Every artist can point to an inspiration behind their work. For Kate Im, it’s the power of human connections.
The CWU Art + Design professor’s lifelong focus on interpersonal bonds often reveals itself in her artwork, although her passion is equally evident in her teaching and relationship-building.
“Even before I moved to the United States in 2011, I would always think about how I am connected to my family,” says Im, a native of South Korea who joined the faculty in the fall of 2022. “My work as an artist and educator is just a continuation of that same idea.”
During Im’s short time on campus, her sculptures have already been featured in two gallery showings, offering her colleagues, students, and members of the Ellensburg art community a glimpse into how human bonds can influence artistic expression. Im’s perspective came into even sharper focus during the pandemic.
“We all realized that our connections to other people don’t always have to be in person,” she says. “Humans are connected in so many different ways, and the pandemic showed us that we can also bond with each other remotely. We’re not always going to be together physically, but we can still meet face-to-face with our phones and computers. That has become the main message in my work.”
Im enjoys making use of red thread in her sculptures to demonstrate this sense of perpetual connectivity with other people, regardless of physical boundaries. At the annual Art + Design Faculty Exhibition last fall, she sought to show the invisible connections that exist across all cultures—specifically in Korea, Japan, and China.
“In Asian mythology, we refer to ‘the red string of fate,’” she says. “As the story goes, you have a red string connected to your finger when you are born, and that thread connects you to someone who is destined to you.”
Since Im was a child, she has imagined her own invisible red string that binds her to another person, somewhere in the world. As those thoughts evolved during her education and career, she wanted to find a way to express that concept visually.
When people ask, “why red?” she explains: “For me, the red thread represents a lifelong connection. It may not happen for 10, 20, or 30 years, but you will be connected to a specific person at some point in your life. You don’t know when it will happen, but you will reunite with them someday.”
While Im’s art typically follows a common theme, her creations aren’t limited to plaster and thread. She also enjoys experimenting with 3-D printing and other forms of digital media to express herself. In one of her recent works, she created a plaster mold of her hand and displayed it alongside a 3-D scan of the same hand to demonstrate the continuity that exists across different mediums.
“They are both my hand, but can you tell the difference?” she asks. “I was trying to show that both the old and new ways have value. In the same way, physical connections are always going to be important, but new technology allows us to communicate with each other in different ways. So much has changed, yet we are still connected.”
Im, who received the Grants for Artists’ Progress (GAP) Award from the Artist Trust last year, notes that she has been incorporating newer technologies into her work for years—3-D printing on fabric, for example—as she tries to explain the complex networking systems that allow humans to stay in touch.
“Because of technology, we can meet each other from any distance,” she says. “That’s just one of the many reasons I love incorporating digital elements into my work.”
Im has become so accomplished in the digital art realm that she taught a digital methods class at her former institution in Illinois. Now, she’s imparting those same concepts to her CWU students through a digital fabrication class that debuted in spring quarter.
“I like to challenge my students and make them think about what’s going on around them,” she says. “I want them to think of their art as a form of social commentary so they can talk about it in different ways, like I’ve done with my passion for human connections.”