Artists I Know: Sammy Lee

It was a glorious fall day in Colorado, and the bright yellow leaves and clear blue sky provided stunning contrast with Studio SMLK’s minimalist gray brick building.

As I entered the residency center and live/work space run by Denver-based artist Sammy Lee, I had the deep impression that the structure inside and out is an artwork in and of itself.

Sammy Lee is the founder and program director of Studio SMLK, and an interdisciplinary artist originally from South Korea. She creates artist books, sculptures, and installations with a distinct physicality and spatial qualities that explore personal history and memory. After moving to Southern California in her late teens, Lee trained at UCLA in Media Arts, later earning a Master’s degree in architecture from University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her work is collected and displayed internationally, and she often leads workshops and talks on her artistic process and paper techniques.

She utilizes the process of joomchi in much of her work, which is a Korean paper technique that translates as “making pouches,” and derives from the practice of reusing the paper that lined the interior of houses. The artist agitates the paper fibers to felt and then create collages, ultimately employing the paper to cast objects for use in her installations. Joomchi might appear delicate, but “the paper turns itself tough,” as she describes it. As such, her work bridges femininity and masculinity; objects like a bank vault cast in paper evoke fragility and delicacy.

Her most recent artist book, Mammorial, explores, in Lee’s experience, the “shame and pride of breastfeeding.” The piece is a record of the physical process of birth and nursing, with a mother’s exhaustion and vulnerability manifest as words and forms in the pages of book. She records, in typed words on each page, variably, the sound of the breastpump, her feelings of frustration, her comforting of her baby, and the expressions of many women’s confusion from a La Leche League breastfeeding forum. A female breast form is carved out of the layers of paper, which is itself pale, soft and reminiscent of skin. As a fellow mother of a toddler, this piece was striking, captivating me with its visceral response to motherhood.

Expanding beyond her work, Studio SMLK began when Lee purchased and renovated a building on Santa Fe Drive, creating a functional live/work environment that serves as an artist residency space and art studio, as well as a gallery and event facility. “[Studio SMLK’s] mission is to foster contemporary Asian art and culture in the Denver area,” Lee says, “[while] supporting visual practices that address underrepresented issues, narratives, and techniques.” Opening in 2011, artists from South Korea and Japan have come for residencies and created site-specific installations on display for the public.

Inside Studio SMLK, with Lee’s artist books on display.
Currently an artist-in-residence at Redline Contemporary Art Center in Denver, Lee is a board member of the Denver Art Museum’s Asian Art Association. She has lots coming up as 2017 wraps up. In November, Lee will be in a two-person show with Boulder-based artist Kazu Oba at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park, San Diego. She will be a guest artist as part of Redgate Gallery’s artist residency program in Beijing, China, in December, during which time her work will be featured in an exhibition at the Korean Cultural Center, also in Beijing.

For more information about her work, Studio SMLK and upcoming exhibitions, visit

Julia Rymer is an abstract painter and writer based in Colorado, where she creates work inspired by nature, science, and color theory. Learn more at

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