The Majestic Allure of artist Jiyeun Kang

An illustrator capturing the history & idols of her country.

Besides the annual AOI World Illustration Awards, another essential event in the art calendar is the unveiling of the American Illustration winners, a yearly awards that leads to a hardback beauty featuring the very best art by some truly global talent.

In this year's selection you'll find South Korea's Jiyeun Kang, a book and editorial illustrator represented by Canada's Anna Goodson. This is obviously great exposure for Jiyeun, but before this year's AI-39 winners were unveiled, she had already gathered international interest for a series of striking illos made for Allure Magazine's series of K-pop exposes.

You can see those works on the Anna Goodson site, and below in our in-depth interview with the artist.

Speaking by email with Jiyeun after going through her majestic portfolio, I ask her how she'd describe her style.

"I want to ask you about it first," she teases. "For me, I haven't yet decided my style. If there is one, it originated from (persistence): in my career, the most difficult thing was keeping drawing regardless of my environment, such as working in an office, taking care of my children, or my psychological situation. 

"Style is not so important. It can change as time goes by. The main thing is the direction I want to go; for now, I’m interested in what the digital art can do, the world that digital makes possible is my main concern (and) I call that experiment my style."

Before starting on her digital career, Jiyeun preferred to draw with pencil or felt pen on paper, and colour with acrylic paint and gouache.

After her first child's birth, she started to draw with Photoshop so as to keep her work safe from them. The same period saw her move to the city of Chung-ju, a far one from Seoul which meant she had to adapt to remote clients.

The artist's curiosity mingled with persistence has seen Jiyeun move from her bread and butter in Korean book art towards editorial illustration, a relatively new field for her.

"I like to draw book illustrations, but I felt frustrated by repeating only those things," she admits. "The way of sending messages in book illustrations and that of editorial illustrations are different; I love those differences so much that I want to do more works."

Time-travelling bullet

That said, books remain Jiyeun's main passion. Most of her book art can be found in literature text books designed for Korean students.

"The Aimless Bullet by Yi Beom Seon and Seoul 1964 Winter by Sung-ok Kim are very famous and also my favourites," she says.

"When I was young I liked Japanese literature, mainly that of Haruki Murakami. But The Aimless Bullet is different. When I read this one as a teen through a literature textbook, I felt it was so dark and boring. I couldn't even understand what the story's metaphor was.

"But about two or three years ago, when I met this story again, I felt totally different emotions. It was so sad, so tragic, that it was really hit my heart deeply. The characters' lives were so real I couldn't believe that it was set in the 1960's. Life is not so different now."

Jiyeun researched that era greatly for her Bullet illustrations (see above), and tells me of that decade's important to Korea, after 1953's end of the Korean War.

"It was a time when all the tragedies and the liveliness of 'restarting life' were mixed together," she explains. "My father was born in 1950, and my mother was born in 1956. It was also their teen era, too. Modern Korea was started from that time; they made the Korea of today. So these two books all show well about the moods of that era."

I ask how Jiyeun 'matched' that written vision with her artistic one.

"In the case of Seoul 1964 Winter, writer Sung-ok Kim described scenes from that era in detail, so I could even feel the sound of the wind and the light of blinking lamps vividly while I'm reading the scene with my eyes.

"So, depicting these scenes into illustration (see below), I really tried to transfer that mood and feeling in a visual way to readers. And if I have a chance, I want to introduce these stories to other countries in more illustrated way."

With the growing appetite for Korean literature in translation, this seems most possible; arguably, this interest in her country's literature may have been encouraged by the global love for all things K-pop.

Zero to Heroes

Jumping from the 20th century to the 21st, Jiyeun explains how she did the same for her Allure Magazine illos, which accompanied pieces exploring masculinity, feminism and controversy in Korea's pop industry. Somehow the K-pop pieces fit in with her stately, 'historical' style whilst taking flashy, colour popping-visual cues from the genre.

"My natural nature may be dark, because I'm not a very bright, cheerful, warm kind of person," she admits. "But when I work, I look at my illustrations as if I'm directing them from a third party's perspective. The most important thing is whether or not a final product has been produced for the purpose has been produced: if my illustrations are drawn darker to express a dark subject, it is a desirable outcome. If such a result happens when a brighter and more modern illustration is needed, then it is also desirable. 

