Now and then, life offers you the chance to meet an entirely unique individual. Someone who’s story you are confident you’ve never heard before, and who’s view of the world is made up of colors that don’t yet have names. JooYoung Choi is one of those people.
Born in Korea and raised by her adoptive parents in New Hampshire, JooYoung Choi began life with her feet in two worlds. As a child, she was known as Stacy and studied music, voice, and performance art. She starred in variety shows with her mother and was the first Asian to ever play the famous role of Dorothy in Concord, New Hampshire.
All of this hard work eventually paid off earning her acceptance into Berklee College of Music for piano. After only one semester, however, she wanted to quit. Even though she had spent her entire life up to that point studying music, JooYoung Choi knew in her heart that she wanted to be an artist. She eventually applied to Massachusetts College of Art and Design where she received a Bachelor’s, and then went on to earn a Master’s at Lesley University.
When I decided not to do music it was confusing for my parents. But now I do video art, and I write all the music, and I perform and play them, so music has come back in a new way.
Even though JooYoung Choi has always been driven and accomplished, she found time to indulge her interest in comic books and film. The Marvel Universe, in particular, was a place where she found characters that she could relate to.
Many of them were orphans or adopted like me. You just felt at home with it.
Around the age of 23 or 24, she knew she had to try to find her birth family.
I had to make a decision, and I decided that I couldn’t keep pretending that I wasn’t who I was and that my life was more than just one realm.
She says the day she met her birth father was the second happiest day of her life. That is also when she discovered the name that her grandfather had given her at her birth was JooYoung, which had been misspelled on her birth certificate, and she learned that it meant crystal chalice overflowing with life.
I heard them say JooYoung, and it just felt so natural. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s me!’
For adopted people, we feel like so many things have been chosen for us. A lot of my childhood was about realizing that imagination was going to be a part of my life. It’s an interesting way to start your life forged in the beginning with having to do make-believe and realizing that so much of what we believe is what we choose to believe. It was so liberating when I got older to be able to choose things like my name and my birthday. I choose my Korean name and my American birthday. I choose both.
As one of the featured artists currently on view in Round 45 at Project Row House, JooYoung’s installation was born out of her familiar snow people project, which brought her puppets to Houston last summer through an Idea Fund Grant. It also features several additional sculptures: Spacia, the liberator of the snow people, is a character inspired by Kerry James Marshall’s paintings; Noiro, the other main character, was inspired by Donald Maiden, Jr., the 8-year old boy from Dallas who was shot in the face by a stranger outside of his apartment complex and miraculously survived. These rare and unique “black stars” as she calls them, shine up in the sky and have come to a safe space at Project Row House for healing.
Just before the installation opened there was a meteor shower from the Orionid Region, so that’s how I came up with the idea for Noiro, whose name is Orion spelled backward, but also means black (noir) with a zero on the end, the idea that young black men are made to feel like they are zero. But zero was the number that unlocked modern math and black is actually the combination of all of the other colors.
JooYoung Choi draws a lot of inspiration from her desire to speak out against the systemic racism she sees in our society but admits that the television she watched as a child still guides much of her work. Star Trek, Parliament Funkadelic, Mary Poppins, Fantasia, and Mary Blair (of Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella) mixed with the modern-day tragedies of Tamir Rice and Donald Maiden Jr., are at the very heart of what we see at PRH.
I wanted to create a safe space where we can mourn a sadness that we are all kind of feeling, I think, where people want to do something about the issues with Black Lives Matter, but maybe they don’t know how to help, and to create a space that feels sacred, and almost religious.
Visitors are invited to write the name of a lost loved one, or any other grief, and carry it with a small black light candle into the “cosmic womb,” the nest-healing area, where Spacia and Noiro are. It is evident the moment you walk through the curtain that you have entered a sacred space.
Recently someone said to me you should grow up with your art. What I’ve realized, though, these kinds of mythologies, they reach to something beyond just being a child. That part of ourselves that’s willing to be open and to learn, that’s what mythology can do. Legends and stories, they hit your heart in a way that–all those things that stop us from really feeling, that all melts away when you start getting people excited about a story.
This type of art–works based on a narrative—is rather unique. Paracosms are highly structured imaginary worlds that the artist or writer feels responsible for, but knows is not real. While it is not exactly mainstream, there is at least one other local artist doing this type of work. JooYoung Choi met Trenton Doyle Hancock while living in Boston. Some of her friends recommended she check out his work and she was immediately struck by the similarity.
It was like meeting my other half. His stories complimented. So, I quizzed him to see if we liked the same comic books.
Trenton was also a Marvel fan, and so their courtship began. The two were recently married, and the photo announcement was a picture of JooYoung with one of her puppets and Trenton with a stuffed animal creature from his imaginary world.
We’ve talked about calling it (our art) New Narratives, or Narra-plexic Art. We have a lot of people we owe a great debt to, but I feel like whatever we can contribute to create more pathways to make it possible for people to see this as an option, for how they make their work.
JooYoung Choi and Trenton love living in Houston and have become significant contributors to the art community here. You can find them dining regularly at one of their favorite restaurants, The Blue Nile, an Ethiopian restaurant on Richmond.
They are the nicest people ever. When I go there, I feel at home.
If you would like to visit JooYoung Choi’s fascinating installation at Project Row Houses, it will remain on view until February 12, 2017. Beginning in May, it will be reintegrated into a new piece at the Contemporary Art Museum. The show will be titled “A Better Yesterday” and will feature JooYoung and two other artists.