I Arrived in a Dress: An Interview with Mary-Kim Arnold

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Mary-Kim Arnold is a poet, visual artist, and prose writer. Her work has appeared in a number of literary and art journals, and she has presented and performed in venues in Rhode Island, New York, and Vermont. This fall, she will be teaching writing at Brown University. Here we discuss her artistic life as well as her recent multidisciplinary work: Guidelines for Arrival and Transfer.

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Can you discuss the different parts of Guidelines for Arrival and Transfer?

The whole project arose from this question of what is Korean-ness? As an adoptee, to what extent can I claim Korean-ness as my heritage?

There are three main elements – the joomchi, the dresses, the video projection.
Joomchi is a traditional Korean technique that uses paper made from the mulberry tree. There was a time when paper was plentiful, but fabric was very expensive, so this was a way to make use of what was available. This frugality and pragmatism seems — at least to me — to be very Korean. The process — saturating the paper, working it by hand — is meditative. I also love the suggested metaphor – breaking down the fibers of the individual sheets of paper so that they can re-fuse to create a stronger, more resilient substance.

downloadAs for the dresses, I arrived from Korea at two years old in a dress like this, which I seem to have lost. It’s one of the only artifacts of my life in Korea, and so I thought well I will try to re-create it. And then I wondered about other adoptees — whether they might all have similar dresses in their closets, or in a box with their childhood things. I wondered about how these garments might have been chosen for them and by whom? What started as a private thought about replacing a personal artifact became a more public question. Can I re-dress these children? Can I re-dress my (child) self?

For the video project, I was curious about what Seoul might have looked like in the 1970s. From the images and clips I found online, I tried to pull together a kind of video collage of Korea — from the approximate time of my birth to now. The transformation of the city has been so dramatic. It’s disorienting to think about the Korea now, versus post-war Korea.

What did you learn in the process of making this work?

I loved making the dresses most. I thought I might send them to an adoption agency in Korea so that they could be worn. Making an object by hand imbues it with so much of its maker and I wanted these dresses to embody attention, love, and tenderness. So that these children could feel themselves being loved.

dress1During the process — at the sewing machine, or standing at the ironing board, or hand-basting —  I was thinking about my own daughter (who is nearly 20 now) and the dresses I had made for her at that age. And of course, it was impossible not to think about the women who work in factories making clothing for American markets. All of that became part of my experience in making them, and I like to think that those thoughts and wishes and memories made their way into the cloth through my hands.

I’ve started another series — these all in white. I was thinking about how the adopted child experiences a kind of death in one culture to be re-born in another and white has traditionally been a color of mourning in Korea.

Will you be adding different artifacts to this installation?

I came across this image of a traditional Korean country home and courtyard and I was so moved by it. I thought, I didn’t have this as a child, but I can make one for myself now.

I’ve started plans for an installation to reproduce a Korean courtyard and some imagined elements of what a Korean childhood home might have, how it might feel. The courtyard is protected — the walls of the house encircle it — but it is also porous, with multiple points of entry.

Do you see this project as an act of collaborating with your different artistic selves? Is its meaning shifting for you?

I love this idea! There is the content and the methodology. I like to think that something is deepening in the methodology — the way of practicing.

I have been thinking a lot about integrating the self. Like what if I could think of my various roles — poet, mother, wife, friend, worker — as resources for each other, rather than competing for time? What if the activities of my days were sources of richness and not depletion? What might I learn from each of these things? I think what emerges is a methodology — an orientation toward openness, toward possibility.

For those people reading this that don’t yet know you, can you give a brief background regarding your evolution as an artist?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to document my life by writing everything down. I’ve kept a journal since I was a child. My experiences and what I think of them are not real to me until I’ve written them down.

In college I took a class with Robert Coover on “hypertext” writing. Beyond the mechanics of what I did in that class, the approach gave me permission to think of myself as “experimental,” to embrace a position of resistance. Creative writing at Brown in the early nineties was very much in that space – resisting convention, experimenting with form, pushing boundaries. Prior to that, I hadn’t encountered that kind of dialogue about writing or art.

IMG_7I was also taking studio art classes and in my last semester, I did an independent study with Marlene Malik. It was an installation of long, fabric panels that hung from the ceiling and around the perimeter of the room were representations of women in text and image. It was, as I recall, a bit heavy-handed but Marlene was encouraging and seemed genuinely pleased that I had tried something ambitious. It was another point at which I was given permission.

