Campus dweller draws elderly NY

Joseph Whang, who now draws in Vassar’s Art Library, derives inspiration from the elderly. He shared, “When I see old people, I feel the same emotions I felt from old movies or music. I want to feel or experience those eras I haven’t experienced through watching these people.” Courtesy of Joseph Whang

Every Tuesday, Joseph Whang camps out in a study room in the Art Library, the one protruding from the Main Gate, and further enlivens his drawings. His process is unchanging: He transfers a graphite line sketch onto his computer and adds color and dimension. He is as devoted to his subject matter as he is to this sequence; he loves drawing elderly people in New York.

Whang and his wife, Adjunct Artist in Music Yenne Lee, commute to Vassar every week. While she is teaching classical guitar in Skinner Hall, he hunches over a sketchpad and tablet in the library, where, scrounging for study breaks, I watch him draw sometimes. One day, we struck up a conversation.

The Miscellany News sat down with Whang to discuss traditional media, Mr. Rogers and the value of the old.

The Miscellany News: You were born in Seoul and you lived there until 2010, when you started studying at Parsons. Does the landscape of Seoul affect your art or artistic practice? Or does New York dominate your art?

Joe Whang: I would say New York dominates my art in terms of style and subject matter. When I was in Korea, I focused too much on drawing precisely, but I went to Parsons and I saw students who were focusing on expressing their thoughts rather than trying to draw well. So I think that changed my mind. Since then, I try to draw freely and try to make my own style.

M: What inspires you so much about New York in particular?

JW: In terms of subject matter, I draw old people of New York, mostly. When I was in Korea, I just imagined there would be young, trendy people only in New York. When I see movies or magazines, there was only fancy New York. I actually came to New York and I noticed there were so many old people who are the opposite of trendy. They seemed like outsiders, like I am, because I had just arrived to New York and I was dominated and overwhelmed—because [it] is a very big city and people are fast and fancy and handsome and beautiful. So I felt I didn’t belong here. I identified with old people.

Meanwhile, I miss my parents since I live far away from Seoul, Korea—my hometown. I was thinking about aging. I’m getting older and my parents also get older, so that’s how I got more interested in old people.

M: A Japanese artist once told me that he thought painting and traditional media had a human essence missing in digital painting. A lot of your paintings are digital—do you prefer digital painting? If so, why?

JW: I have to agree with the Japanese artist. I think traditional paintings have more human essence than digital paintings because they cannot be duplicated. But I also think digital paintings also have some degree of human essence, as long as they are not created by a computer. That’s a human drawing. We just use tablets or computers as a tool, like a pencil or a brush. I’m a millennial who experienced both traditional and digital media, so growing up I learned how to sketch and draw with pencil, brush, watercolors, acrylic, oil—but I also learned how to draw and paint with tablets on the computer. I like the fact that I’m familiar with both traditional and digital ways.

M: You’re interested in costume and you put a lot of work into rendering the clothes of your subjects. When did you become interested in clothing?

JW: Since I was little I have been interested in clothing and sneakers. There were two big influences: Mr. Rogers and Michael Jordan. When I was watching television, Mr. Rogers’ show, I was most interested in what
color cardigan he was going to be wearing. The cardigan always changes. I loved watching him change his leather shoes to, I don’t know, sneakers or Keds. That scene just hit my brain.

And Michael Jordan—he’s kind of God for our generation. I loved the fact that I can buy his Jordans and when I played basketball, I felt like I was like Mike.

M: Is there something about old people’s clothing that draws you to them?

JW: Mr. Rogers’ clothing—at that time, he was kind of old—I think that image has led to my interest in old people. At some point I realized someone’s outfit can show their personality or their character. Since then, I started observing people walking on the street, and it was fun because everyone is different and unique. It’s like appreciating artworks in a museum. I regard them as walking artworks on the street. Old people, especially, are unique. They don’t follow trends; sometimes they wear very classic, elegant, formal [clothes]. They don’t care. Sometimes they don’t even wear shoes when they are on the street. Moreover, old people move slowly so they give me more time to appreciate them.

M: A lot of your works are of people, as well as scenes drawn from life, candids. Why do you draw candid pictures?

JW: I love old people’s slowness in life. They are moving, but slowly. Their slow body movements and their facial expressions—slouching, frowns—those stand out more when they are surrounded with younger people. Younger people are fast, handsome, beautiful—but old people don’t hide their emotions, even if they are negative feelings. They are just revealed. On the other hand, younger people tend to hide their weakness or bad feelings in public so they pretend like they are okay, but who knows if they are angry? I love watching old people just show how they are.

M: Does your interest in vintage clothing and items have any connection to your interest in old people? Do you have an affinity for aged things?

JW: I think there are some similarities between vintage clothing and old people. Vintage clothing has existed through many years, so there should be some stories in [it]. [Vintage clothes] are part of the person that wore them because they aged together. I sense those spirits when I see vintage clothing. Sometimes when I see old people, I feel the same way because they experienced things I haven’t such as old movies and music. I love watching old movies like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Godfather.” I also love old jazz like Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald. When I see old people, I feel the same emotions I felt from old movies or music. I want to feel or experience those eras I haven’t experienced through watching these people.

Though I am inspired by old culture and vintage clothing, I like depicting them as vigorous and lively using bright and playful colors. Those colors give them a sort of energy or make them more youthful. I also want to emphasize old people’s presence around us using vivid colors. Eventually, we need to pay more attention to old people because we live together, and we should remember we are going to be them someday.

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