Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
— William Wordsworth
An initial encounter with the works of Shin-hee Chin and Grace D. Chin will likely poise the viewer at the edge of wonder and awe—emotions often associated with the most successful landscape art, at least in the Western tradition. Likewise, a cursory reading of the poem by Wordsworth—from which the title, Splendor in the Grass is lifted—might suggest a mere paean to nature. Yet underneath the ornament of the poet’s hymn to natural beauty, is an anguished back-and-forth: from hope to despair and back again. How we view nature may ultimately have more to do with our own vision and sense of our selves in the world than with the object we contemplate.
“As a person who has spent half of her life in South Korea and the other half in the United States, cultural context has shaped almost all of my works,” says Shin-hee. “Humans are typically the subject matter of my work, but my 15 years as a Kansas have changed my relationship to the subtle landscape of the Great Plains.”
Of equal (if not greater) importance to the subject of these works are the materials and the processes that both artists employ. In Ways of Seeing, art critic John Berger argues that oil painting as an art form is complicated by its “potential of illusionism” and its historical significance in the language of possession and commodification. In contrast, the materials utilized by Shin-hee and Grace (fabric, embroidery thread, crepe paper) are immediately identifiable as the traditional elements of “women’s work.”
Quilting, needlework, and craft, while often decorative are notably situated in the language of usefulness. What is more, there are no short cuts in this work. Whereas a painter or drawer may proceed quickly with suggestive marks, the fiber artist toils on in a repetitive, ritualistic practice. Says Shin-hee: “The process . . . which does not differ much from the variety of tedious and repetitive activities that preoccupy women at home, enables me to understand the dynamic creative potential of the seemingly trivial and devalued aspects of women’s labors.”
Grace draws on the Dutch tradition of pronkstilleven (decadent still life painting) and American folk art in her assemblages of intricately constructed paper flowers. As in Dutch still life painting, the perfection of the flower is a seduction more than a reality (for a living flower fades quickly). Speaking of the Current American attitudes towards immigration and borders, Grace states that, “We look backwards to paint our history as the ‘hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower.’ This act obscures the thorny path forward, one that might make the present more compassionate and just.”
The path forward is thorny indeed; but the voices of these artists may serve us well as muses on our journey.
Grace received her B.F.A. in printmaking from the University of Kansas. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas and is a shop manager at Wonder Fair Gallery in Lawrence.
Shin-hee holds degrees from Cal-State University in Long Beach and Hong-Ik University in South Korea. Her work has been across the United States as well as abroad in South Korea, France, and Japan. She is the recipient of many awards and honors. She teaches Fine Arts at Tabor College and lives in McPherson, Kansas.