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Questions and answers: Iona Park in her studio.

PHOTO: Shannon DeCelle

One Thing Leads to Another

For painter Iona Park, the process is as important as the finished work

By Jacqueline Keren


At some point in her travels, Iona Park learned that the Chinese words for “breath” and “brush mark” are the same. This, she relates in her industrial-yet-airy studio in Glens Falls, resonated with her. Looking at her paintings, some hanging on the walls, others in their infancy on the floor, it’s easy to see why. Her paintings resemble landscapes seen through a rain streaked window pane: the color, light dripping across the canvas but with a few distinct markings, the shadow of something concrete. As in the names she’s given them—Pulmonary, Slough, Billow—there’s a strong sense of rhythmic movement. Park explains that her “inclinations about process and mark-making guide [her] rather than the goal of a particular image.” She sites the paintings of Caravaggio in comparison. “You want to lick them, they’re gorgeous,” she says, referring to the smooth, lush surfaces of his canvasses. But the process is invisible. Being able to see the process, Park says, is what excites her.

Park exhibits her work regionally, with a two-person show this past summer at the Lake George Arts Project. Her work also has appeared in the Mohawk-Hudson Regional, Albany Center Gallery Invitational, and small group shows in New York City.

It was as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, studying archaeology, that Park first got interested in process as an end in itself. Because the body of knowledge in any archaeology project can be so limited—a shard of pottery there, a knife handle there—it’s not the final answers that are important. “It comes down to the great questions you can ask,” she says. The same is true of painting. “Painting reflects the quality of one’s inquiry,” she says. “The more curious you are, the more you question your conclusions, the richer the painting.”

These lessons still inform her thinking about painting. Park says she doesn’t know what her paintings will look like when she starts out but she remains open to discovery. Each step determines the next.

In addition to Dartmouth College, Park studied painting at Indiana University, with time served at the New York Studio School and Vermont Studio Center. When she came to New York City in 1997, she followed a path well-worn by decades of artists before her. She waitressed, temped, painted and got married, with a brief interlude as a tenure-track professor at Colorado State University. On her return to New York in 2000, she painted full-time, showing here and there; she sold works out of her studio to private clients she connected with through her husband’s architectural business. But New York, as it often does, became less viable as a permanent place to live, and Park began looking farther afield.

Park began teaching full-time at Skidmore College in 2004. Her method of teaching reflects her strategies for painting. She provides her students with neutral subjects—figures, still lifes—a blank slate through which they discover the patterns, palettes, techniques that intrigue them.

This method, she hopes, will help her students discover their own voices rather than adopt hers. “I can’t imagine anything worse,” she says. “Clones of me.” After a challenging first year at Skidmore, she’s become very involved in her teaching, waking up in the middle of the night with ideas for her classes. Seeing the process of discovery in her students and the originality in their work keeps the teaching exciting for her, though she hopes to find more time for her own work.

Adjusting to upstate New York was also a difficult passage, and Park had trouble settling into her painting after the move. Her city paintings had been influenced by the urban landscape she walked with her camera, the gridlike streets of Manhattan. First there were triptychs, three eight-inch square plywood panels she painted with water-based mediums. Then she expanded, painting grids of 32 panels laid out as neatly as a map of New York. Though her work sold, the form began to feel too refined, and she was unable to complete her last commission.

A fallow period followed, and then the panic of not working for a time. After relocating upstate, she fell back onto the landscapes she knew, but the grids were tied to New York City and nothing came of it. The first really new pieces emerged devoid of color, much like a pale, wintry day, but she saw her use of materials expanding. Park had begun experimenting with different kinds of gesso (acrylic and traditional), and casein, a milk-based paint used for outdoor frescoes that she made herself. She also began layering Asian papers onto her canvases, which she sanded, buffed, pulled off, tore away. Eventually, color began to reenter her work, while her pieces also expanded in size to match her new landscape. This, she says, shook things up. Her latest paintings, featured at the show at the Lake George Arts Project, were a big release, she says, deeply felt abstracts intuitively inspired by landscapes, rich with color and distinctively marked.

Park says she got her first taste of art in the house she grew up in, in Michigan: Her father, a Korean immigrant, stocked the home with paintings. As an adult, she has made two trips to Korea. Seeing that country’s art firsthand helped her jettison the notion of oil paint—and Caravaggio—as the gold standard. As in Chinese paintings, there is a deep reverence for the landscape that permeates the culture. She hopes to return to Asia in the next two to three years to explore these and other themes that resonate with her own work.

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