The South Dakotan
first day of class in 1982 in the dining hall. Julian sat at the only
available table, and Lee’s friend suggested they join him.
“I didn’t really want to sit there,” Lee said. “I was so shy
around all these strangers.”
But her friend insisted, and so they sat down and chatted.
Lee would later run into Julian frequently in the Warren M. Lee
Center for the Fine Arts.
“I stayed late and worked all the time,” Lee recollected.
“When the weather was nice everyone would go outside, but I
always stayed in, working. He was always in there too. After a
while, we realized we lived in the same dorm, Julian Hall.”
They began dating, but not until almost a year later. The two
eventually married, after Lee won a USD student art show that
paid enough to purchase a wedding ring. After only three years
at USD, she graduated in 1985 with her Bachelor of Fine Arts
degree in painting, and then went on to receive her Master of Fine
Arts in painting in 1988.
Throughout those years, Freeman taught Lee at every level
and recognized her tenacity. “Mi Young is strong willed,” Freeman
said. “She had ideas about what she wanted to do and she didn’t
waver much from that. As teachers, we help students get better at
what they do. Sometimes young artists don’t know what to say,
but Mi Young always had a good idea of what she wanted to say.”
Lee got her early exposure by attending art fairs and festivals,
which isn’t the route many artists take. “Most artists aspire to
get right into the art galleries first,” explained Cory Knedler,
chair of the USD Department of Art. Many USD faculty
members were unsure of Lee’s route, because they wanted to
see her pieces in galleries.
But as Lee has shown, there are multiple ways to get to
Lee was still a student the first time she attended the Florida
Art Fair in Miami—at the time, it was the number one show in
the country. Lee debated whether to send in her application for
the show; she was worried the competition would be too stiff and
she wouldn’t get in. John Day, the dean of Fine Arts at the time,
gave Lee some sound advice: “You’ve got to go,” he said. “You’ve
come all the way from Korea for your art.” Freeman echoed the
encouragement, telling her, “Life is about taking risks.”
Lee did apply, and she did get in. After she had set up her
booth and hung her paintings, one customer purchased a piece
and told her that her asking prices were too low. “After she paid
for her piece, she leaned in and whispered to me that I should
double my prices. I wasn’t asking enough. She got a bargain,” Lee
laughed. She then doubled the prices and sold all the pieces she’d
brought to the show.
“That changed my outlook tremendously,” Lee said. “My
confidence level shot up. It really sunk in that I can make money
doing this. I thought, ‘I can make it as an artist.’”
After she’d traveled throughout the U.S. for solo exhibitions
for a few years, Lee marked a milestone in her career in 1995:
she became an international artist when she returned to her
homeland of South Korea to show her work. Her solo exhibitions
earned critical acclaim at Gallery Gasan in Seoul and Gallery
Song Ha in Pusan and Lee then began receiving invitations to
show her work around the world at international fairs in Korea,
Shanghai, China, Hong Kong, Germany and Poland.
East Meets West
Lee’s abstract paintings are comprised of water soluble oils
on paperboard or canvas that marry the Western notion of
abstract with overtones of Eastern philosophy, honoring both
cultures and traditions.
Each of her paintings tells a story. What Lee creates depends
on what stage of life she’s in. She draws her inspiration on a daily
basis from life experiences—who she meets, where she goes. She
doesn’t think too much about what’s going to come from her
brush; painting becomes another sense and she filters it onto
“As the energy of my environment changes, my perception
of it changes also, and the corresponding alteration of my
emotional state determines what colors, shapes, markings and
materials I use to convey my feelings as energy passes through my
consciousness,” Lee explained. “I become a filter, distilling the
energy and transferring it to the painting surface.”
Collectors near and far enjoy Lee’s artwork. Joe and Mona
Robinson of Dallas, Texas first became familiar with Lee’s work
at an art show in Dallas and now own six of her paintings. “I love
the intensity of her colors. They are so vibrant and eye catching,”
Mona stated. “Every time I look at her paintings, I feel uplifted.”
Lee annually attends the Korea International Art Fair in
Seoul, Korea, bringing her back to her homeland.