From the time Lee was a young girl growing up in Seoul,
South Korea, she knew she would one day be a professional artist.
“All I ever wanted to do is be a fine artist and paint,” she said. “It
was set in my heart.”
Passion for creating was steeped in her from a young age.
“Ever since I was little, I visited galleries,” Lee recalled. “My father
is very artistic. He always read poetry to me. He was an artist at
heart but the times didn’t allow him to follow that dream. My
passion for art came from him.”
Even so, Lee hesitated to tell her parents when she first knew
she’d become a professional artist. At the time, painting wasn’t
considered an appropriate choice of vocation for a young woman.
“I didn’t want to disappoint them,” she said. “I was a top student
and back then smart kids went to medical school or law school.
I didn’t want them to think I was lazy. I was just so fascinated
As a young woman, Lee felt the pull of the culture the
West had to offer and wanted to immerse herself in it. The
study of traditional Korean art forms—portraiture, landscapes
and florals—left Lee’s sense of creative expression discontented.
Techniques with a Western influence gave her more fulfillment as
a way to give voice to her ideas and feelings, and so she focused
her attentions on studying in the United States.
An Unfamiliar Place
When she arrived at the University of South Dakota, Lee
toured facilities and met faculty members in art, one of whom
was Jeff Freeman, a professor of painting at USD from 1980 until
his retirement in 2011.
“It took a lot of courage for her to come here from Korea,”
Freeman said. “She had a plan, but no assurance that she’d be able
to get there. It’s a risk every artist takes.”
“I fell in love with USD,” Lee said. “It was impressive. I
thought, ‘They have some good ideas.’ I knew USD was a good
place to stay.”
But her transition from big-city Seoul to small-town
Vermillion wasn’t without its struggles.
“My family thought I was a little nuts moving to this small
college town in South Dakota. Coming here was a culture shock.”
No local grocery store carried the supplies she needed to
cook the ethnic foods she was familiar with. Without access to
traditional Korean fare like rice cakes and kimchi, Lee turned to
the offerings of fast-food restaurants and other American food.
“At first I wondered what I would eat. Once I tried a taco I
thought, ‘I like this—I can survive here,’” Lee laughed.
But she didn’t have any friends or family to lean on, or even
the comfort of a familiar face. The town seemed too quiet after
spending her entire life among the hustle and bustle of a city
populated with more than 10 million people.
Lee quickly learned of the advantages a college town in the
Midwest could offer, however.
“I’d walk along or lie on a blanket in a field at night, looking
up at the sky,” she said. “I was amazed I could see the sky. I was
fascinated with the trees and the stars. I loved the freedom I had.
“I was a strong person, but it was a difficult time,” Lee
admitted. “Art helped me get through and I adjusted quickly.”
Hours spent working in the studio and in Freeman’s classes
helped Lee find her voice. “There is a meditative, contemplative
quality about her,” Freeman explained. “As artists, we look for a
way to put together the reality we understand more deeply. We
try to find the coalition of forms that helps us make sense of the
world we’re in.”
USD not only offered Lee her opportunities in art; it was on
campus that she met her husband, David Julian. The two met the
Following a Dream
Lee Reaches Global Success as an Artist
by Kim Lee
Anything is possible if you’re passionate enough, work hard
enough and keep your dreams alive. It’s a persuasion that has
taken USD alumna Mi Young Lee around the world.