Biography

Lee ShinJa is a pioneering first-generation Korean fiber artist and educator. During the 1950s and ’60s, when working with thread and fabric was considered domestic labor, Lee broke new ground in the evolution of Korean craft. Against the conventions of traditional craft, she experimented with modern formal techniques, driving innovations in embroidery, dyeing, weaving, and tapestry to expand the breadth and depth of the genre, which at the time was still unestablished.  

 

Lee began her formal education in craft at Seoul National University in 1950, the year the Korean War broke out, and continued her studies at Busan Wartime Nations University. After graduating with her BFA in 1955, she presented her work in the National Art Exhibition of the Republic of Korea (National Exhibition), marking her debut in the Korean art scene and drawing the attention of the art community. At a time when figuration and traditional embroidery were seen as the preeminent styles, her work boldly veered towards abstraction through the use of wax-resist dye and contemporary embroidery applications to break up shapes and emphasize textures. 

 

In 1965, she experienced a significant turning point in her early career when the Press Center in Seoul presented her debut solo exhibition. The show featured bold collages made from everyday materials such as flour sacks, mosquito nets, aluminum foil, and magazines. Although some critics accused her of “ruining traditional Korean embroidery,” she continued her innovative approach to create works like Portrait of My Daughter (1962), which is made with cotton and wool threads and oil pastels, and Image of City (1961), for which she unraveled portions of a woven cloth to braid and coil new fibers onto the loosened threads. 

 

In the 1970s, Lee fully embraced tapestry techniques. Due to limitations in sourcing materials at the time, she cleverly repurposed fibers from wool sweaters and thread from bedding. When she was exposed to the works of international fiber artists at the 1970 Osaka World Expo in Japan, and later the 1983 Lausanne International Tapestry Biennial in Switzerland, she found the confidence to expand her practice into unique sculptural forms and installations. In the 1972 National Exhibition, she presented Wall Hanging (1971), which is considered Korea’s first-ever exhibited tapestry work. It led to the reclassification of the National Exhibition category “dyeing crafts” to “dyeing and weaving crafts.” 

 

In addition to experimenting with new methods, even pursuing graduate training and earning her MFA in Fabric Design from Hongik University in 1974, Lee created abstract compositions by harmoniously balancing geometric motifs with lyrical colors. Notably, the abstract shapes in Conversation between Circles (1970s) and Sun and Moon I (1973) represent forms and elements found in nature. Meanwhile, Resurrection (1977) is composed in a structured manner and speaks to Lee’s affect during the declining health of her husband, artist Jang Woon-Sang (1926–82) who was known for pioneering modern Korean painting. 

 

In the 1980s, Lee expanded her practice by integrating qualities of other media, such as painting and sculpture. Using materials like twine, paper, twigs, wires, and cables, she expanded her textile works to large-scale sculptural installations. Her pieces from this period—such as Memory (1985), Prayer I (1985), Echo (1985), and Retrospection of Autumn (1987)—are particularly notable for their intense contrast of red and black and their grand verticality. They convey not only Lee’s loss and despair following the death of her lifelong partner, but also a reverence for life and her will to live.

 

Regarding her series “Spirit of Mountain” from the 1990s, Lee remarked, “The seascape I saw off the coast of Uljin as a child and the spiritual energy brimming in the mountains I climbed while holding my father’s hand were saturated with everything, from the sound of waves to light, memories, love, and parting.” In these and other works, the artist sought to capture the intrinsic order of nature and her longing for the landscape of her hometown. The metal frames in her later works serve as windows, offering abstract glimpses into nature. 

 

Lee’s work as an artist and educator transcends individual artistic achievement, leaving a unique legacy in the history of Korean fiber art and propelling the elevation of craft into fine art. As a founding member of the Korean Fiber Artists Association, she led the first edition of the Korean Fiber Art Biennale in 1984, and she served as the association’s president in 1986, steering the renaissance of Korean fiber art. From 1965 to 1997, she served as a professor at Duksung Women’s University, where she broke away from the traditional apprenticeship model in favor of a craft curriculum based on creativity, a shift that significantly influenced pedagogical practice. From 1997 to 2012, she operated Gallery Wooduk, an exhibition space supporting younger artists. She has been an active member of the Korean National Academy of Arts since 1997, and, in 1999, the Korean government awarded her the Silver Crown Order of Cultural Merit for her contributions to national cultural development. 

 

Lee’s oeuvre has been exhibited widely in major solo exhibitions across Korea and abroad at galleries and institutions such as Press Center (1965),  Gallery Hyundai (1983), Seoul Arts Center’s Hangaram Art Museum (1993), the Republic of Korea’s National Academy of Arts (2003) and more. In 2023, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (MMCA) in Gwacheon, Korea, presented her retrospective “Threadscapes,” which shed new light on the world of a pioneer who opened up the possibilities of fiber art. She has also participated in a number of group exhibitions including ones at MMCA Deoksugung (1986), Ho-Am Art Museum (1988), and Jakarta Textile Museum (2000), and biennials like the 5th Lausanne-Beijing International Fiber Art Biennale at Tsinghua University Academy of Arts and Design (2008). Lee’s works are housed in the collections of major institutions such as the National Museum of Korea, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, the Seoul Museum of Art, the Seoul Museum of Craft Art, Sookmyung Women’s University, Duksung Women’s University, and elsewhere.

Works
  • Lee shinja, Wall Hanging, 1976
    Lee shinja
    Wall Hanging, 1976
    Cotton, wool thread; tapestry
    59 7/8 x 32 3/4 inches
    152 x 83 cm
  • Lee ShinJa, Screen, 1979
    Lee ShinJa
    Screen, 1979
    Cotton, thread on linen cloth; free technique
    52 x 35 1/2 inches
    132 x 90 cm
  • Lee shinja, Untitled, 2006
    Lee shinja
    Untitled, 2006
    Wool, synthetic thread, and metal; tapestry
    33 7/8 x 36 1/4 inches
    86 x 92 cm
  • Lee Shinja, Spirit of Mountain, 1996
    Lee Shinja
    Spirit of Mountain, 1996
    Wool thread, metal; tapestry
    23 5/8 x 31 7/8 inches
    60 x 81 cm
Exhibitions
Video
News