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Vermont Visionaries: Artist Misoo 

click to enlarge Misoo in her basement studio in November - CAT CUTILLO
  • Cat Cutillo
  • Misoo in her basement studio in November

On a bitter November day, I sat with Misoo in the backyard of her South Burlington home. Wind gusts periodically blasted her in the face as the artist — who goes by just her first name — told the story of her early life. Born in New York City, Misoo was raised in Korea by her father until he passed away when she was a teenager. After his death, she moved to the United States to finish high school and live with her mother, whom she didn't know very well. Unable to speak English, and newly diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, she said she was in a dark place.

"I started making art because I had a big language barrier," she explained. "I couldn't understand or communicate my feelings with others, so I started communicating my feelings through art." Art is a universal language and a potent way to communicate with children who are struggling emotionally, she added.

"For me, it is more powerful than written language or spoken languages," she said "I enjoy doing it, but it's not an option. It's a critical element in my life ... Art is like my therapist."

When her daughter was born in 2009, motherhood unearthed new fears for Misoo. She found herself using art again to cope, diving into a master of fine arts program at Florida Atlantic University when her daughter was 7 months old.

"I remembered art always saved me in my darkest hours or when I didn't have anybody to go to," she said. "It really pushed me to research about subconscious memory. It made me find the answer to many things in my life.

"I was sexually abused by my family member for a very long time. I always shut off that memory because it was too hard to deal with," she said. "Becoming a mother made me go back to that period of time, and I dealt with it. I dealt with it with my art."

Misoo moved to Vermont five years ago from Florida, initially teaching art appreciation at Burlington College before it closed. She taught drawing classes to both kids and adults at Burlington City Arts and the Shelburne Craft School, but those positions have been paused due to the pandemic.

click to enlarge Misoo working onanimal ornaments - CAT CUTILLO
  • Cat Cutillo
  • Misoo working onanimal ornaments

During the holiday season, the 40-year-old sells ornaments and custom pet drawings. Her daughter often works alongside her, attaching ribbons to the ornaments or creating her own art.

As a single mother, Misoo has worked multiple part-time jobs to support herself, including as an assistant manager at Burlington's Frog Hollow Vermont Craft Gallery. For the past several years, she has been focused on large paintings of women who went through trauma in their lives, a series she calls "The Giantess."

"Powerful people inspire my art. Not powerful people in position, but powerful people who went through [a] traumatic past and got over that and understand they are more powerful than their past," she said. The series' overarching message is "I am bigger than what happened to me," she said.

She feels inspired when women approach her and ask to be depicted as a Giantess with their name in the title of the piece and their face painted for the public to view.

"Art gave me power. I wanted to share that with other people, so I started painting local women who've been through trauma, and I encourage their power," she said.

In her basement home studio, large paintings from "The Giantess" lean against a wall. She unrolled works of art from one of her earlier series, called "Inner Struggles Fought on Paper," which depicts a mother and child's hair intertwined.

"These ones are the ones that helped me when I was recovering my past memory," she said, encircled by pieces of artwork that span more than a decade of her life.

The most important message she tries to convey to her students is, "Don't be afraid to make art ... Nobody's judging you. Be excited about making mistakes," she said. "That's the fun part of being an artist: That you're making something that you had no idea that you [would] make."

Misoo's "The Giantess" work is currently on view at Frog Hollow Vermont Craft Gallery in Burlington. For more, visit misoo.org.

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