Kirsi Peltomäki, assistant professor of art history, department of art, Oregon State University on
Jiseon Lee Isbara, associate professor and fibers department head, Oregon College of Art and Craft

Hand-sewing, whether to join fabric pieces together or make a mark on them by embroidery, remains at the center of Jiseon Lee Isbara’s artistic practice, although she freely makes use of a sewing machine as well, and, on occasion, includes other techniques such as inkjet printing on fabric. A fiber-based artist by training and profession, the material and conceptual dimensions of Lee Isbara’s works simultaneously resonate with contemporary sculpture, particularly work by Eva Hesse and Mona Hatoum, and with the Korean textile tradition of pojagi wrapping cloths. Lee Isbara’s recent work involves pieced fabric stitched into patchwork forms and displayed in three-dimensional installations or two-dimensional wall arrangements. In any configuration, Lee Isbara’s work constitutes mental maps, visualizing territories that are coded and decoded in languages at once familiar and uncharted.

Materiality and Tradition
The fabric Lee Isbara most often uses is silk, a material that is simultaneously ephemeral and tactile. Thin and translucent, the fine silk fibers woven together form a microcosm of their own, inviting viewers to lean close to lose themselves in the millions of virtually invisible individual lines interwoven with one another. The colors of the fabric in most of Lee Isbara’s work form a pale harmony of whites and off-whites, greys and yellows. Cut into small rectangular patches, Lee Isbara then stitches the fabric together, often by hand, into larger forms that range from scrolls to wall hangings and rectangular containers.

Patchwork, or work pieced together from multiple components, is central to many international textile traditions. Lee Isbara relates her work to one of these traditions, namely pojagi, the traditional wrapping cloth made by Korean women.1 Outside the more affluent palace settings, most pojagi were constructed from fabric scraps saved from making clothes.2 Scholars associate the source of material with cultural valuation of thriftiness on the part of Korean women.3 These patchwork pojagi demonstrate considerable amounts of care towards their visual composition, incorporating complex abstract geometric patterns. The amount of labor devoted to collecting, cutting, and piecing together the miniscule fabric scraps is considered to contribute to the “blessings and happiness” that the pojagi would bring its recipient, often a family member.4

Architecture, Space and Emotional Experience
Pojagi is only one of Lee Isbara’s influences concerning grid structures and composite, repeated geometric forms. The artist also credits the urban environment of Seoul, South Korea, the city where she grew up, and its “fabricated geometric forms,” as a source of inspiration.5 Such urban experience resonates in Lee Isbara’s 2001 installation Buildings-Reflections in the Hatton Gallery at Colorado State University. Pieced from rectangles of window screen seamed together into eight large cubic forms, the installation consisted of a dense, three-dimensional network of rectangular towers suspended from the ceiling. It occupied gallery space the way skyscrapers preside over the streets of a metropolis: as an impenetrable mass wherein sudden openings emerge, depending on one’s trajectory in relation to the buildings. Although window screen as a material is designed to be as neutral and transparent as possible, in Lee Isbara’s hands the density of its multiple layers filtered out light to the extent that the towers formed dark blocks, delineating a forbidding area that nevertheless opened up for the viewers, enabling them to enter and walk between the individual blocks. Combining density and porosity, Buildings-Reflections demonstrated a kinship with Mona Hatoum’s Light Sentence (1992), an ominous construction of metal cages and their shadows formed by a light bulb traversing the space.

Piecing Fabric and Life
Lee Isbara returned to the grid form in Collecting the Days (2005), now turning her attention to the organization of her own working process. For this work, Lee Isbara collected threadwaste, the scraps of thread that were a material byproduct of her work, each day for one month. This threadwaste consisted of the excess lengths of thread from both ends of machine-sewn seams, and embroidery thread left over from hand-embroidered stitches. The artist gathered the minute lengths of thread at the end of each day, compressing these cast-offs into an amorphous ball. At the end of the month, Lee Isbara arranged the multicolored clumps of thread into transparent Plexiglas display boxes that were normally used to display collectible softballs. The material discards of her artistic practice became the subject of dedicated attention, displacing nostalgia from the result of needlework, and instead foregrounding the emotional investment required by the work’s making.

