In Hana Lee Joshi’s art, the female form looms large. Sweeping stripes of eye-catching colored texture depict broad shoulders and rounded curves—knee bend, breast stroke—that fill the canvas. For the Vancouver-based Korean-Canadian artist, this act of taking up space in a female form is very intentional: “My current job is to explore how to somehow gain independence in my mind, body, and spirit,” he says.
There is a duality of forms in Lee Joshi’s art, a balance between larger-than-life dimensions and soft forms: one frame may show a woman in a powerful race, red-haired flame gushing behind her, while another frame may show a trio of women in calm shades of blue, green and pink, hands outstretched Bodies are arranged to share space.
If there’s one person who has inspired Lee Joshi’s focus on strong women over the years, it’s her late paternal grandmother, whom she honors with her contribution to the film Where I Am from Adobe that showcases the myriad ways creative people in Asia and the Pacific Islands define their identities. . “My grandmother was a fierce woman,” she says. “Although she was fierce, she loved tenderness.”
We were honored to speak with Lee Joshi about her artistic journey and how creativity allowed her to find her voice.
Can you tell us about your background?
Born in South Korea, I immigrated with my family, including my grandmother, to British Columbia, Canada, in the fifth grade. I have been in Canada ever since.
What are some of your early experiences as an artist?
From an early age, my grandmother knew I was really into drawing. She was always very encouraging for that. It was really hard for me to immigrate to Canada and not being able to speak English – I knew the alphabet and ‘hello’, that’s it. I remember immersing myself in art. When I didn’t have the language to express myself, I found drawing a way to communicate with other children. I couldn’t speak English, but people would come into my office and say, “Oh, hey, you’re drawing Pokemon! That’s really cool!” This is how I made connections. This had a huge impact on how I approached art.
How did you start pursuing art as a career?
She went to Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver to get a degree in Animation. After college, she worked as a storyboard artist in 2D animation for eight years. When I was young, there wasn’t much representation of Asian American women, especially creative ones, that reflected on me. When I got into the animation studio, there wasn’t a lot of variety, and I couldn’t really see my own personal view as an asset, which I really regret now. I thought blending was the key to survival. Studio life has really worn me out. That’s when I ventured into illustration and fine art.
Mental health is an important topic in your work. How did you get to this topic?
When dealing with burnout at work, I developed Graves’ disease [an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid]. That’s when I started really struggling with my mental health. During that time, I tried medications and therapy, and nothing really worked until it popped into my mind that nothing was going to get me out but myself. I had to make this change, not relying on something else outside my body.
I’ve started doing a lot of personal work around this process. When I went through depression, I mostly painted in black and white, and when I finally came out of that experience, I felt like the world was really bright and colorful. I really wanted to capture that feeling.
How did you find your own artistic style?
I have organically arrived at my signature style. The textures in my work came from experience. I mainly use a colored pencil, an airbrush and washers of different colours. I usually just do my thinking on paper, then go to Adobe Photoshop and run through it quickly to see what color combinations work. Then I take it to cloth or paper.
What story are you telling through your art?
Communication is an inspiration for me to make art. I’ve spent a lifetime practicing cross-cultural communication, as someone who immigrated from South Korea to Canada and as someone married to a Nepalese family. Being from a very traditional Korean family, I really looked up to my grandmother’s example when I started finding my voice as an artist. She passed away when I was in college, but I imagine she’d be very proud of me. I use the word “therapy” when I describe my work because I put ideas of independence and individuality on paper.
How did the female form become a focus for you?
I think the feminine form taken from a feminine look is very important. When I started painting the bodies of these women, it resonated with people. My parents ask me, “Why do you keep painting naked women?” And my answer is that this is just what I want to draw. This is what I am interested in. A lot of it is that I’m trying to unravel the inner misogyny of my traditional upbringing to see myself as I am.
Why is sharing your voice important?
I believe that when you see your struggle reflected on someone else, there is a common humanity. We are not just. A lot of the struggles that we feel are very personal are actually global. There is comfort in that. We can all grow from it. I’ll be honest, interviewing has been really hard for me, just because I’ve always been really shy. But I am trying to overcome that. I hope someone on the outside sees their own suffering and sees that they are alright.