Extraordinary Expats: Artist Jody Wood

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    Jody Wood is an international artist-in-residence at Seoul Art Space Geumcheon. Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    A bed of charcoal that will cover the inset stage of an upcoming performance gets a test run in the studio. Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    Jody at work in her studio at Seoul Art Space Geumcheon. Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

  • Photo by Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

    English poetry written by the Korean senior citizens participating in Spoken Stage cover the studio. Photo by Meagan Mastriani for Seoulist

Seoulist Mag interviews Seoul-based American artist Jody Wood. With collaborator So Yeon Park, Jody founded Spoken Stage, a poetry performance project with senior citizens in Seoul.

Seoulist Mag: Thanks so much for joining us! When did you get to Korea?
Jody Wood: I arrived January 3rd of this year. I came here from Brooklyn to do an international artist residency at Seoul Art Space Geumcheon.

SM: Why Korea in particular?
JW: Honestly, I came because I was accepted to the program, which a good friend and now collaborator (So Yeon Park) told me about. But I heard many great things about the art scene here in Seoul before I left New York.

SM: Haha—are you okay with us publishing that?
JW:  Haha… Well… I didn’t come here with any preconceived ideas about the culture. In my artwork, I often work with my surrounding community, in this case it is Korean, so I’ve learned a lot by being here—about my work and have met some really amazing people.

SM: So did you come here to do the Spoken Stage project specifically or did you have other things on your agenda?
JW: Not at all—the work has changed so much by being here and adapting to my surroundings. Should I give you a little background about my work and the project?

Photo by Meagan Mastriani for SeoulistSM: That would be great!
JW: For the past five years or so my work has been about understanding trauma and the healing process. Spoken Stage is a project I’m doing in collaboration with a good friend of mine (and amazing artist) So Yeon Park. It was partially inspired by my continuing fascination with the subject of death—both metaphorically and literally. In my last project (called Preparing for Consumption) I was interviewing long-term couples about preparing for the death of their partner, and Spoken Stage brought me to the topic of preparing for one’s own death. Aging is a process that confronts us with our own physical impermanence and mortality… in my art I want to talk about ways to value life and each other and how to process metaphorical deaths we all experience in life when we’re going through a big transition: traumatic events or endings, and how those deaths can bring new growth. The project has changed a lot because I had no idea what I was getting into, delving into this subject of death in a culture I’ve never been a part of. It’s a universal subject but there are many cultural differences in how it’s conceived of and talked about.

SM: How did you introduce yourself and your project to the seniors at the Senior Center? And how were you received?
JW: So Yeon was born and raised here, so she speaks fluent Korean. We began by introducing ourselves to The Senior Welfare Center of Seoul in Anguk as artists and asking to work with a group of seniors who were already interested in learning English for a chance to develop personal poetry and perform their own script. The center was very helpful and receptive and introduced us to a group of about 13 seniors in something called “E-Club,” a self-led English language workshop. Even though the project was very new to all of us, the seniors agreed to participate as much as they could, even though some of them hadn’t even written poetry in their native language.

SM: If I remember correctly, you’re wrapping up a 12-week session, right? How has the experience been? And could you give us a little teaser of what to expect in the final performance this week?
JW: Yes, it’s been about 12 weeks. It’s been an amazing experience and I feel really lucky to have formed a very unique and deep relationship with this group of seniors that crosses borders, across culture and language barriers. So Yeon is an excellent teacher and we structured the class to teach the subject of poetry and self-expression through collaboration and community. We have already had one performance on April 13th in the Senior Center Theatre, where as a group, and individually, the seniors performed the script they had written. The performance on the 20th will be much different and much more intimate, being set in a private home (a traditional hanok), and will have a more private, conversational feel to it.

