June 6, 2022

Samm Lee ’22: “I was AM someone who needs to create”

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, visual arts student Samm Lee spent time discovering, exploring, and nurturing her passion to create self-fulfilling art. A recent graduate of the Class of 2022 with a degree in Art and Archaeology concentrating in visual arts through the Practice of Art track, Lee hopes to continue to use her art to ask questions about herself and develop what she describes as “a visual language” to answer these questions.

Samm Lee ’22 works in her studio at 185 Nassau. Photo by Jon Sweeney

Originally from Montclair, New Jersey, Lee had taken one art class in high school and had not given any thought to attending art school. Convinced of her path, she declared a chemical and biological engineering major in spring of her first year at Princeton. However, in the fall of her sophomore year, Lee felt compelled to return to art and enrolled in “Painting I” with Lecturer and Associate Director of Visual Arts Pam Lins at the Lewis Center for the Arts. By the end of the semester, Lee knew that she needed to pursue creativity in a way she could not through engineering. Encouraged by Lins, she applied for admission to the Program in Visual Arts and Department of Art and Archaeology’s joint program that enables students to major in visual arts studio practice.

In January 2020, Lee began the application process for the visual arts program, which requires students to create and photo-document six to ten original works and to craft an artist’s statement. Less than three months later, she found herself turning her tiny childhood bedroom into a studio due to the coronavirus pandemic. While this situation might have been a deterrent for other aspiring artists, Lee found that social distancing and creating in her bedroom “ignited some kind of drive to make the most of my life.” Speaking about that time, Lee explained that she had one thought repeatedly playing in her mind: “The world is ending, and if I end tomorrow, what did I do for me?…I need to do something for me.”  That something, she determined, was visual art.

Giant pink eyes shed tears of pink disco balls on a gallery wall

Photo by Michelle Peters

“The Class of 2022 endured more disruption and uncertainty in their college life than any other group in generations,” stated Professor Jeff Whetstone, director of the Program in Visual Arts. “There is one piece of art that summed up the extraordinary resilience of this class. Samm Lee’s giant pink eyes crying tears made of hundreds of tiny mirrored disco balls encapsulated and symbolized the feelings expressed by so many students. The glory of youth — the shimmering disco balls — were transformed into tears. Samm’s sculpture captured the tension between exuberance and pain. It is a wonderful feeling for a professor when a student’s work can be so deeply moving.”

 Lee’s senior thesis show, titled “Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken, Chicken” (or the word “chicken” 17 times), centers around a hanging sculpture comprised of glitter curtains and colorful Post-It notes with words of encouragement both for Lee and visitors. The sculpture hangs over video diaries Lee made documenting her life from August 2020 to April 2022. The diaries share what she describes as “the anxious woes of being 21 and feeling like I have to figure everything out right at this moment when I feel like I’m also learning how to walk” in the middle of a pandemic. This central aerial sculpture was the last piece Lee made for her show and the only piece designed and constructed entirely within the Hurley Gallery, rather than in her studio at 185 Nassau Street. 

“Samm decided to study art after engineering. She was curious about many mediums: photos, sculpture, painting, video and this curiosity of recording became the premise for her thesis show,” Lins shared. “She turned the camera on herself in an almost diaristic following of thoughts, observations, charm, jokes and problems. In the same manner she produced Post-It notes, drawings, in-process sculptures, starting and restarting and basically accumulating  material to throw back into a ‘show’.”

The walls surrounding the centerpiece speak to Lee’s internal struggle — and a universal struggle — with self-confidence: there are paintings of quotations from her diary telling herself “today was a good day in studio, no tears have fallen…I’ve done what I can today, and will try again;” voicing her frustrations “STOP! ASKING ME WHAT THIS MEANS” spray painted in big, red letters; and then reminding herself that “I was AM someone who needs to create. That validation feels really special, and I know I can do this.  So, I’m going to do it.”  Lee also personifies the overwhelming sense of pressure to create with the two giant, fluffy, pink eyes mounted 20 feet up the wall and the two disco ball tear drops spilling down from them. Expressing her journey from someone who, as she put it, “didn’t really know how to be a [visual arts] student” to an artist open to sharing her art, Lee’s vulnerability elicits an emotional response from the viewer.

“Samm is a powerhouse — the world better watch out for her!,” warned Lecturer in Visual Arts Amy Yao, who served as Lee’s senior thesis advisor. “Since I first worked with Samm two years ago, I was struck by her directness, assertiveness and perspective which comes from a place of generosity. I grew as a teacher working with Samm and learned a lot from her. She started this [final] semester with a lot of doubt, which I could relate to. I think this doubt came from a place of genuine care. Samm moved through this feeling towards a generative and very active studio practice, and each week I saw new works in her studio. I loved her thesis show and can’t wait to see her work in the world. I’m so honored to have been able to work with Samm over the past couple of years.”

Throughout the past year, Lee shared insights about pursuing visual arts at Princeton with her peers as a Lewis Center Student Advisor, a group of students working to support equity, diversity and inclusion within the Lewis Center.

Following graduation, Lee plans to join other practicing visual artists in an arts collective to continue learning about herself and her art by observing and helping other artists through their own processes. In the future, she hopes to curate exhibitions and to explore the power and creation of art outside of traditional gallery spaces. 

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