Thriving on the edge
November 28, 2011

 Kye-Yeon Son with the work Embracing 2011 at the Mary E. Black Gallery.

In nominating NSCAD University professor Kye-Yeon Son for the Saidye Bronfman Award for excellence in fine crafts, Susan Hanrahan notes the quiet power of her work—and her strong and steady influence on students.

Kye-Yeon Son “has inspired her students and continues to challenge them to create, to explore, and to push boundaries,” wrote Ms. Hanrahan, executive director of the Nova Scotia Designer Craft Council (NSDCC), in the nomination statement.

And Prof. Son would agree. Ever conscious of her students, she says they motivate her to push those boundaries ever further: “I want to show them the possibilities,” she says.

Prof. Son was presented with the prestigious honor, one of eight Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts, at a ceremony in Ottawa earlier this year. NSCAD Professor Emeritus Walter Ostrom, a ceramic artist, is a 2003 Saidye Bronfman Award winner.

A silversmith, Prof. Son says she shares the honor with NSCAD University and her students in the jewellery and metalsmithing department, part of the Craft division.

“If I didn’t work at NSCAD, I don’t know if I would have been given this honor,” she said in an interview at the Mary E. Black Gallery, where a retrospective of her career is now on display.

“I feel that as a member of the faculty that I have a responsibility to my students, to my art, to be out on that edge. The students are the ones who’ll advance even further.”

The exhibition, simply called Vessel / Jewellery, is an eloquent testament to her artistic genius. There are bowls, ceremonial objects, sculptures, pendants and brooches on display—each infused with meaning that take them beyond the utilitarian and every day.

The first objects the viewer encounters on entering the gallery are three silver bowls that Prof. Son fashioned for her MFA thesis work at Indiana University. Exquisite is an understatement in describing the bowls, which can be used to hold tangible things like fruit and nuts—or intangibles such as feelings and memories.

“By the 1980s when I was making these things, the silver bowl was not really used by people in a very practical way—it’s the kind of thing put on a shelf for display,” she explains.  “But this vessel has traditionally been made to hold things; why not then to hold an emotional state or dreams?”

Given what she imagined her bowls to hold, she no longer saw the need to make them solid in creating a sense of space and volume; following her father’s death a decade ago, she began to fashion vessels from wire. The resulting series is called Empty Vessels; “I wanted to find form that has a notion of absence yet resonates with the existence of memory,” she explains.

She began to experiment more with wire and created sculptural forms evocative of snow-covered branches. Some pieces were colored with white enamel on top and red underneath. “It’s like the branches are patiently waiting for spring and you can see that sense of energy and new growth underneath.”

At the age of 55, she continues to advance her technique, only recently returning from a sabbatical in her native Korea at Kookmin University to learn industrial techniques such as welding and laser cutting and to work in steel. She’s thrilled by the exhibition, which encompasses her entire career, from early pieces made as a student to pieces of jewellery she crafted just months ago.

“I feel like I’m seeing all the stages of my life come together,” she says. “To see everything in one spot is just great.”

Born in South Korea, Kye-Yeon Son received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Seoul National University and her Master of Fine Arts from Indiana University. She has exhibited her works in numerous solo and group exhibitions in public and commercial galleries across Canada, the United States, South Korea, Germany, Japan and England. Son immigrated to Montreal in 1984, joined the faculty of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University in 1995 and became a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2000. As well as winning the Saidye Bronfman Award, other honors include the 2006 NICHE Award and several Awards of Excellence from the Metal Arts Guild, Toronto.

Vessel / Jewellery is on display at the Mary E. Black Gallery until December 18. The gallery is located at 1061 Marginal Road—just past NSCAD’s Port Campus. Gallery hours are Tuesdays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.