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Affirmation inspired Pil Ho Lee, unlocked his artistic gifts

Pil Ho Lee stands next to his most recent oil painting titled "Peonies," at his home in Orange on Wednesday.
Pil Ho Lee stands next to his most recent oil painting titled “Peonies,” at his home in Orange on Wednesday.
(Sarahi Apaez)

Pil Ho Lee professes his interest in fine art has always been there.

The South Korean-born artist will be exhibiting his work at the Festival of Arts Fine Art Show in Laguna Beach for a sixth consecutive year, but even with his passion for drawing and painting, there were barriers to entry.

Perhaps most prominently, Lee faced pressure he says is not unique among Asian Americans, a nudging that came from home to pursue an academic path that would ideally lead to a more stable career.

Lee, 53, said his father had the creative gene, too, but he never became a professional artist.

“He was someone who never got training, but he was just gifted,” Lee said of his father, whom he said worked as a schoolteacher. “One of the best memories I have as a child was him teaching me how to paint watercolors, and so it’s not that he was opposed to me doing art for fun, but that’s pretty much what he encouraged — do it as recreation, fun, as a hobby, but don’t pursue that as a career.”

After immigrating from Seoul to Los Angeles at the age of 9, Lee found art served a purpose in bridging a gap in communication between himself and his classmates. As he labored to learn English, often taking bits and pieces from watching TV shows like “Happy Days” and “The Brady Bunch” with his brother, his ability to draw did the work for him in forming relationships.

Artist Pil Ho Lee stands by his oil painting titled "Diamond Theater" at his home in Orange on Wednesday.
Artist Pil Ho Lee stands by his oil painting titled “Diamond Theater” in his garage studio at his home in Orange on Wednesday.
(Sarahi Apaez)

“I remember making lots of friends because 1977 and 1978, those early two years, ‘Star Wars’ was big because that’s when it just came out, and I remember making a bunch of friends by just drawing ‘Star Wars’ — like X-Wing fighters [and] Darth Vader. Some kids would come and say, ‘Hey, can you draw this for me?’

“I would draw it, or they would see me drawing, and they would think I’m so cool because I drew that so well and [was] making friends like that.”

Lee has no regrets about how things have turned out. He had a 20-year career in advertising and graphic design before surrendering himself completely to his first love, the fine arts.

The South Korean oil painter who now produces his artwork out of his home in Orange, where he lives with his wife and daughter, says he is at peace with his parents’ persuasion to follow the academic route. He said he understands it is what his family believed would prepare him best for life, and his mother is now one of his greatest supporters in his fine arts endeavors.

As he went down that path, though, Lee indicated he felt he “buried a part” of himself. Affirmation, at various times, provided the spark that would fuel his artistic flame and eventually see him commit fully to his craft.

At one point, it was a grade-school art teacher named Ms. Isavich who would include him in special art sessions, sometimes pulling him out of other classes to do so. To this day, Lee looks back on her art classes as an “oasis” that allowed him to do what he loved.

Artist Pil Ho Lee sets one of his favorite pieces of a lemon tree on his easel, at his home in Orange on Wednesday.
(Sarahi Apaez)

Another who came along was a mentor in Gary Bradley, who encouraged Lee to dedicate more time to his painting hobby.

“He saw one of my earliest paintings and said I should put a lot of time into this,” Lee said. “He recognized my talent, and I think I just needed someone to almost just give me permission, and I wanted to hear that so badly,” Lee recalled of an interaction he had with Bradley. “When he said those simple words, I was just ready to go, and that was in 2010 when I really started pursuing painting seriously, meaning putting in concerted effort and time.”

Lee expressed pride in being included in the Festival of Arts, a juried art show, for six consecutive years, noting it further affirms what he has always wanted to do in becoming a fine artist. The Pacific Edge Gallery in Laguna Beach also showcases his work.

“The wide-ranging backgrounds and experiences of our exhibitors demonstrate the amazing power of art to transform lives and livelihoods, and Pil Ho Lee exemplifies that diversity,” Sharbie Higuchi, director of marketing and public relations for the Festival of Arts, said. “His transition from graphic design professional to Festival of Arts exhibitor shows that art transcends chronical age and prior career choices and allows him to share his artistic gifts not only with Orange County but visitors from all over the globe.”

Higuchi said the Fine Art Show this summer, set for July 5 through Sept. 2, will feature the work of 120 Orange County artists. Its jury will judge using the following criteria: quality and content, excellence of craftsmanship, facility with chosen media, excellence in use of design elements, and professional presentation.

“The Festival has always welcomed artists of various backgrounds and disciplines,” Festival of Arts president David Perry said. “As the population of Orange County has grown and diversified over the years, so has the diversity of the exhibitorship, as well as the artwork it presents each summer.

“In my view, each artist creates work which is reflecting of many influences — often including cultural — and quite personal. The Festival — and its patrons — have benefited from the Festival’s presentation of this multifaceted, world-class art.”

Artist Pil Ho Lee stands next to his oil painting titled "Lemon Tree No. 2," at his home in Orange on Wednesday.
(Sarahi Apaez)

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