Nestled along the streetwear and the cafe walls, like it grew straight out of the glass and stone, you’ll find Julia Chon’s pop art inspired work. Known by the name Kimchi Juice, Chon is a new comer to the D.C. art scene, but she’s already made quite the impression. At the age of 16, she was one of Maketto’s best selling artists and now a year later, she’s back to kick off their local art program.
Her more famous work takes over the second floor cafe area. There you’ll see a slew of multi colored and cartoonish animals, cheekily giving you the finger. Make your way downstairs and you’ll find her newer work. Painted with light pastels (and on much bigger canvases), Chon has created serene scenes of Korean women wearing traditional hanboks and has accented the works with intricate origami lotuses and cranes (all put together by her family). While both styles have a deceiving simplicity to them, Chon’s a hard worker, who has managed to adeptly balance high school while showing her art and developing her style.
As we settled into a quiet corner of Maketto, Chon takes me through her ambitious schedule, tells me about her favorite restaurants in D.C. and shares the impetus behind her new work, which you can catch at Maketto until April 29.
You have some new pieces here at Maketto, can you tell me a little bit about the idea behind the show? What was the catalyst for doing this work?
Maketto’s divided by two floors so I decided to do two type of shows. I decided to separate it into my more serious art, which is pictures of Korean women in traditional hanboks, so it’s called “Yeoja”, which means woman in Korean. Then, I’m most known for my alter ego Kimchi Juice, which is cute animals flipping the bird, so I decided to just dedicate the upstairs of Maketto to that.
How long have you been doing the paintings of Korean women?
I’ve always been inspired by my Korean heritage and culture so I knew I wanted to focus on that aspect of my life. So last August, I was applying for a show, which I didn’t get into, but I had to submit 10 pieces. So I was like, “Oh I’ll just do some paintings,” and so I had four of them prepared. It was like the first time that I really developed a style to my art and so I was like, “Oh this is so much fun, I’m gonna roll with it.” and so I created the triptych… And that’s how it all kind of came together downstairs.
It looks like you’re working on much bigger canvas than you used to… The Kimchi Juice pieces that I’ve seen, most of them are very small.
Yeah, the Kimchi Juice paintings were always just little framed watercolors. I definitely wanted to do some impact pieces, so I started moving into larger canvases.
Do you like working at a larger scale or do you prefer the smaller stuff?
I love working at a larger scale. It’s almost freeing because you have so much space to work with. Also, I did the Pow! Wow! D.C. mural last year and it was 132 feet long and 10 feet tall. It was my first mural and ever since then, I want to work large scale.
Absolutely, you’ve been bitten by the mural bug. Do you want to do more murals?
Yes, I really enjoy doing murals, especially with my animals. Of course they’re going to be plain and they aren’t going to have middle fingers. I was doing a mural for Pow! Wow! Worcester at an elementary school and you have all these kids going to recess being like “Oh, panda!” and “Oh, a unicorn!” So it was really cute.
Well, it certainly opens your art up to a entirely different audience. What was it like to transition from small water colors to a large mural? How did you prepare for that?
I read so many online forums on how to do it. I’ve only entered the art world for like two or three years now, and until Pow! Wow! I didn’t know anybody in the community. I was a junior in high school and I was just kind of doing it on my own, I didn’t really have exposure to these people. I didn’t know what to expect and I definitely was stressed. When we were picking out paints and I finally met everybody who was an artist there, it was just like this huge sigh of relief like, “Oh, I can do this.” I didn’t really know what to start until I got on the wall. It was a month of mental preparation and then you don’t think about it, you just execute it.
I’m glad you mentioned that you’ve only been in the art world for a couple of years because I would love talk about when you really started to sit down and draw.
I pretty much liked art throughout my like childhood, but I started to seriously pursue it after my parents got divorced. It was a creative outlet, an emotional outlet and it was really important, but none of it was good. It took some time, but it helped me get a feel for the materials. I had taken classes and I had learned the foundations, but it was the first time I was doing it in my free time, of my own volition. That really helped me get a feel for the materials and what I liked and what I didn’t like. Eventually, over time as I experimented with different styles I developed my own, which has accumulated into this.
From my perspective there’s a lot of pop art influence… Is there any artist that you look to for inspiration?
I think there’s so many artists… and it’s like not necessarily their art, but what they’ve been able to do throughout their career. I really admire Andy Warhol and Ai Wei Wei for being able to turn their art into a business and have a little factory where they can produce stuff. It’s really interesting. I’m really inspired by colors and the production aspect of it all.
