Lora Vahlsing: I Wrote My Way To Freedom
Lora Vahlsing, a painter, poet, photographer, yoga instructor and mother, shares with us her childhood memories, her arts and motivations. Lora holds: an MFA in Creative Writing with emphasis Poetry from the University of Oregon; a BFA in Art, Graphic Design emphasis; BA English Literature; a 200-hour yoga certification. She has been published in Radar Poetry, Korean Quarterly, and had taught in various institutions.
When I saw Lora Vahlsing’s paper sculptures I was instantly reassured the immense possibility or beauty there is to the human being—how, in spite of bends and dead ends, there exist an infinite chance or space to reimagine and reinvent the human being and its occupations. Her works come as dimensions of dreams, how dreams are organically conceived, shaped and erected. Lora gives new bodies and lives to papers, and the papers in turn stand and flower—another pattern of creation.
And so it was no surprise to know that her keen exploration of art started from her childhood. Hear her: “When I was around eight-years-old my parents brought home a firefly. It was one of those summer nights where the sky looked shades of blue. They had been out for a walk and when they returned they woke me up and my dad opened his hands. I remember the light from the firefly lighting up the room. I bring that memory with me in writing, in teaching yoga, in whatever art I make. In yoga there is a dharma, (life purpose statement), and mine is, “I illuminate the world with life, love, and beauty.”
You’re an artist, a photographer, a graphic designer, a yoga instructor. How did it all start for you?
When I was a child I had a great interest in the divine. I couldn’t find any adults or religious figures to help me answer my questions. I always knew there was this great source of untapped energy within me & looked for ways to express it. During my teens I struggled being Asian in a predominantly White community, even my family was White. I went internal as it was hard to find the words and resources to talk about what I was feeling. I believe we each have moments that fate intervenes. My older sister was in College and on a break she returned home and suggested journaling. She was reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I read it & then read everything by Plath I could. Discovering Sylvia Plath’s works opened up a world for me. I could relate to so many of Plath’s thoughts and feelings. Her world helped me create my own. I wrote obsessively, filling up notebook after notebook. I wrote to accept myself. I wrote to create a space in my own life. I wrote because I didn’t know what else to do. I wrote because it was beautiful. I wrote because I needed those words.
When I went to University of Milwaukee another interesting twist of fate occurred. I had to take a required writing course. The course focused on fiction & poetry. I just happened to take a class with the poet Susan Firer. Susan and I connected & she saw something in my writing I did not. I took every class of Susan’s during my time at Milwaukee. I wrote my way to freedom. I wrote my way into one of the top writing programs in the country, University of Oregon’s Creative Writing MFA. There I had the wonderful fortune of being taught by Garrett Hongo, Pimone Triplett, and Dorianne Laux. Between my first and second year at Oregon, I jumped on a plane & spontaneously decided to do a birth search in Korea. Despite all odds, I located my birth family. In that summer in Korea, I wrote poetry, read Akhmatova, Walt Whitman, August Kleinzhaler, Adam Zagajewski, among others. I was feeding myself the very best.
I returned to Oregon and finished my degree, and then lived in Korea. I taught English & discovered painting. I had always loved art. In high school, I felt isolated from my peers & had discovered the art of Mark Rothko, Wassily Kandinsky, & Ad Reinhardt. In Korea, I struggled with fitting in my natal country. I was from there, but was so different in many ways. I got to a point where I was so unhappy I couldn’t stand it! Haha. And so I dug deep and challenged myself to find beauty. I bought cheap disposable cameras & forced myself to explore Korea. In that process, I thought of my love for Kandinsky, Rothko & Reinhardt & I began painting. I painted because it was my way of communicating with those artists & their work. They were really my love letters, my notes of gratitude and appreciation.
