Morgan Page interviews Alice J Lee

Published December 13th 2023

Installation view of Between Two, Alice J Lee’s solo exhibition at Juanita Harvey Art Gallery, Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas, 2022. AAPI images printed on transparencies for viewers to explore on their own. Over-head projectors, stools. On the right, partial view of the Korean alphabet in black vinyl. Photo by Alice J Lee.

I came upon Alice J. Lee’s work in late 2019 when I was looking for designers who appeared to be breaking new ground in Texas, hoping to invite one to MSU Texas as an O’Donnell Visiting Artist. I was thrilled to find Alice and her playful and effective research-driven approach to typography, design, and installation. I was particularly fascinated by her ability and interest in combining letterforms from different languages including English and Korean, or English, Korean, and Persian into immersive installations. Sadly, COVID-19 happened shortly thereafter and I wasn’t able to get her to MSU Texas until 2022, but the experience of having her build a one-of-a-kind typographic installation that included social justice elements and important historical markers was well worth the wait. Seeing her work, hearing her speak, and watching her do a workshop with our students have inspired me to seek out non-Latin letterforms in new and exciting ways. Since then, I’ve wanted to share her work with as many artists and designers as possible.

MP: Can you describe the alphabet with Korean and English characters that you’ve designed and what inspired you along the way?

AL: My fascination with alphabets is rooted in their capacity to serve as a visual code that acts as a bridge between written and spoken languages. They function as symbolic representations of the sounds within a language, effectively preserving spoken language through visual documentation. While Korean and English phonetics are different, there are overlaps, particularly in their consonant sounds.

For instance, "many" in English and "많이" (manh-i) in Korean, both describe the idea of 'a lot' in an undefined way. I compare the letters in the common root word "MANH" with the letters in "MANY" and combine them — fusing the English letter "M" with the Korean character for the "m" sound, then pairing "A" in English with the Korean character for the "ah" sound, N, then H.

In 2016, I teamed up with another bilingual designer, Ladan Bahmani. Together, we brought our combined proficiency in three languages — English, Korean, and Persian — to the project. We developed a modular typeface to cohesively represent all three alphabets, allowing us to experiment with typographical elements across these diverse linguistic systems.

Over the years, I refined the Korean and English versions of the typeface, incorporating them into various projects and installations. Presently, I'm working on an experimental typeface that fuses Korean and English, adhering to South Korea's official Romanization system. This endeavor serves as an exploration of multiple cultures through language and typography, with the overarching goal of promoting dialogue and fostering experiences that highlight our commonalities while celebrating our differences.

TRANSLATE: To move from one place or condition to another. 10’ x 14’. 2018. Paint, vinyl, acrylic, flashlights. An interactive multi-lingual typographic installation featuring Korean, English, and Persian alphabets. Alice J Lee and Ladan Bahmani. University Galleries at Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois. Photo by Alice J Lee.

MP: Would you mind telling us about your collaboration with Ladan Bahmani in the exhibition TRANSLATE: MOVE FROM ONE PLACE OR CONDITION TO ANOTHER? I found myself imagining how magical it must’ve felt for visitors to physically move through language while having a kind of fun puzzle to solve.

AL: Ladan and I were both teaching at Illinois State University back in 2017–18, and given our similar interests in language and translation, we collaborated on an interactive installation for the faculty biennial exhibition at Illinois State University Galleries.

As I shared earlier, Ladan and I speak three languages between us — Persian, Korean, and we share English. Looking up the definition of “translate”, I loved how physical the definition was: “to move from one place or condition to another.” We realized we wanted to create an interactive experience of translation and discovery.

We occupied a large, tall rectangular wall within the gallery. We designed it like a graphic poster that featured all three alphabets, the title of the piece, and clear acrylic letterforms installed perpendicularly against the wall at eye level. These letterforms spelled out the word "TRANSLATE" in each of the three languages and their respective alphabets. Interestingly, we discovered that each of these words commenced with a "t" sound. To accentuate this commonality, we aligned the clear letterforms for each word to originate from the same point. Beginning from the horizontal center, we positioned the words according to their respective reading and writing directions: "TRANSLATE" flowed from left to right, "통역" descended from top to bottom, and "ترجمه کردن" moved from right to left.

The interactive aspect of our installation lay in the transparency of the letterforms and their outward extension from the wall, reaching out to the gallery visitors. To facilitate interaction, we provided flashlights to the audience, allowing them to cast shadows against the wall, revealing and interpreting the letterforms. This interplay between light and shadow, the movement it necessitated, was designed to encourage engagement with the unfamiliar and to create an experience of exploration and discovery. During the exhibition's opening, many people engaged with the letterforms, enjoying the ability to adjust the shadows and explore the words dynamically.

TRANSLATE: To move from one place or condition to another. Alice J Lee and Ladan Bahmani. 2018. Detail of Persian letterforms in clear acrylic. University Galleries at Illinois State University, Normal, Illinois. Photo by Alice J Lee.

MP: Do you believe language and alphabetic systems can create a source of agency?

AL: Absolutely. I believe alphabets can promote accessibility, communication, and learning within society. The development and widespread use of the Korean alphabet has been transformative in promoting equity and literacy within Korean society, breaking down barriers based on economic and social factors. By simplifying the complexities of language and reducing the need to memorize numerous symbols, it paves the way for a more accessible path to literacy. This accessibility enhances the ability of individuals from various backgrounds to develop reading and writing skills, thereby promoting a more inclusive society.

