A dot relates to another dot; it's very mathematical. A five-sided unit is very different from a six-sided unit. It’s amazing that one more side can be so different especially when it’s multiple. So, I became fascinated with geometry. I even began teaching in all disciplines, art, design, and architect. I would give students a simple unit like a simple cube. And, let them see what happens when your fragments are cut in half but in certain points. If students start with a unit and slice it whether joining they literally end up with a roomful of things. We would go through some small variations. They are amazed how they can accomplish with a simple unit. I would do the same thing with my works. I would start with a simple unit in a way that is like a cube that’s been stretched and bent. When these lines interact, they create like effect when you have a second or third note. It is different from an individual note. So, a lot of my works are like simple questions that I ask, and this is the result.
What intrigued you to work with wires?
It’s basic and not precious metal. It has the strength and flexibility. Very little string a very little structure. It’s always like giving into gravity, and you can’t really explore space. Wide distance so the wire is strong in two different ways compression and tension. So, it resists compression.
Have you worked with other material?
I did as a student, but I guess it was like the decision. Almost like a conscious decision like a musician play the violin or play something else. I was thinking more things possible than impossible. So, I guess it was kind of a conscious decision. I was always searching for magical material, and I worked with fiberglass, resin, epoxy, and ceramic clay. I guess a lot of sculptors would do that. For some reason, I didn’t put so much emphasis on material, so I felt like steel is very basic. It was good enough. 
What about the making process, do you plan ahead? or is it spontaneously leading you?
I have some intuition of trying, but I don’t want to know too early how it’s going to end. I would just grow with it. So, I just told the students you need to get lost because some students would say “oh I love this and blah blah.” It shouldn’t be it, you should like it, but you shouldn’t love it too much. You need to wrestle. I heard a lecture about the word Israel, and it means, wrestle with God. And that makes a lot of sense to me. In order to know God, you need to wrestle. There is a lot of issues to wrestle, and as an artist, you need to wrestle more than you need to believe.
You reference a lot from your teaching. Do you have any students that you have contact with?
Are they still practicing art?
Some are very contemporary, and some are into the way I do even though I don’t encourage them to work like me, and some are into teaching. I try not to use the Korean word ‘Jeja,’ and I can tell how a lot of artists are proud of how many they have and they treat their own artist as they are being used. I don’t like that idea. I love the idea of passing on, but I don’t want that to delay their growth. I want all of my students to find their own voices, and that’s the tough journey. I can only help them just to a certain point, but after they reach a certain point, we become friends no longer a teacher. I don’t pretend to be.
The new studio, is it a big transition? What inspired you?
No, it’s not. Until now, I could deal with everything like working in the cold, but there were things that were impractical. I’m welding, and it needs to evacuate air. I have electrical base the heat would go up the window, and it became harder to work in the cold. My hands were freezing, my feet were freezing, and it was full of mice. So, I got sick of mice. I couldn’t darken the window when I want to take a photo. Whenever I want to photograph tall works, I couldn’t photograph them inside because the walls were too low. So, I needed the windows that could darken higher walls so that I can photograph taller pieces. All matter of practicality and aging.
What are you working on these days?
There are two things that I did, a couple of them are in there, and one is because of the move, I have to cram down to things. I’ll show you and explain. It’s hard to see, but these welding rods come with these ends that have numbers printed on them. So, I had to cut them and throw them away because I couldn’t use them. I like the randomness like a hurricane or tornado. I was building a little tornado on the table, and it was going, and I wasn’t sure how it would be ending when it went up there. But, it’s definitely a step toward more randomness.
Sculptor always needs space. I think between that and this, I had the heart attack and triple bypass and something about all the examination I had to go through, the patterns you see of your heart, I think that is interesting quick changes in direction. The speed of things. But, also irregular heart beat. I think the whole idea of circulation of things.
Can we also see your new studio?
Inside is still, maybe from outside.
Do you think you’ll work with wires and form of welding?
Yes, I don’t think I will change my instrument. People have amazing toys like the 3d printer and stellar teams of people working with computers.
You never had any assistant?
No, I had an assistant who lived in my studio, but I never let him touch my work. So, he would keep it clean and lift heavy things, but I think there is some trace of I don’t know if its Asian or not but part of why you are doing your work is you’re being made. You are not making it, but that’s not my goal. It’s a result of what I am going through, and I am not a maker of things, then I would be a craftsman. So, I think there is something in the Asian experience of the constant state of becoming and working as a way of becoming that is why people cannot do things for you that’s my explanation.
Do you have any final suggestions to other Korean young artists?
I think the hardest thing and the most important thing is finding your own voice. This is hard to get across to people who are constantly looking for things to see. Some people find it very early, and some people find it very late, but I think once you find your own voice you have your own form of liberation. Then, you have things to contribute. I think a lot of things get in the way finding your own voice. For me, it took very long time. A lot of false get slits because when you are young, you are taught to sit straight walk straight, but there are so many things you have to do to do the right things. You don’t know who you are because you are trying to be somebody else who you aren’t, and you want to fit into society. So, there is part of me that is responding to all these different people teaching me to be this, do that, and you go to church and sit quiet, listen, and pray. But, later on, what does that have to do with God? Is God that immature to make me worship him? I think there’s something about childhood that if the childhood gave you the freedom that is really important and as an artist, you have to give yourself permission, to be honest. On top of everything, my father was a minister, but he never told me to go to church. I spent a lot of time to become a Christian, but there is an aspect as an artist that require being selfish, and regarding society, the right thing to do is to think about others. But as an artist, you need to think a lot about yourself. Your thoughts are important your feelings are important. It’s important to face up to it and to learn from it and deal with it. So, I think probably most exciting journey for a student is to search for their voice and find it and feel it. But it doesn’t mean blowing your ego. As you discover yourself and discover universe, if you don’t you only discover part of the universe and everything that we learn everything we see.
Any final comment?
I didn’t think of myself as Korean artist, but most of my works ended up being in Korea. I didn’t sell my works to Korean only, but when I showed my works at the Rodin Gallery in Seoul, I saw so many artworks that I haven’t seen for a while. I want to have an exhibition in New York, but I regret not doing it. Time-wise, my age, I can’t go and find galleries in New York, but I show my works in the best museums in Korea, what can I do.
John Pai 존 배
May 2 2016

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