Photo by Meagan Mastriani for SeoulistSM: What has the reaction been from the participants so far?
JW: Even though it has been a challenging process to express themselves in a non-native language, they have been enthusiastic about learning new vocabulary in English, working together on poetry, and performing. They’ve been really dedicated to the class and to the process! I’ve been really impressed actually and have seen a huge growth in their writings from the beginning of the class until now. Memorization has been a difficulty, but actively using the mind for something as challenging as learning a new language can help preserve it. I think that preserving the body and mind isn’t about resisting the aging process, it’s about embracing past history and finding value in the present moment.

SM: That’s interesting, because a lot of your work seems to deal with death and loss.
JW: True, it’s been really interesting to see the different perspectives of Eastern & Western cultures on the subject too. One of the seniors in class told me that a big difference between the two is that Western philosophy is more pragmatic and Eastern philosophy is more Karmic, embracing the past as a continuation of a natural cycle. In my own thoughts, I’m thinking of death as a moment that is totally unknown and totally disruptive to daily life because it brings about a huge transition—but is ultimately transformative and necessary to bring about new growth.

SM: Was it ever uncomfortable to talk about death with people who are so close to it?
JW: I was really surprised about this, but it wasn’t uncomfortable at all. I think this is because we spent so much time together before asking those more personal questions—now it’s like talking among good friends. Also, I don’t think they are generally uncomfortable with their own death, and that comes through in their poetry.

SM: I can’t wait to hear more of it! Given the so-called cultural divide, I think one question has to be asked: Are you ever concerned that your work might be perceived as (or be) either patronizing or even exploitative?
JW: I can’t control how people will perceive this work, but because we are working with a marginalized group, exploitation is a sensitive issue that we are well aware of. To do this type of community work, artists need to be extremely aware of their responsibility and ethics. Senior citizens are particularly important to hear from because they are marginalized by culture and aren’t valued in the same way that young people are. The value and role they once had when they were younger has undergone a shift with age—their roles in their careers, in society, and also their roles in the family has undergone a huge shift. There also seems to be a change in the world today where younger generations are more and more mobile, moving further away from home, and aging parents and grandparents don’t always have the same support structure from their families that they used to have in previous generations. So this project is really about bridging the gap between all ages so we can better understand each other’s human value.

SM: You bring up this theme of bridging gaps and also communicating in your artist’s statement—how has being in Korea influenced the way your work expresses these themes?
JW: There are communication barriers for sure, and it really changes my work’s process and subject entirely. I feel like in Korea I’ve had to embrace an organic process of working even more than I normally would. I don’t want to approach my artwork by having a preconceived idea, and forcing that idea to be actualized despite cultural barriers and language obstacles. To work here, I need to have a lot of flexibility and fluidity so my ideas can be permeated by the culture and barriers I come across.

SM: Has it been difficult to join an artistic community here given those communication barriers?
JW: I’m pleased to say that the artistic community in Seoul is one of the things I love most about this city. The art community is incredibly inclusive and welcoming. It’s a completely different experience than I have in NY. After a show opening in Seoul, everyone eats a huge feast together at a nearby restaurant, and sometimes even continues hanging out into the night. It has a real a family feel and I’ve loved being part of it while I’m here.

SM: That’s wonderful! OK, one last quick question: Aside from the artistic community you mentioned, what else do you love about Seoul so far?
JW: Kimchi. Just kidding… I would have to say the things I love the most are people I’ve met here. The other Korean artists in this residency are awesome, and sometimes chance encounters with strangers have been magical. So Yeon and I have had a lot of unexpected help from many generous people for our project.

SM: Well, good luck with the preparations for Friday’s show (and with kimchi as well). Thank you so much for spending this time talking with us!
JW: Thank you!

The Spoken Stage final performance will be held in a private home near Anguk Station at 2 p.m. on Friday, April 20. Seating is limited, so please email jody.c.wood@gmail.com by Thursday evening to inquire about availability.

Meagan Mastriani also contributed.

Sonja Swanson

About Sonja Swanson

Sonja is a West Coast (best coast) transplant whose favorite weekend plans involve good food with good friends. Find her on Instagram @sonja_jaja.

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