A glimpse inside the artist’s whimsical creative process
(Somerville Wire) – Pauline Lim has an awareness of mortality. Describing herself as a person who is conscious of the fact that life is temporary, as an artist, she seeks out color and beauty, while also grappling with the aches and pains of aging. Her paintings have elements of fantasy, depicting mice in castles and cats in courtyards. Based in Somerville, Lim works at the Brickbottom Artists Building. Here, she opens up about her vision as a creator, her upbringing, and how dreams influence the projects she develops.
How would you describe your approach to painting? You often explore the themes of dreams and illness; what interests you about these concepts, and how does your focus on them manifest itself in your work?
I try to pay attention to my dreams because they might be telling me something that is beneath my usual consciousness, obviously. I find it intriguing that Tibetan Buddhist monks think the dream world is the real world, and our everyday life is the illusory one. Aside from that, I think dreams can be pretty entertaining and look forward to attending the free cinema behind my eyelids every night. Cheap entertainment! People say, “I’m not creative”, but their minds are making stuff up every night that doesn’t exist. That’s pretty creative!
As for illness, I love Margaret Atwood’s quote that “Illness is the western form of meditation”. As a kid growing up with massive Korean-style parental pressure, I always felt relief when I got sick and got to step off the freight train to success for a while. It was sweet as candy to be allowed to stay in bed.
Did you always want to be an artist? How did your upbringing shape or influence your passion for the arts?
I always drew as a kid, and I had an uncle who was an artist, but everyone else was a doctor, and this artist uncle was the black sheep of the family. It was definitely frowned upon. My parents pushed me really hard to get into Harvard, sending me to Phillips Academy for my senior year of high school, so after I tried three different majors and finally settled on art, they were incredibly upset. But at that point, I was so suicidally miserable that I felt I had no choice. It was the only activity that made me want to live—that, and creating music.
Your work has such a whimsical quality to it, with some of your subjects being giant cat heads on human bodies or “tiny humans intermingled with items on a tabletop landscape.” What are your influences, and what makes you gravitate towards the fantasy realm that you portray?
I love those medieval depictions of hell. All those fantastical monsters and crazy shit happening. Any time I feel like I’m hallucinating, it interests and entertains me. I love the disruption of usual life. I love being made aware that I’m going through life half-conscious, and I value any time that I “wake up”. I think I am often rather bored and looking for something to fill this void inside my soul.
You have described yourself as a fear-driven person, and you have said that your paintings often deal with the frustration of being trapped in a mortal existence. How do you see these emotions inspiring or playing out in your pieces?
I recently did a painting of a little rabbit in a fancy suit running away from the Tooth-Head Death Fairy. I used to have nightmares about my teeth crumbling or falling out, and I read that it was about my fear of mortality. I definitely feel like things going wrong with your teeth are like being punched in the face by Mortality; they’re the only part of your skeleton that you see every day! When I was little, I thought my teeth would last forever. I was horrified to learn that they wear out!
What has it been like to be an artist during the pandemic? Has your work changed at all because of it, and what have been the challenges?
I feel very lucky that my studio is in my home; other artists I’ve talked to whose studios are in big group buildings weren’t able to go into their studios to do their work. So I realized how lucky I am; it was a real refuge to be able to fill my time with something I already was set up to do. I did lots of paintings based on my travel photos, especially because we were stuck at home. I savored throwing myself into images of amazing places we have seen. I did so many paintings of Oxford, the Cotswolds, the Alhambra, Madeira, the Azores, etc. I also couldn’t bear to do some of my more unpleasant imagery—I just needed to immerse myself in beauty. I even did a painting of a flower (“Token of My Affection”)! I never would have thought I would do that, but I found myself really obsessed by flowers after the lockdown started. I had never appreciated them so much before.
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.