After having my daughter, I went back to school and earned an Art degree, with an emphasis in Graphic Design. The art degree was really an extension of the poetry. And often times, my art peers would describe my art as “poetic”. You can’t hide who you are, which is why it’s not surprising I found yoga. I always knew my life was a spiritual one. In my childhood, I was searching & when I discovered yoga I was found! Yoga and meditation allows me to express those moments of beauty and transcendence. My yoga is my art. My whole life is art, beautiful expression and expansion. I believe this is why we are here!
I am curious about your birth search in Korea. But first, what particularly sparked this urge to travel to Korea, especially as you were at the time in school for your Master’s degree? And during the search, was there a moment you felt discouraged to the point of giving up?
Great question! Garrett Hongo really encouraged me to honor my own story and voice. Up until then, I didn’t really allow myself to think about my birth family very often. Garrett and the other faculty at University of Oregon supported my story. In the spring of my first year, a fellow graduate student asked, “Why don’t you just book a flight & go!?!?” That was all I needed to go to Korea. It was a very spontaneous decision, but perhaps it was good. I’m not sure I would have gone if I had really thought about it.
I intended to read poetry, write & travel & find my birth family. No one thought I’d be able to locate them & it seemed impossible.
I tried all the conventional & obvious ways of doing a birth search: going to the media & I had some false leads & at some point I thought, “It’s just not going to happen.” It’s when I accepted this possibility that a suggested going to my orphanage in Taegu. She said we’ve been calling & trying to get more information, but aren’t getting anywhere. You should go in person.” I went to my Taegu & went to the orphanage. This teeny tiny nun came out of nowhere & with a translator’s help we told her I was looking for more information. She nodded her head & went to another room. She came back & had a thin manila folder. I thought there was nothing in it. She opened it up & pointed to some Korean characters. I thought for sure the translator was going to say, “Sorry, there’s no new information.” But, instead, the translator said, “This is your birthfather’s name and here is his number.” I really don’t remember what happened after that… Later that same day, I met my birthfather at the local Korean station. Television cameras & reporters were there. When my birthfather & I were reunited, a whole room of male officers cried.
How old were you then?
Is your father still in South Korea now?
It must have been joy finding your family; yet the struggle to fit in. Then came your finding beauty through pictures and painting. What a profound and rewarding escape. Would you have fitted in well if family was outside Korea?
My art was a way of fitting into my own life. I never felt like I truly fit in America & in Korea, I never felt like I truly fit in. I try & make the most out of this & art & yoga has empowered me to create the life I want. Art & yoga allow me to create beauty out of my experiences.
My painting 38th parallel is a wonderful example of this. In the painting there is a black & white image of a family meeting at the 38th parallel. A family divided by a man-made line. The paint covers some of the image & also extends up from the photo. The colors are bright & bold in contrast to the black & white photography. I used joint tape as an attempt, even if only in that painting, to join all those families separated & distanced by that border. And this is really my politics, to join & beautify those moments that aren’t easy. My intention is not to lessen the gravity of emotion, but rather to honor the beauty in those situations.
Are there memories from the orphanage in Taegu you still hold and make use of in your works today?
I don’t have any memories of my time there.
You picked motivation from Russian poetry and art. Did your struggle to fit into South Korea also disturb connections with artists and their arts at the time?
My process of choosing different Russian poets & making art was really a very intuitive process. Thinking back though, certainly some of their themes probably resonated. Mainly, I was inspired by them, that even though they had experienced hardships & challenges, that they chose to continue making their art!
Talking about your art and processes: you said somewhere that poetry is your first love. What brought you to this conclusive reflection?
I meant that in the sense that it really gave me a structure, a space, and a means to express myself & also to inhabit a world I created. I felt very much in community with those poets, both living and dead. I don’t think my voice was singular, but rather part of a largerchorus.
Edward Hirsch once said that, “I’ve devoted much of my life to poetry. It’s my vocation. I plan to continue with it for the rest of my life. I also consider it one of the human fundamentals, like music. But it has its limitations, as people do, and I’ve come up against them. It’s a great art, not a salvation.” Especially as one interested in the divine, what do you think? The link between art, its limitations, and salvation.
