Meet Jayoon Choi: The 21st Century L.S Lowry

What started with a scribble while waiting for a friend has developed into a passion and obsession for Korean artist Jayoon Choi - sketching the masses as they go about their busy lives...
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What started with a scribble while waiting for a friend has developed into a passion and obsession for Korean artist Jayoon Choi - sketching the masses as they go about their busy lives...

Mid-morning on Tuesday at Liverpool Street train station. The nine-to-five commuters have been and gone, but the constant flow of suitcase-wheeling Stansted Expressos continues. Meanwhile, the cheap-day-return crew have begun their shift: parents herding disobliging under-fives, pensioners squinting at the giant timetable screens and businessmen wifi-ing on laptops or thumbing Crackberries between meetings. From her vantage point on the balcony, artist Jayoon Choi scans the scene, homing in on individuals that catch her eye among the constantly shifting mass of humanity.

“I tend to draw people from a distance, observing them like ants in an ant farm,” she tells me. “I’m thinking, ‘What are you doing? Where are you going?’”

Jayoon has agreed to let me shadow her as she works. No studio or models for her – each day she ventures out into tumult of city life seeking to capture people’s unguarded moments in just a few seconds of sketching.

“My favourite place to draw is actually McDonalds in Wood Green. You see all types of life there… ”

“I just walk around and find a good spot to observe people. A window seat in a café is good. I don’t want people to spot I’m drawing them. I also draw on trains, but not the people sitting in front of me – I look at the reflection in the window and draw from that.

“My favourite place to draw is actually McDonalds in Wood Green. You see all types of life there… ”

Sitting beside her watching her pen in perpetual motion, describing form and movement with an uncommon sureness of line, it is hard to follow where Jayoon is looking before she is onto her next target. Each ink portrait, no bigger than an inch-high, takes less than a minute. During the 40 minutes I sit with her, she produces 57 instant figure studies (plus the abandoned disembodied heads of a couple of people who moved out of view too fast even for her).

“I’m not very patient,” she admits. “I never work on one thing and go back to it again. I just do it. The longest time I spend on any drawing is probably an hour. No longer than that. I want things to come out instantly. They either work or they don’t.”

More often than not, they do. The 25-year-old Korean-born artist’s ‘People’ series of limited edition prints, displayed at the 2011 London Art Fair in January, sold so well Jayoon was granted a solo exhibition at north London’s Jealous Gallery by March. Featuring a selection of her figure studies and new drawings alongside displays of sketchbooks and diaries, this also proved a success.

Jayoon grew up in Seoul, Korea before her family moved to Helsinki at the age of 11. The daughter of a product designer (father) and sculptor/head of an art school (mother), creativity surrounded her and drawing has always been a constant in her life. In Finland, however, she focused on music, learning to play classical piano to a high grade, before the family relocated again two years later, this time to north London where she rekindled her drawing skills.

“Fine Art to me was too vague. You just spit it out and none of the audience understand what’s going on. I wanted to do something where I can communicate with the audience, and I can do things that make more sense.”

On leaving school at 16, she decided she wanted to become a fashion designer and earned a place at the London College of Fashion, only for her parents to veto her choice. “They felt it was too early for me to go in one direction in life,” she shrugs. “So I went to Barnet College where I did everything from photography to sculpture and I realised that fashion isn’t my thing. Instead, I went to Camberwell College of Art to study Illustration.”

Her reasons for pursuing Illustration rather than a Fine Art course perhaps help to explain the direction her work would take in future: “Fine Art to me was too vague. You just spit it out and none of the audience understand what’s going on. I wanted to do something where I can communicate with the audience, and I can do things that make more sense.”

However, at college drawing remained on the back-burner as Jayoon concentrated on film-making and digital work.

“I didn’t really like my drawing; I still don’t,” she says with a smile. “It’s quite embarassing and painful to look back at what I’ve done. I didn’t really explore deep into my drawing at uni.; I kinda kept it private.”

The drawings she was willing to expose to public scrutiny impressed Jealous Gallery though, and it was through this association that her confidence grew and the People series developed.

“I was waiting in a café near Holborn for my friend one day,” Jayoon recalls. “She was an hour late and I was so bored. I was looking out of the window and just started drawing. Did these random sketches and showed them to Jealous Gallery and they were like, ‘Oh, they’re cool. Carry on with those.’ That’s how it started.

“Initially, I was just out there practice drawing basically, but later I went out with images in my head of what I wanted to do and I put the drawings together to make up stories.

“I tried drawing on acetate, cutting out my favourites and piecing them together with tape, but it was a bit much, so now I draw on paper, scan them up and combine them in Photoshop.

Jayoon’s interest in Buddhism has informed the narratives of her work: “I’m 60 per cent Buddhist! Non-practising, but I like their theories and philosophies. Sometimes it feels like people are in a horse race. Just run, run, run, and we don’t really know where we are going. But if you look at it from a bigger perspective, we are all going in the same direction. Doesn’t matter how you live, how you think. We go through the same systematic steps in life, despite all our many differences. Sooner or later, we all head the same way.

“I’ve been drawing people for two years now, and I use the project as a way of exploring how I see the world, how I see society. And if I do more, it’ll be about breaking down people’s behaviour, how they live and react to things.”

“After observing people for a period of time, I realised that often I am seeing myself and my past memories in the actions of random people. Some of the works actually recreate my strongest memories or experiences. Through this I feel that myself and others are no different.

“I’ve been drawing people for two years now, and I use the project as a way of exploring how I see the world, how I see society. And if I do more, it’ll be about breaking down people’s behaviour, how they live and react to things.”

Jayoon’s spontaneous portraits have already achieved her aim of creating art that resonates with viewers, and with limited edition prints priced affordably this is art of the masses, accessible to the masses.

You will find that an original is harder to come by, however, due to the artist’s ambivalent attitude to her work: “At my solo exhibition, the gallery did display some of my originals for sale, but I want to keep them all,” she laughs. “I guess there really is a thin line between love and hate.”

View more of Jayoon’s work by clicking here.

To purchase Jayoon Choi’s limited edition ‘People’ prints click here.

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