By Irene Ruddock
Sungsook Setton of Setauket is a watercolor and ink artist whose work bridges East and West and has brought her international recognition. She has exhibited in Canada, Korea, Taiwan, England and the United States. Setton twice won Best in Show at the National Juried Exhibition by the Sumi-e Society of America.
Quote: ‘My work, based on East Asian brush painting and Western artistic innovation, can be seen as expressive abstraction, allowing me to harness the spirit of qi.’
When did you begin painting?
From an early age, I was always drawn to art and painted in the traditional western style. However, I began East Asian water and ink brush painting while revisiting Korea searching for my roots. I studied with Chinese and Korean masters who had me practice one stroke at a time for a month until it was perfect. They taught me that, just as musicians play scales and dancers practice steps, watercolor-ink painters practice the basic strokes to prepare for more intricate work. This began my personal journey to meld traditions of eastern and western art into my art.
What is the most important lesson you learned from your teachers?
One of the most important lessons is to achieve tranquility while you paint. Becoming one with the brush is an essential meditative experience that leads to tranquility. Tranquility then leads to qi, which leads to the transcendence necessary for painting.
Can you tell us more about qi?
It is a life force or energy flow. It is a central Chinese principle — the harmony of yin and yang.
What else influences your art?
The most influential classic book for the Chinese water-ink artist is the Qing Dynasty reference “Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden,” which teaches that polished skills lead to a deeper understanding of the wonders of nature. While engaged in painting landscape, it’s almost a spiritual nutrition for me. Surrounded by nature, my mind is calm and clear, and I can focus on my subject. I then use suggestions in my brushwork to interpret forms in their simplest state. By paring back, I hope to reveal and capture the qi of nature. Brush painting represents the perfect meeting between the qi of the artist and the qi of nature.
What is your best advice for people viewing your work?
When viewing the paintings, look also for the empty spaces as well as the positive spaces. The nonpainted area, called ying, is there to allow you to breathe deeply and to grow and to achieve peace.
You have just written a beautiful book titled “The Spirit of the Brush.” Can you explain why you chose the title?
My brush has taken me on a spiritual journey. With my brush, I feel that I am not only a painter, but a dancer and a musician. I sing songs with my brush and dance with it. It is the goal of every watercolor painter to become one with the brush, so the title “The Spirit of the Brush” is fitting for me.
Tell me more about the book.
It is a story of my personal journey. It is also a book that teaches others how to achieve water-ink paintings by providing information on brush and paper materials. It is a guide for learning how to incorporate this art form into their own unique work — finding their own path, or dao, to where their brush will lead them.
When you say that you sing songs with your brush, how has that transpired?
I’ve spent a lot of time depicting music in my paintings over the years. I was invited to participate in a multimedia performance Brush Voice. During the performance, my abstract expressionist paintings were projected onto a large screen while the Ardesco group played the music at the Wang Center at Stony Brook University. After that, I have done live performances with a jazz musician.
What is your best advice for artists?
My advice for artists is to remember that nature always has new things to teach you!.
Where can we view your paintings and purchase your new book?
Come visit me at my art studio at 22 Mud Road in Setauket where I also teach. I am exhibiting my paintings at the Art League of Long Island with the Long Island Sumi-e Society member show from April 22 to May 7. The exhibition is called The Fragrance of Ink. “The Spirit of the Brush” is coming out in June and may be preordered on Amazon today — bring it to my studio for signing! Book signing schedules will be announced soon! You may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.sungsooksetton.com.