In a democratic system, literacy empowers individuals to participate in civic life, express their ideas, and engage in the exchange of thoughts and opinions. Alphabets, with their capacity to deconstruct language into its fundamental components, are fundamental tools in this process. They contribute to equal access to knowledge, communication, and the democratic process, ensuring that people from diverse backgrounds can have a voice in shaping their society.

MP: In BETWEEN TWO, there are several elements in the exhibition that go beyond the letterforms. Can you help readers visualize those elements and how they came about? I’m referring to the wallpaper in the installation.

AL: The wallpaper as a format is a bit of play on the idea of something large that covers walls but is also in the background, and it’s an expression of my Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) history research through public photographic archives. I learned of massacres of Chinese laborers in Montana and Los Angeles, of Filipinos in North America before the formation of the United States of America, the government propaganda that supported the incarceration of Americans during WWII that defied the Fourteenth Amendment, and about Vincent Chin. Ultimately, I learned that AAPI history is AMERICAN history.

I collected hundreds of images from the Library of Congress (LOC), the National Archives, Flickr Commons, and Wikimedia Commons — all images in the public domain or with Creative Commons releases. I winnowed them down to around 400 and separated them into two categories: before the 1969 Immigration and Naturalization Act and after. The wallpaper features rows and columns of squares. Each square features one image pre-1969 printed in blue and one image post-1969 in pink overprinted on top of each other. This creates a new image with components of each image emerging or receding. I wanted to see the similarities and differences between long ago and not too long ago, to see what seems familiar and what seems foreign. Different moments in time are captured in one image, perhaps suggesting that our present is never fully disconnected from our pasts.

Each square also features one letter knocking out of the combined images. The mural repeats the following: I AM AN AMERICAN. This repetition reinforces the message that AAPI history is an integral part of American history and that the struggles and triumphs of AAPI individuals are an integral part of the American narrative.

Between Two: I AM AN AMERICAN. 2022. Archival inkjet prints. Detail. Public domain AAPI photographs, images overprinted in blue and magenta inks, and custom letterforms spelling out “I AM AN AMERICAN”. Juanita Harvey Art Gallery, Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas. Photo by Alice J Lee.

Between Two: I AM AN AMERICAN. 38’ x 10’. 2022. Archival inkjet prints. Public domain AAPI photographs, images overprinted in blue and magenta inks, and custom letterforms spelling out “I AM AN AMERICAN”. Juanita Harvey Art Gallery, Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas. Photo by Morgan Page.

MP: What is your next project?

AL: I’m developing a publication about English loan words in the Korean language — something that is referred to as “Konglish”. It will be a collection of Konglish terms and Konglish terms combined with Korean words to make slang. I’m also working on another publication that is based on the US Government’s Country Studies Series. They are “intended for a general audience, books in the series present a description and analysis of the historical setting and the social, economic, political, and national security systems and institutions of select countries throughout the world.” (Library of Congress website)

Installation view of Between Two, Alice J Lee’s solo exhibition at Juanita Harvey Art Gallery, Midwestern State University, Wichita Falls, Texas, 2022. Two books featuring all 338 AAPI public domain images of the wallpaper project, Between Two: I AM AN AMERICAN, sourced from the Library of Congress, National Archives, and Wikimedia Commons. Inkjet covers, 4-color process laser print interiors on 28lb coated text paper. Wire bound. 8” x 8”. Photo by Morgan Page.

I plan to republish the one detailing South Korea — last published in the 1990s — with the addition of significant layers of annotations that incorporate additional perspectives, updates, corrections, romanization using the South Korean romanization system, and personal stories. The Country Study is full of data, and as a designer, I would like to visualize these to make them more accessible to the general public.

As a second-generation Korean-American, my parents were born during WWII or during the Korean War. They grew up in a plundered, war-torn, third-world country, and they do not talk about their pasts much, if at all. I know many other Korean Americans with similar voids in their family stories, and I want to provide accessible information on Korean history from multiple perspectives. I recently watched a documentary clip of Susan Ahn Cuddy, a Korean American born in California in 1915. She was the first female gunnery officer in the US Military. “I'm very proud of being Korean. Unless you respect your heritage, you'll never find identity.” I agree with her that it’s important to respect the many cultures we embody to truly know ourselves. I’d like to design and produce a series of these country studies, inviting scholars, activists, and community members to provide their perspectives.

These publications will be included in my soon-to-be publishing imprint, Dual Press. Dual Press aims to provide a platform to amplify underrepresented voices in AAPI communities, and I hope to launch the press in late 2024 or early 2025.

Alice Lee's research interests include alphabetic systems, concepts of interconnectedness, and impacts of cultural imperialism. Her recent solo exhibitions include Between Two at Auburn University in Auburn, Alabama, to decode at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Fall, South Dakota, and Collage Office at the Franklin in Chicago, Illinois. Alice received her BA from Yale University and her Master of Design in Graphic Design from the University of Illinois in Chicago. She is currently an Associate Professor of Graphic Design at Texas State University.

Morgan Page is an Associate Professor of Graphic Design and Chair of the Juanita Harvey School of Visual Arts at MSU Texas. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Houston and her Master of Fine Arts from Rutgers University, Mason Gross School of the Arts. She has exhibited nationally and internationally and published several articles. Her work has been featured in Texas Monthly, Texas Highways, and the Texas Standard. Her book "Bones of Texas" is currently under contract with the University of Texas Press.