An Interview with Soey Milk

September 24, 2021

Have you always aspired to create art, or did you discover your calling later in life?

Growing up, I believed in dance and the mountains. I would hike and spend the entire day collecting petals and marveling at tadpoles in the summer, hurried down to get to ballet class and danced for hours. Wintertime, my brother, and I hiked to look for hidden frozen falls, made up stories about mountain sprites while we collected the most magnificent icicles.

When my family immigrated to Los Angeles in 2000, the language barrier slowly turned me into a pretty shy little girl, and I found myself often drawing alone instead of getting to dance classes. I couldn’t bring myself to dance because I was so scared of everything that had changed. I wanted to be the smallest, the most invisible person who barely existed.

So, I poured my time into creating art, I drew and painted as much as I missed my mountains and as upset I was at myself for being afraid. As I got older, I began to realize just how much my time spent in nature has shaped me. The petals and the tadpoles were tangible, vibrant textured hue that soaked into my eyes and fingertips, the fluttering snow in the silent frozen mountain was the most controlled chaos that my body has ever felt. I believe I was always responding, and my body still remembers.

What artist or artists informed your development? And what artists do you look to now for inspiration?

I attended and received a BFA from Art Center College of Design.

What artist or artists informed your development? And what artists do you look to now for inspiration?

As a teenager, I loved Mucha, Dir en Grey and Andy Goldsworthy. I know, what kind of a mix is that? My inspirations included Gustav Klimt, John Singer Sargent, Ito Jakuchu, Antonio Lopez Garcia to name a few as I attended college. My real love for paint pushing began when I met my partner, Kent Williams.  I’ve been loving Hyon Gyon’s work lately.

Left: Hydrangea Grove by Soey Milk
Right: Panicle Mist-Blue and Mauve by Soey Milk

What was a pivotal moment in the evolution of your work?

There was an incident when one of my paintings was shipped back to me from New York.
Long story short, the painting was lost for six months, was found in Alaska, and eventually returned to me in LA. When I opened the package, there were razor blade marks all over the framing, splatters of some kind and even footprints on the surface on the painting. Back then, I was painting with the thinnest layers and films of paint, handling each brushstroke so preciously that the finished work had no chance of surviving against such handling. Even though it was obvious the damages on the painting was a result of a severe mishandling, the incident made me want to take a different approach on my work – something not so surface-y, precious but strong.

I began piling paint up and introduced other media to my work. The usual two-pass sessions on portraits became seven to nine passes. I built layers and sanded, if I failed and did not like a session, I accepted and painted over them. It was exhilarating. Grabbing dirt from the garden pot and mixing them in with clear impastos, waking up upset because a layer of resin overflowed all over the studio floor, I slowly began to realize that nothing is the ‘correct’ way, it is just one of the ways you take to the finish line. My work was teaching me to breathe.

Tell us about your process. Do you begin with an image or a concept?

I begin with an image in my head. I prefer to immediately work out what comes to mind, so my initial sketches often end up on envelopes, backs of calendars, something I have around now.

Drawing to me is so important that I like to refer to them as ‘blueprints’ to my paintings. Without solid drawing, painting becomes an attempt to build a house on sand. With some paintings I draw directly on the canvas with a brush, it is hair-raising when I allow myself to do so. It is a good head change since my graphite drawings tend to be precise and detailed – requiring lots of hours and patience.

While I keep to no certain set of rules when it comes to painting, I prefer to work in many layers. Multiple passes of opaque layers and translucent films of glazes take time but they create a surface that reflects and refracts. I look for a visual rhythm and a perfect beat.

A handful of Sketches by Soey Milk

What informs your work? As a visual artist, are you inspired by music, film, science, literature or other art forms?

I am inspired by life and everything within! I believe living and feeling becomes the greatest inspiration, as I cannot tell stories I do not know.

What was the most challenging project that you worked on?

Every piece is a challenge. But if I had to pick one…

A handful of years ago, there was an accident with a drawing in progress. It was a delicate graphite drawing that I poured a gooey crystal finish onto that encased a tiny bouquet of colorful strings and a dried pistil. Long story short, the cleaner came and laid the drawing board against the wall without me knowing, and the crystal layer started dripping down and pooled on the floor creating a total wreck. This plasticky clear layer had to be sliced, mended, sanded, and sculpted back to an acceptable situation on paper. It pushed me completely out of my comfort zone with a ticking clock as it needed to be dealt with before everything hardened. I think that was the first time ever I actually shriek-cried in the studio. This story has a happy ending though! 

I pushed to make choices I would have never made and I ended up with a piece I really loved. The accident created all these fascinating cracks and imperfections that pushed the paint layer apart, I felt so strangely thrilled not knowing what would happen next. These days, I periodically make spontaneous marks on upside down paintings and throw wet paint rags at them to see what beautiful abstractions they create. I make lemonade.

Tinge by Soey Milk
What do you enjoy most about the work you do?

Painting is a sprint, a dance, a stroll and many, many fights. It is a meditation, a dialogue with myself. It is a child and it is also a teacher. I enjoy that I face the work alone, love that I put all of my life into it.

How do you think NFTs will change the future for artists?

I am one hundred percent here to find out. I believe art will find its place like water.

Soey Milk

Soey Milk has established herself as an impressive and compelling figure in contemporary figurative painting. 
Her sensitive, sensual and delicate hand, and with a keen eye for the emotive use of form, has gained her a notable number of fans and followers of her work in just a short handful of years.

Born in 1989 in Seoul, Korea, Milk moved to Los Angeles at age 11. 
She earned her BFA from The Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA. Milk’s early path was leading her to become a ballerina, but after she was first introduced to painting, she forthwith found a new passion to pursue. Some of the ballet dimensions remained, as she was still strongly drawn to human anatomy, which was a cornerstone for the development of her painterly pursuits.

Her work has been featured in Beautiful Bizarre magazine, American Art Collector magazine and on multiple online platforms. In 2017 she was commissioned by John Mayer to create the cover and sleeve art to his album “The Search for Everything."

Milk has exhibited her work nationally and internationally and is currently represented by EVOKE Contemporary, Santa Fe, NM and Corey Helford Gallery, Los Angeles, CA. She also teaches as part of the Mentor/MFA Program at The Laguna College of Art and Design, Laguna Beach, CA.

She currently lives in Los Angeles, CA with her partner, Kent Williams, six beautiful chickens, and a cat-dog Shiba Inu.