I did my MFA in Fiction right after college. I worked with Carole Maso and read her lyrical, fragmented, angry and beautiful work. She introduced me to the work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, the first contemporary Korean American artist I had been exposed to.

After grad school, I was working and raising my family and my creative practice receded. I was still writing, but never really finished anything. I started quilting, which in retrospect makes so much sense too — trying to stitch something together from pieces.

As I approached my fortieth birthday, I realized that I had organized my life in such a way that crowded out most of my creative interests and I felt this urgency to reclaim that space. At the time I was reading all these amazing women poets — Maggie Nelson, Anne Carson, Mary Ruefle. I was carrying around Madness, Rack, and Honey in my purse with me most days — the paperback edition, lovingly underlined and with all my marginalia (so that I could leave my hardcover edition at home, untouched). I saw that Mary Ruefle was on the faculty at VCFA and I thought, well that is where I want to be, too.

The pace of the low-residency program forced me to focus. It also required me to integrate parts of myself that I think I had thought of as more disparate. I had to find ways to think of how everything I did served the larger purpose of creative work. Although I am not one to make statements like, “Everything is a poem, washing dishes is a poem,” I do aspire toward a more integrated artistic life. Washing dishes, sewing seams, folding paper — all these things can be meditative acts that can feed the creative practice.

In what way is identity present in your art?

For a long time, I really thought it wasn’t. I mean, to a certain superficial extent I have always been writing about myself — my family, my friends — but in the last couple years, I have more directly explored my Korean-ness. I’ve not really foregrounded this before because as an adoptee, my lineage has always represented a kind of contested territory. I am Korean, but not Korean. American, but not wholly.

I can see now why interdisciplinarity, experimental forms — anything that makes formal decisions explicit — have been so compelling to me. These hybrid forms represent a certain truth of my own experience. The narrative of my own life has, at its center, a traumatic interruption. And for a long time, I have been trying to write around it, as if this rupture has not been the most defining truth of my life. Now, I think I am trying to let myself write toward it, into it. To ask what does this allow, what possibilities and complexities can the fact of this experience bring to my work?

mary kim arnold 3I’ve started reading more about Korean history, particularly the aftermath of the Korean War. The division of the peninsula into North and South at the 38th parallel really was rather arbitrary and that mirrors the sense of randomness that can accompany adoption — why one family and not another? And in thinking more deeply about lineage, I think the rupture in my own narrative is a story of Korean-ness. The experience of contemporary Korean-ness is a sense of one of rupture.

Is a lot of your work interdisciplinary?

It seems to me that there are only two essential things we bring to our creative work: our tools — language or fabric or paper — and the truth of our own experience, our own psychic realities. For years, I tried to write in traditional narrative forms, but I struggled with moving a plot forward in time. As much as I wanted a kind of cohesive linearity, it was not something I could do.

Both the truth of my experience — which is living between places and with rupture — and what I am interested in aesthetically is about resisting boundaries and creating some kind of meaning out of chaos, from fragments.

For me, the cost to hybridity is that I cannot fully know anything deeply about one particular form. Moving between genres and forms — I know that there is a body of work and a history of each form that I will not get to know. The lineage of narrative forms, the lineage of poets, of visual artists. I sacrifice depth of line for a more trans-genre work. But I am not making any kind of moral judgment on that. It reflects the truth of my own experience. I cannot know my own history going back for generations, cannot trace my lineage back to its origins. But I can try to make meaning from the disparate pieces I have at my disposal.

What is like to be an artist that works in more than one discipline? The good, the bad, the not so great, the wonderful?

It’s difficult to achieve or demonstrate technical mastery. I think I am kind of a shapeshifter. I don’t know — I mean, it’s hard to name oneself, to make claims about who one is or wants to be. For many years, it was difficult to claim “writer.” Can I be a writer if I am writing intermittently? Gradually that anxiety was replaced by other ones — what if I am a bad writer, etc. Ann Hamilton likes to refer to herself as a maker. I think maybe we resist labels because they are not about the work, they are externally-imposed. It’s a way to define the work, but the work itself doesn’t require naming to be undertaken. It only requires my presence, my attention.

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Photography courtesy of the artist.

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