Breaking Free: A Saturday with Soyoung Park


By Eileen Chen

Photo Courtesy of Keiko Honda, Eileen Chen

When I walked into the Kerrisdale Community Centre on a Saturday afternoon, I half-expected to witness children being taught to produce intricate designs in the print-making class I was to observe. Instead, I was met with a few participants from varying26638120_1814304911947518_1067506244_n age groups, each too invested in pressing seemingly ordinary leaves dipped in black rice water or diluted coffee to notice an additional visitor. Initially, I was somewhat underwhelmed, but my curiosity towards the workshop soon grew as the participants took turns coming to me to display their artwork before the camera. There were elementary school-aged kids, teenagers, and even a senior, but all enjoyed this simple workshop and looked upon their creations with an unmistakable expression of pride. As I began pressing my own leaves onto paper, I let go of any prejudices and genuinely indulged in the simple pleasure of directionless art. The instruction I received was minimal, with the only guidance being to “do as I like.” That was my first taste of improvisation as devised by Soyoung Park, the instructor of the workshop.

By the end of the workshop, I was a little surprised that Soyoung gave me the casual permission to dispose of all the unclaimed artworks when I was helping her with the clean-up. Throughout the clean-up, I felt slightly wary of approaching her for conversation due to her seriousness. The silence was broken when I came across her own creation from the workshop and inquired about it, which elicited a tender smile as she patiently explained the process of her artistic creation. The freshly created work featured the delicate body of a sparrow, outlined using the same coffee used by the children in the workshop. At that point, I formed the impression that Soyoung may not have had strong enthusiasm for the workshop’s results, but is certainly an artist through and through with her conviction in her pursuit of beauty.

The next workshop on improvisational acting came as a surprise both to me and its few participants. By the time Soyoung finished explaining our task – to put on a silent act based on the premise of stories we came up with, with the aid of items in the room – the three teenagers in the workshop had left, leaving me with two adults aside from Keiko Honda (the chair of VACS) and her parents, who came to observe but were ushered into participating. With little to no acting experience, I struggled to improvise movements and coordinate with my two teammates without relying on speech. Needless to say, Keiko’s parents – who spoke no English – had an even harder time performing according to instructions. As the workshop went on, the thought that we were five adults trying too hard to become children seemed so bizarre that it was hard not to let out a giggle. Even so, Soyoung was one strict instructor who would not yield to lower standards. Each time she asked us to redo our act, she took away a few more resources that we could rely on, and in the end, I was left with only one partner, two chairs, and a strict ban on making any noise. With no choice, I abandoned any sense of lingering embarrassment and threw myself wholly into the act – a story of love and jealousy revolving around two chairs that my partner and I somehow agreed on without using speech. It finally earned Soyoung’s hearty laughter and approval, and I emerged from the workshop feeling physically exhausted, mentally dazed, yet somehow emotionally rejuvenated.

After such a bewildering workshop, I was keen to learn what kind of art Soyoung usually makes and hear what she has to say about the subject of art. To my straight-forward questions, she gave equally frank and concise answers. Soyoung initially studied photography and media art, but later began to explore interpretive dance  as well. Despite being passionate about dance and movement, she soon found that conventional, choreographed dance did not satisfy her love of improvisation, as the dancer is still subjected to too many pre-conceived ideas and restrictions. Because of this, Soyoung began studying art theory in England, where she investigated in the artistic intention. According to Soyoung, “The removal of human intentions is the foundation of improvisation. Only then can the intention of art itself arise. The human intentions hinder the artist’s mind from seeing the intention of art arise.”26638014_1814304878614188_1637581887_n

Upon hearing this, the workshop immediately made more sense to me. “Improvisation arises from limitations,” Soyoung added. She spoke of how people with too much freedom have no motivation to create good art through improvisation. This instantly piqued my interest. According to Soyoung, nobody is born free. We all grow up with a built-in set of cultural values and rely on habits and routines to navigate in life. The only way to break out of this pattern is to first be in a limited environment that allows us to recognize the limitations, which is what pushes us to become creative  by working with them. At the same time, it is important to hold back our natural desire to seek perfection and be relaxed in the present moment. The ideas seem contradictory, but I took it as suggesting that one must have the desire to create, yet not be consumed by the need for “perfection,” which is inherently unattainable.

With regards to pursuing beauty, Soyoung further asserts that the process itself is beautiful in that it is sincere. The kind of beauty she pursues is something we may find in poetry. Soyoung says, “Art should have poetic qualities. Poetry is the highest form of art that connects you to something higher up – something bigger than you are.” Whether we choose to consider it in a religious or non-religious context, art is something with the power of connecting the artist to the feeling of beauty itself. Soyoung emphasizes the pureness of this experience, and condemns art that attempts to manipulate its audience or convey a certain view. Her mentioning of “poetry” is something I find applicable to the VACS’s own emphasis on poetry this year, with programs like Articulating Your HeART and continuous discussions on poetry’s intersection with science. Having previously studied literature before choosing visual arts, Soyoung expresses that poetry, along with various other forms of art, is the purest and most direct form of expressing oneself.

Had I re-discovered myself during the two workshops that day? For sure, I found myself having fun and surprised myself with my ability to improvise, but was what I accomplished beautiful? If what was beautiful was up to me to discover and decide, I would say that what I experienced felt more like a game than an artistic process. Also, Soyoung’s efforts in creating a limited environment for us during the second workshop were valued by me after hearing her fascinating ideas, but may have hindered the participants’ interest in appreciating beauty at the moment. Perhaps a child in the first workshop would have thought much more differently than I had. Perhaps I no longer look for beauty in the moment of things. Or maybe I seek another form of beauty that lies somewhere else? The workshops and interview certainly got me to consider these things.

When I asked if Soyoung had any advice for the young artists of the generation, she stressed the importance of sincerity and commitment. Regarding the children of this age, Soyoung expressed disappointment in their lack of curiosity and interest in beauty. All in all, although I cannot fully agree with Soyoung’s pessimism for our generation or the absoluteness of her values, her words inspired me, and for her genuineness and fearlessness towards the limitations life brings, I greatly admire her.


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