What’s In a Name?

by Kim Gill • photography by Two Eagles Marcus 

For Abigail Yoo, names have the power to boldly define who we are.

It’s been a long journey for Yoo, formerly Abigail Bradley, a Korean adoptee, to discover her true identity. Navigating a path of self-discovery, she has relied on her creativity to accelerate through life’s challenges to become the ever-evolving mixed-media artist that she is today.

Yoo arrived in the United States at the tender age of three. She credits her adoptive mother for introducing her to the world of art-making, as well as an art teacher in elementary school who identified Yoo’s talent and placed a drawing of hers in a special art exhibition.

“She and my mother both made such a big deal out of my drawing, but even at the age of seven my perfection tendencies were emerging.” Yoo said. “I just didn’t feel it was all that good. Thankfully, many times in my life others believed in me more than I believed in myself; it’s been helpful to receive such encouragement along the way.”

Yoo left home after high school and began working full time to support herself. A few years down the road, she enrolled at GRCC. Having started a retail business with her husband, she took a number of business classes. Her passion for art eventually motivated her to take courses in art history and technique.


“I’d always been so passionate about making my art, but had been unsure if I could make it into a viable business.” 


“Because of the structure and formalized training I received from my early art classes at GRCC, my confidence began to grow as an artist,” Yoo explained.

Yoo worked closely with her husband for several years and began to notice that her world had grown quite small due to the intense workload of their business. With her husband’s encouragement, she decided to pursue her dream of obtaining a BFA from Kendall College of Art and Design. After finishing her degree, she began working at GE Aviation.

“I learned how to navigate in the bigger world,” Yoo shared, “Everyone I observed at work treated each other with such respect even though they didn’t always agree on things. That really spoke to me.”

Over time, Yoo made the tough decision to leave her marriage.

“It was painful and scary because we had been together for a total of 13 years. It takes a lot of courage to end a marriage, even in this day and age,” she reflected.

In 2008 Yoo’s employer downsized, which inspired her to make another bold decision: to seriously pursue her art career.

“I’d always been so passionate about making my art, but had been unsure if I could make it into a viable business.”

She soon conquered the fear of “falling on her face” in a rather unusual way; Yoo was challenged not only to learn how to ski, but to competitively race by a colleague who was also a ski instructor.

Yoo explained, “When I first went out, I said to myself, ‘I am going to fall a bunch of times, but my goal will be to fall less and less each time.’ Eventually, I got better and better and accomplished the race. Learning how to ski and race in a few short weeks gave me the confidence to jump into my art career; I acknowledged that I was going to make mistakes and fall down, but I was going to make it.”

Yoo began networking and soon found Floriza Genautis as a great mentor and a friend. Genautis, along with Connie Sweet, founded Women in Successful Enterprises (WISE).

“The organization offers wonderful support to women entrepreneurs and professionals,” Yoo expressed. “It has been a valuable community resource for me to grow as a professional artist and connect with other inspiring women in business.

Yoo explains that her artwork takes on two directions.

“One direction is my more general work: my abstract, ethereal style paintings with its multi-layered textures I often combine with photographic imagery. The other is a more personal one: The pursuit of my ever-evolving identity as a Korean American adoptee. At Kendall I was taught how to integrate stronger concepts in my work and how to really say something with my art-making.”

 


“Learning how to ski in a few should weeks gave me the confidence to jump into my art career; I acknowledged that I was going to make mistakes and fall down, but I was going to make it.” 


In 2011, Yoo created “A Flower with No Name”, a six-foot charcoal drawing on stucco-like material.

“It was created to bring awareness that most adoptees, like myself, don’t know our history and that we really have a need to come to terms with our identities despite not knowing the details of our backgrounds and for some, our names,” Yoo said. “There are so many complex issues and challenges adoptees face.”

 

In 2014, Yoo traveled to Korea with Me and Korea, an organization that helps Korean adoptees learn about their heritage. With the assistance of her host family, Yoo discovered something quite profound: her actual birth name. They introduced her to the former director of the orphanage where Yoo spent a year of her young life. The director clearly remembered her and shared that Yoo had been found in the city by a police officer. At only 18 months, this little girl, with incredible certainty, knew her name. After she was asked several times, she insisted that her name was, Yoo Meena: Yoo, her surname, and Meena, her first name, which was not a popular one at the time. Meena, artistic in nature, means “Beautiful me.” Yoo was no longer a “flower with no name”. Although she wasn’t able to locate any family, just knowing her birth name gave her peace.

ArtPrize 2016 presented Yoo with the opportunity to create a time-based piece to celebrate this profound discovery. She painted a self-portrait onto an exhibit wall, and beside it lay a large, lighted panel completely covered in origami cherry blossoms. Over 1000 hand painted paper flowers were gradually moved over several days onto the wall and over the self-portrait.

By October 1st, the portrait was completely covered with blossoms and the lighted panel publicly announced her return to her birth name; she had changed it from her married surname, Bradley, to her original surname, Yoo.

“This entry symbolized the complex journey of coming to terms with losing my birth family in April 1977 and reclaiming my identity as a Korean American adoptee,” Yoo shared.

Always proud to embrace her American first name, Abigail (it means “Source of joy”), she has now come full circle to embrace her Korean heritage.

Yoo is a driving force in the local art scene. She has participated in UICA Live Coverage, the Creston Neighborhood Art Battle, and many others. She is a four-time ArtPrize participant and was the 2013 Festival of the Arts Poster Artist. Her other accomplishments include an Artist in Residency at the Forest Hills Fine Arts Center, published art on a book cover by Rutgers University Press and artwork purchased by NBC Universal for use on set for the television series Chicago Fire. Her artwork is in several private residential and commercial collections throughout the Midwest.

Original artwork is available for sale at Richard App Gallery on Cherry Street in Grand Rapids or online at her website: abigailyoo.com.


Kimberly Grace Gill is an independent fine artist specializing in portrait painting typically with a social justice orientation. She is a graduate of Aquinas College and lives in Byron Center with her husband, Pat.


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