Wonderful question. When writing, or making a paper sculpture, or practicing yoga there is a common thread. For me, it’s in how I approach them, in my art & writing they are meditational. Is the divine only in some places? For me, that connection to the divine starts with me & I bring it with me into writing a poem, painting a picture, teaching yoga. I take photos, paint pictures, create sculptures, write poems, and practice yoga—they are like petals of the same flower.
Having committed yourself this much to poetry, do you ever feel the burden or compulsion to publish a book? Or to collect your paintings.
I wouldn’t say I feel a burden or compulsion. I do feel a calling to gather writing (whether or not it’s poetry, I’m not sure) with images (photos or some of my art). I’d also like to incorporate some of what I’ve learned in yoga & meditation. I definitely see putting together a book of this type!
The sculptures you create are exceptional, especially as they’re made from paper. Somehow I get into envisioning your paper sculptures transitioning into monumental edifices. Have you thought of collaborating with any architectural body?
I remember you remarking about their architectural quality. I never thought of it before in quite that way, although I’ve always seen them on a large scale, encompassing a gallery space. Frank Gehry, an architect I quite enjoy, creates remarkable buildings & makes the material bend & curve in a similar fashion. Maybe he and I could collaborate, that would be lovely! Can you make that happen David?
Very possible. In February this year I remember it was released that an online architecture course taught by Frank Gehry himself will be on, so this is a way to connect. Or I could initiate correspondence with his firm in Los Angeles. There is no loss in trying—things are possible.
You play violin. Your daughter also plays the violin, right? I remember watching a video clip of her playing the guitar. Yours is a family festival of art. I am wishing her the very best of her creativity ahead.
I play some violin & guitar. Emerson plays the Ukulele. We enjoy music and it’s related to everything else I spoke about here. Creating sound & vibration with music is a part of creating beauty. Here is a link to Emerson playing and singing.
Emerson will be speaking on “politics from a kid’s perspective” at TEDx Fond du Lac in Wisconsin later this year in August. I can’t wait.
I love what is happening with Emerson lately! She really is coming into her own & it’s been wonderful to see what she’s doing & who she is! People remark, “Someday she will be someone great.” I always respond, “She already IS someone great!” Why do we think with kids that their greatness comes later, with adulthood? I don’t believe it. I think her future “greatness” will only be an extension of who she is now.
As a yoga instructor, what words do you have for folks who are burdened by the myths of yoga and for folks who want to begin yoga?
Yoga is life affirming! If you want to live a life fully & deeply & joyfully, why wouldn’t you try yoga? I love how beautiful yoga is & how it brings me back to the best parts of myself. In the still moments of my practice, it feels like I have become poetry. I just say, “Just start where you are. What are you waiting for? If you can breathe & move, you can do yoga!”
How will they reach you? Do you also teach online for those who are far away?
For now, they would have to come to Wisconsin. I’m currently not online. In the future, I see myself traveling & sharing yoga. Here is my website: https://www.loravahlsingyoga.com/
What words do you have for younger artists and beginning creatives?
Rumi said, “Let the beauty you love be what you do.” The arts are so important, now more than ever. In the past, we got stuck on the “quantity of living” – meaning more & more stuff! For me, I am interested in “quality of living” & this is where the arts are essential. There is something empowering about creating, about creating work that is meaningful to you. Art has helped me understand myself, helped me get to places I never would have that! Each day, I can choose to create something beautiful! That is so important for young artists to know. I watch my daughter, who has been raised on art & yoga & meditation, and she can’t help but stand out. I believe these ways of living affect the way we see the world.
Lora, thanks so much for the time and conversation. Here is the last question: what is love?
A light question to end, hehe! What is love? Surrender, union, being present. In gratitude for this time together, David! Many blessings & much poetry, light & art toyou! Thank for allowing me to be part of this process!