Framing and displaying the thread remnants in Collecting the Days served as a concrete documentation of the artist’s working process. The results – each delicate ball of thread – literally sized up Lee Isbara’s productivity by the amount of labor dispensed in any given day. (Only five or six out of thirty-one boxes remained empty.) This process of repurposing the discards of her artistic practice might be described as “thrifty,” were it not for the fact that the purpose of the saved material was metaphorical rather than strictly functional. Unlike the largely anonymous Korean pojagi makers, who embraced thriftiness as a moral value by saving fabric scraps for use in a functional (albeit symbolically charged) object, Lee Isbara’s collecting and cataloguing of threadwaste in Collecting the Days focused on how productivity is measured, a theme which the artist considers foundational for this work.6 Although Collecting the Days is an aesthetically engaging work, its visual appearance is deepened by the concept behind it. The measuring system that Lee Isbara followed in Collecting the Days turned from the external urban geography of Buildings-Reflections to the artist’s internal modes of organization: how to measure up to one’s internal standards, and how to further materialize the process of evaluation and judgment.

Organization (and reorganization) is one of the key themes that Lee Isbara identifies in her current work, which she characterizes as “the aesthetic interpretation of my method achieving multi-tasking and communication.”7 Untitled (2007, on view) is a fabric scroll pieced from translucent rectangles of silk and hand-embroidered with images and scribbles. One of the most recognizable images inscribed onto the scroll is a recurring diagram of the human brain, with particular regions identified. The writing used to name these regions of the brain, however, is illegible and thus impossible to anchor into medical or other codified terminology. The scribbled text is combined with marks of counting and doodles, seemingly random circular strokes that have been meticulously embroidered into the fabric. Underlying these motifs, the scroll contains faint columns of numbers printed on the fabric. On closer inspection, these numbers seem to indicate times of day, dividing time into blocks: charting when things either begin or end.

In Scattered (2008–09, on view), Lee Isbara makes reference to practices of organization by constructing a collection of notes like those often found pinned to the wall of an office cubicle or bulletin board. Like most of Lee Isbara’s work, Scattered qualifies as patchwork, because it is constructed of multiple geometric pieces of fabric. Unlike most of Lee Isbara’s projects, in which the pieces of fabric are joined by hand- or machine-sewing, Scattered leaves the individual squares or rectangles separate from each other as they are pinned to a wall. The individual pieces, made of two layers of cotton fabric interfaced together, mimic Post-it® notes and letter-size sheets of paper. The content of these mock Post-it® reminders – the colors of which eerily mimic the original pinks and yellows – ranges from a child’s drawings to (illegible) scribbled notes, lists, and diagrams. Some of the larger sheets combine printed information from what seem to be government immigration forms with embroidered attempts to fill in those forms. Provide answers, check the appropriate box, circle items that require further attention.

In contrast with the legibility of the preprinted information on the fabric forms in Scattered, Lee Isbara’s embroidered marks remain disorganized, almost scrambled. Embodying a different order of legibility, the hand-embroidered notes combine with dense horizontal machine-stitched lines to represent a practice of juggling multiple thoughts and projects in mid-process. From child’s drawings to immigration forms, the notes in Scattered demonstrate an individual context, one that filters in, and is subject to, multiple rules, regulations, and modes of address. The intentional disorganization of these documents arrested in the recent past (by the time of exhibition), and their emphatic denial of resolve, interrupts any overtly nostalgic reflection of the past. Rather than affirming the uncontrollable nature of human activity, however, the subject of Scattered seems to be the transformation of scattering into a personal sense of order.

Order is the goal of organization, but apart from its quality as a realized order of things, it is also a mental state or affective experience of things being in order. On some level, the practice of seeking order characterizes all types of patchwork and many other types of crafts. The Korean pojagi makers carefully arrange fabric pieces into resolved compositions; American quilters combine individual blocks into patterns; and scrapbook makers organize memory. In Lee Isbara’s work, order is materially created by piecing together small rectangles of fabric using minute, regular, painstakingly labor- and time-intensive stitches. The grid structure of interlinked blocks, even if only implied, imposes its own sense of order. It involves arranging and re-ordering multiple pieces of fabric and life by organizing and connecting patches of different size, color, or even material into one resolved whole.

