Fantastical Microcosms

Published: 13.09.2023
Claire Voon
Edited by:
American Craft
Edited at:
Edited on:
So Young Park. Necklace: Connection, 2022. Oxidized silver, powder coating. 9 x 9 x 5 cm. Photo by: So Young Park. So Young Park
Necklace: Connection, 2022
Oxidized silver, powder coating
9 x 9 x 5 cm
Photo by: So Young Park
© By the author. Read Copyright.

Metalsmith So Young Park makes jewelry that evokes some of nature’s most complex and flamboyant forms.
So Young Park found the creative jolt for her metalsmithing in glass. While visiting Boston in the early 2000s, the artist saw the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, a display of famed models of cut flowers and leaves so scientifically accurate they were originally studied in botany classes. Park was especially struck by the cross sections and isolated views of plant parts, from ovaries to stamens, that revealed otherwise hidden geometries. “I didn’t think the inside of plants could be so beautiful,” she recalls. “I was kind of shocked.”

At the time, Park, who was born in South Korea, was an MFA student in metal and jewelry design at the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York and had largely been making figurative works out of silver and copper. The Blaschka display compelled her to build more organic shapes and experiment with surface texture. “My forms, concept, everything was totally upside-down, changed, in America,” she says from her studio in Cheonan, one hour from Seoul.

Two decades on, Park is known for jewelry pieces that seem to freeze nature at its most flamboyant. Bedecked with concave disks, moving wires, and tiny balls, necklaces and brooches take on the guise of florets in bloom, sprouting mushrooms, waving corals, or the pearlescent insides of a bivalve. Earrings appear to dangle seed pods and glistening barnacles; cuffs seem to grow fern spores. Some pieces celebrate the natural finish of gold and silver, while others feature vivid powder coatings that give them a Seussian flair. As much as Park’s metalworks pay homage to nature’s wonders, they are fantastical in their own right. Each is a microcosm of her uninhibited approach to color, texture, and movement, harmonized by laborious soldering and welding.
As Park puts it, her turn to nature at RIT was more of a “bringing backward” than a leap into unfamiliar territory. Born in the port city of Ulsan, in southeastern South Korea, she grew up near the ocean and spent many family vacations by the beach. She recalls building castles from pebbles, making chunky jewelry out of seashells, and exploring whatever treasures washed ashore. “I would touch all the seashells and sea life, especially starfish with large textures,” she says, “absorbing their patterns, textures, and touch".

  • I touched the metal, and it felt very warm and somehow so soft- I just loved the feeling. Sometimes I feel like I’m touching clay and can make whatever shape I want.

Park in her studio in Cheonan, South Korea.

But it wasn’t until adulthood that those memories manifested in her art. After graduating from high school, where Park studied painting, she moved to Seoul for university. She took introductory classes in ceramics, wood, and metal, the last leaving the greatest impression. “I touched the metal, and it felt very warm and somehow so soft—I just loved the feeling,” she says. “Sometimes I feel like I’m touching clay and can make whatever shape I want.” She learned the painstaking processes of hammering and annealing, honing her ability to soften and harden the material to dynamic ends.

Her elaborate technical skill is immediately evident today. To make the tiny curved disks that cover many of her pieces, she punches shapes from silver, then hammers them into thin concave forms. Those little spheres? Each comes from silver wire that she cuts, melts, and shapes. Every element must be soldered on individually, meaning that a single large brooch, say, may result from a couple of thousand soldering connections, executed over months. “I like the repetitive process,” Park says. “Working with metal is a very honest job. You cannot take a shortcut, and then it shows all the steps, your effort.”

Thistle II, 2014, oxidized silver, 24k gold leaf, 3 x 2 x 1 in.; necklace chain is 24 in. long.

In 2010, four years after launching her studio, Park began developing her now-signature technique: soldering onto her jewelry what she calls “popping wire”—small wire strands that stand upright so they shake slightly, even making sound. The inspiration came from classic pin-art toys that register the shapes of anything (like a hand) pressed into them. Park likes the unexpected kineticism these delicate strands give her metalworks and has strived to create different textures with them. In recent years, the strands have taken on dense, unruly forms, resembling birds’ nests or wolf lichen. Park sees them as nerves—extensions of her long-standing interest in cell division and proliferation. “All the tiny elements in my jewelry can be seen as individual cells and represent the sprouting of a new life,” she says. “My work expresses life, coexistence, overgrowing death.”

This notion, too, has origins in her past. When Park was in high school and university, several of her friends died, forcing her to wrestle at a young age with questions related to mortality. Years later, in grad school, she heard a radio host say that death happens as new life on earth occurs. “So we live in an infinite cycle of death and life,” Park says. This fixation on a renewed existence is an age-old and universal one. But to Park, the message has a quiet, personal resonance in her artmaking—it’s one way for her to “give my friends a new life,” she says. “The wound isn’t perfectly healed, so making art is healing.

>> This article was originally published in the Summer 2023 issue of American Craft. It is being republished here with permission of the American Craft Council.

About the author

Claire Voon
is a Brooklyn-based journalist and critic who has contributed to publications including the New York Times, ARTnews, and the Brooklyn Rail. She is also an editor at Borderless Magazine, a nonprofit that covers the U.S. immigration system.

>> Read more articles by the author here
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Portrait by Jake Silby

So Young Park. Bracelet: Drizzly hill, 2010. Oxidized silver.. 7 x 3 x 5 cm. Photo by: So Young Park. So Young Park
Bracelet: Drizzly hill, 2010
Oxidized silver.
7 x 3 x 5 cm
Photo by: So Young Park
© By the author. Read Copyright.

Estimated price: 1900 €

So Young Park. Brooch: Memory Cell, 2022. Oxidized silver, yellow topaz, citrine, powder coating.. 7 x 7 x 1 cm. Brooch and necklace. . So Young Park
Brooch: Memory Cell, 2022
Oxidized silver, yellow topaz, citrine, powder coating.
7 x 7 x 1 cm
Brooch and necklace. 
© By the author. Read Copyright.
So Young Park. Necklace: Vacuum to Volume, 2018. Oxidized silver, ruby, garnet, carnelian. 8 x 8 x 4 cm. Photo by: So Young Park. Brooch & necklace. So Young Park
Necklace: Vacuum to Volume, 2018
Oxidized silver, ruby, garnet, carnelian
8 x 8 x 4 cm
Photo by: So Young Park
Brooch & necklace
© By the author. Read Copyright.