You also have like items you’re selling now, You’ve got the coasters I saw you have a tote bag… How has that been? That transition from putting out pieces creatively to creating merchandise?
It felt very natural because the only things that I sell are Kimchi Juice merch, so it’s like an animal on a shirt or an animal on a pint glass. It just felt like the natural progression to go to that. I think Kimchi Juice in general is more like accessible to the public, so it just felt like, “If you want to wear it, that’s really cool.”
I do want to bring it back to this exhibition you have going on now. How did you team up with Maketto and decide that you were going to do a bottom floor and top floor takeover?
My first show was at Maketto last January. I was 16 and I only took over the cafe and I was their best selling artist. I’m not trying to brag or anything…
You should though.
So when they were rekindling their art program, they decided to bring me back as the debut artist. It’s definitely much better put together this time around. I’ve learned some things on the way.
I know studio-wise you work out of your house right now, but what is your dream studio?
I work in the basement, and there’s not a lot of natural light, but I love big windows. I kind of have this little fantasy of being out in the middle of nowhere just painting.
Like a cabin in Montana?
Yeah. I think eventually I’ll try to work to that point, but I’m happy wherever I can fit a canvas in put down some work.
What’s your schedule like? Do you paint everyday? Do you have specific hours where you try to go down there and work on stuff?
It basically depends on what projects I’m working on. I’m finishing up my final year of high school and that should be my priority, and it is a priority, but for the show I only had a months notice to get it all together. So it was just a week of planning and then three weeks straight of going down to the basement every day and painting. It was probably like a 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. schedule and I just repeated that until it was all done.
Those are long hours, when you’re not showing what is your schedule usually like?
My mom is in the restaurant industry and so since I do online high school, I have more flexibility. I like accompany her to work and I really really like the restaurant industry. So it’s a mix of art and food and school. That’s pretty much my schedule.
Do you want to do art full time? Do you want to go to art school?
I don’t want to go to art school. I think sometimes people are pushed into art school when they don’t really have to do it. I think art is something that comes from within you and it’s very important to learn the basics, but you don’t have to pay a fortune to do it. I’m really interested in agriculture and so I was thinking of getting a more practical degree in something I’m interested in and then doing art. But, I don’t know, I feel like it’s really great that I’m so young and I can experiment. I don’t know what the future holds. I hope something good.
Agriculture? What made you interested you in that?
I was introduced to the restaurant industry around 14. I’m not very fond of hospitality, it’s not really my thing, but I enjoy nature and growing food and just seeing what can be done for the agriculture industry, since it’s so important. Everybody has to eat and it’s really important how you grow your food and how you make it accessible to everybody.
Very cool. Do you have a dream college right now?
The plan right now is I’m going to take classes part time at a local college and pursue art.
Obviously, you’re a part of the restaurant industry and you’ve done a lot of your Kimchi Juice paintings for different chefs. What is the best meal you’ve had in 2018?
Hm… I have a favorite restaurant, I really like Centrolina. I love Amy Brandwein, the chef. I did a portrait of her cat and it’s hanging up in the pass of the kitchen. I love Centrolina. The pasta is really good.
Are there any artists in the area that you especially love?
Everybody in D.C. is so collaborative and it’s a really tight knit community. Of course, I have to acknowledge the people that have helped me along the way, like Kelly Towles who gave me my first wall and introduced me to the whole community. Maggie O’Neill, she’s doing like really great things for female artists in D.C. Then Peter Chang, who I can call up and ask him, “How do I price this? And how do I do this?” and he’ll just answer.
What do you listen to while you work?
I listen to podcasts and music. I stopped listening to the radio because I’m just listening to the same songs over and over. It’s just like the mix of Korean rap, classical synth pop… it’s a real mix.
What podcasts are you listening to right now?
It’s a murder podcast. I listen to My Favorite Murder, What You Missed In History Class, You’re The Expert and some history ones, like Revolutions.
Do you like history podcasts?
Well, it takes me awhile to get into it, but then it’s easy listening. It’s not even focusing on it, it’s just having that background noise when you focus on other stuff.
Last question: Is there anything you wish was in the D.C. art scene, that isn’t currently? Whether it’s like a skill sharing thing or a gallery, what do you think we’re missing?
I think with my more serious art, which is focused on Korean culture and heritage, I’d like more outreach to asian artists. I know SAMASAMA, which is coming up at Shopkeepers, and I’m part of the group show. That’s really important and highlighting that is super important. It’s good to be inclusive!