The experience of attaining a sense of order is most vividly present in Lee Isbara’s wall hanging, Feasible (2008–09, on view). This work is pieced together by hand and machine from light yellow, grey, brown, and off-white rectangles of translucent silk. Hand-embroidered scribbles and arrows traverse the blocks of fabric, creating a sense of process and direction. Like Untitled (2007), Feasible includes inkjet-printed numbers arranged in vertical columns, sometimes crossing pieced seams. As in Untitled, the series of numbers are readily associated with times of day and blocks of time. Lee Isbara relates Feasible to military maps of combat operations, as documents that outline the course of action.8 And indeed the schematized nature of the procedures implied by Feasible’s one-directional arrows, which originate in one block and end up in another, is easily transposable to a mental overview of a situation. In this operation, which might be simultaneously waged on multiple fronts, domestic and professional, all the necessary actions are visualized and securely mapped out onto a grid arrangement that anchors all the fabric blocks, disparate in their size, color, and shape.

While secure, the order of Feasible, however, is not final. Rather, it remains incomplete by the inclusion of open pockets sewn onto the surface of the pieced work. The pockets extend from the two-dimensional fabric surface into the space by the means of a crease ironed into them: a defined space left open for future needs. Through these pockets, Feasible temporally extends from the past – as a record of a personal practice of seeking order – into what is yet to unfold. No wonder that Lee Isbara acknowledges the difficulty of deciding when the work is finished.9 No order is final, but recognizing the necessity of some kind of order is human, and to reflect on the production of this order is art.

1. On pojagi, see, for example, Rapt in Colour: Korean Textiles and Costumes of the Choson Dynasty, ed. Claire Roberts and Huh Dong-hwa (Sydney, Australia: Powerhouse Museum and Seoul, Korea: The Museum of Korean Embroidery, 1998), and Kumja Paik Kim, “A Celebration of Life: Patchwork and Embroidered Pojagi by Unknown Korean Women,” in Oriental Art 45, no. 4 (Winter 1999/2000), 52–58.
2. Kumja Paik Kim, “Profusion of Colour: Korean Costumes and Wrapping Cloths of the Choson Dynasty,” in Rapt in Colour, 15.
3. Kim, “A Celebration of Life,” 54–55.
4. Ibid, and Huh Dong-hwa, “History and Art in Traditional Wrapping Cloths,” in Rapt in Colour, 19–20.
5. Lee Isbara, “Artist Statement,” n.d.
6. Interview with the artist, Portland, OR, March 23, 2009.
7. Lee Isbara, “Artist Statement,” n.d.
8. Interview with the artist, Portland, OR, March 23, 2009.
9. Ibid.


JISEON LEE ISBARA’s current work is an aesthetic interpretation of her methods of multi-tasking and communication, employing the time consuming, repetitive and meditative aspects of embroidery as means of visualizing observations of everyday life. She has exhibited her work throughout the US and at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale, Korea. Isbara earned an MFA from Colorado State University, Fort Collins, and an MFA and BFA from Ewha Woman’s University, College of Art and Design, Seoul, South Korea. She is an Associate Professor and Fibers Department Head, Oregon College of Art and Craft, Portland, where she has taught since 2003.

KIRSI PELTOMÄKI’s research focuses on art since 1960 and art that engages in institutional critique. She is the author of Situation Aesthetics: The Work of Michael Asher (The MIT Press: in progress) and chaired the panel “Los Angeles Light and Space: Reconsidering the Perceptual Rush” at the College Art Association’s 97th Annual Conference, 2009, Los Angeles, CA. Peltomäki earned an MA and PhD in Visual and Cultural Studies at University of Rochester, NY, an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts,
Valencia, and a BFA and MFA at The Academy of Fine Arts, Helsinki, Finland. She is an Assistant Professor of Art History, Department of Art, Oregon State University, Corvallis, where she has taught since 2005.

Museum of Contemporary Craft