"I enjoy the chemical reaction of my changing style depending on the purpose or the manuscript of the project. It's a very interesting process. Personal work can satisfy individual needs, but it's hard to experience that kind of chemical reaction process.

Jiyeun tells me she enjoyed the process of finding K-pop related materials as research, harking back to her teenage love for singer Seo Tai-ji. As it turns out, Jiyeun worked on an animated video for the singer back in 2003, 0 (Zero), from which she has sent us the below exclusive stills.

"I can’t forget the moment when it was shown at his concerts in front of so many crowds. It remains my most beautiful memories of my 20’s.

"Idols really are stars for people who love them. Sometimes they change people's lives: Seo Tai-ji's music was so famous that many teenagers who left home actually came back after listening to his music. His power in our generation was really powerful.

"Because of these reasons, I used skies, stars, and magical images (in those illustrations.) They naturally fit K-pop stars, I think. Furthermore, music videos and photos of stars such as BTS, NCT, and Black Pink really inspired me, too."

All great stars who 'give out light' to K-pop stans worldwide, fans who also know there is darkness behind that light. But, as I ask Jiyeun, isn't there darkness in any industry around the world which preys on the talents of young people..?

"Yes. It's not just a matter of K-pop, but it's a problem that's permeated to every corner of Korea. There are no exceptions to music, movies, paintings, anything. Not to mention literature and illustration. 

"The only way is to break away from the existing framework and explore new markets. Just as K-pop has become known to the world and their chronic problems have been dealt with in-depth from outside perspectives, I hope that such movements will take place in other art fields, too. Only the solidarity of artists and attempts to expose all those problems will make better improvements.  

"I also want to work on that path."

The Juggling Act

Jiyeun tells me she thinks her children aren't "safe enough" from the exploitative nature of the modern world, that "they need to know how to adjust to some extent."

The artist and family live safely though in the city of Yongin, while her hometown is Daegu, in the south of Korea.

"It is a very conservative city." I learn. "And it also famous as the most COVID-19 infected-city at this time in Korea.

"I always have missed my hometown since I left to go to university when I was 19 years old. But that period when I lived there with my parents is a kind of paradise to which I can never go back," she reminisces. "If I could go back to just one day in my past, I would pick my Sunday mornings as a teenager, and then go somewhere with my family to see nature. Or I'd choose an ordinary afternoon after school where my dad is waiting for me and have a drive to go back home, seeing the sun set.

"That was the most perfect moment in my life: Since dad left forever in my late 20’s, any place is not so different for me, actually. That sky, that atmosphere still remains to me as inspirations."

"Sometimes I see (that magic) again in my children’s eyes; if I can give them memories similar to that my dad gave me, it would be a pleasure for me, too."

Jiyeun tells me about juggling family life and work life during this pandemic, admitting it's hard but not so different from her day-to-day.

"I usually stay at home with my children doing housework, taking care of my kids, doing drawings together.  In the beginning of my career, I tried to hide the fact that I’m taking care of my kids just because my potential clients might be reluctant about the situation. But now I have a pattern to deal with it and my clients know about it."

"In this corona-panic," she continues, "juggling family life and work life is simple. During day time, I'm taking care of my children. Then I let them sleep as early as I can. I also have to sleep early and wake up early before dawn, sometimes during the night.

"This is my clients' working time too, because of the time gap. It is also the reason I prefer to work with clients in other countries; it's more convenient than working with Korean clients who work while I'm taking care of the kids."

Jiyeun finds her international work with the help of the Anna Goodson Illustration Agency, and I ask her what dream projects she'd like to work on next with clients.

"For editorial, I want to collaborate with more diverse clients doing more challenging work, including economy, politics, and psychological matters. 

"Fashion and travel are also interesting, and collaboration with a company related to digital arts is also my dream project, too.

"Ideal combination between these fields and digital arts is my dream."

Follow Jiyeun Kang on Instagram.

Related: How to design for K-pop with BTS and Loona designer Ji-yoon Lee

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