Year 5, Piece Forty-Nine: 49. Black White Black White
GUEST PIECE by Miju Han
This is it. 49/49, the final piece for this fifth series of Rainbow Squared. It may be the last piece for a while. Certainly not the last piece for the project, or even the last you’ll hear from me here. But possibly the last time for a long time that I personally generate and share a series of 49 animations and essays in weekly increments. I’m gearing up for something different. Which is part of why for this fifth year, I actually didn’t create all 49 pieces myself. Every seventh piece has been by a guest artist. This is the seventh of those seventh pieces, and the artist is Miju Han.
Each piece in a Rainbow Squared series explores a color pair. The colors are Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Purple, and Black White. The pieces go in order from 1. Red Red, 2. Red Orange, then all the way to 48. Black White Purple, 49. Black White Black White. I made this year’s pieces in an emergent order, determining the color pair each week by drawing from a deck of Rainbow Squared cards. This was true for my own pieces as well as the other six by guest artists.
But all the way back in April, Miju texted me asking: “Would you ever have a black and white post or is that not in the rainbow?” Well, black and white is certainly in this rainbow! So I saved the card for Miju, and it seemed only appropriate to share her take on 49. Black White Black White as Piece Forty-Nine.
Miju is my friend. Somewhere in the course of our friendship, she married my partner’s nephew and then I married my partner, and so Miju became my niece. Just as Miju is entwined in the genesis story of my partnership (a story for another time), she is also entwined in the genesis story of this very project.
My first series of 49 modular pieces was a work that I called “One Tiny Painting a Day, Seven Days a Week for Seven Weeks.” That piece has a title precisely because I was able to exhibit it at a group show put on by Miju at her live/work space during SF Fall Open Studios 2016. The show was called “Beautiful Untrue Things,” and in retrospect, Miju and I were both grappling with similar untrue things. We were both grappling with what we thought was the loss of an identity. I was clinging desperately to my identity as an artist, Miju was inadvertently thrust into hers.
Miju is a relentless experimenter, a data-driven explorer in every realm of her life from personal relationships to recreation to profession. She is a font of energy and strength, from powerlifting (competitively!) to now parenting a toddler. She also parents plants, raising the happiest succulents you’ve ever seen. Her life’s art may be black and white to my own rainbow, but no less colorful.
49. Black White Black White
By Miju Han
My deepest visual attraction is black and white and usually geometric. I don’t know why.
It’s in my clothing, it’s in my art practice, it’s in my house—my sheets, my teacups, my credenza, my wallpaper. I’ve chosen to put black and white tattoos all over my body.
Black and white is my most authentic creativity.
Younger versions of me didn’t think I was creative, and present day me mourns that lack of vision. In art class, I was not the best at drawing, therefore I thought I couldn’t be an artist. When I dropped AP French for Art I, I followed a hunch that I would love it, but I was nervous that I wouldn’t get an A. I did love it, and I did get an A, but I figured it was because I did the assignments. I was much better at math, athletics, and music, and I couldn’t draw well, so I wasn’t an artist.
It’s still hard for me to separate what I’m good at from what I enjoy doing.
An identity trap tripped me up again in my early career when I was a data scientist. I was a numbers person, and numbers people are logical—you go to them for a reality check on what is actually happening with the business.
I didn’t know yet that logic and creativity were not at opposite ends of the same spectrum. Or that actually, “Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty. A lot of people don’t get that.”
I didn’t embrace myself as a creative person until I hit my head on a pipe so hard that I had no choice but to sit with myself for a year. When my head struck, I saw flashes of black white, black white.
The next year was brutal. I was in pain every day. I was lonely. They say that recovery from a concussion is not linear, but I was making no progress. They say that not everyone makes progress. I thought that if I did not make progress, I would not choose to keep living.
I knew that was true and I couldn’t talk about it.
I didn’t want to burden others, I didn’t want to risk being hospitalized, I didn’t want to make the thoughts more real by giving them space…which you know, totally works.
I wasn’t close to actually harming myself, I wasn’t close to talking, and I couldn’t keep my pain inside.
Instead of talking, I drew a series of black and white self-portraits. This was me, hurting more than I have ever hurt:
Later, I found it quite comforting that 1 in 3 people with serious brain injuries have suicidal thoughts. I didn’t tell my therapist about mine until a year later, when I was wondering why I was so afraid of falling off our 22nd floor balcony. The realization hit me during the last minute of a session—a lightning bolt of life and death striking my consciousness.
Six months after I hit my head, it wasn’t clear what kind of work I would be able to do. My neuropsychological test results suggested my intelligence would not allow me to hold my previous tech job. So the idea of being an artist wasn’t just a dream; it was a practicality.
It’s hard to know how much of your identity comes from work, and the story about how you’re smart, until you lose it. I wasn’t ready to grieve my loss of identity because it was far too big. In the meantime, I started to refer to myself as an artist and do artist things.
At a portfolio review session attended by some local galleries, one quickly told me that the faces I drew were not really art. But some of my abstract watercolors were, and that I was a great artist if I continued to make these:
So I continued to make those. The pieces are me, but me through the lens of others.
My recovery took years. But eventually, I became one of the lucky ones who fully recovered.
Today, six years later, I’m a mom, I have a high stakes tech job, and I’m an extrovert who loves close relationships with friends and family and partners. I want to continue playing the role of myself in my life.
Tech is interesting and practical, and if I squint I can find a lot of meaning. I heard an artist on a podcast say that they did art because they literally couldn’t do anything else. I was envious because tech doesn’t scratch my creative itch like I crave.
I’m skeptical that I have the time to be creatively fulfilled during this phase of my life. Do I still get to call myself an artist if I haven’t made real art in years?
I made some fake art a few months ago. After watching scrapbooking ASMR content on TikTok, I ordered a bunch of washi tape, stickers, and a mini journal. I truly never intended for anyone to see this work:
Maybe I’m attracted to black and white because it’s so obviously a lie. Life is not black and white. Art is not “good” or “bad.” “Good” and “bad” are not black and white.
But art is the lie that makes us realize truth. My art was the only way I could speak when I desperately needed to express and understand my suffering. For that, I’m both indebted to it and in love with it. I miss it and its intimacy, like an old lover.
I don’t know what I can’t speak of today. The alchemy of the creative process is dormant in me, but it’s still there.