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Meet Valley Artist: Peter Ko

Today we’d like to introduce you to Peter Ko.

Peter, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I started drawing when I was 5 after seeing my dad -a fine art painter- sketch a landscape in front of me in a matter of seconds. It was witnessing a miracle and the pencil was the magic wand. Less than a year later he passed away. Drawing then became daily therapy and a way of exercising a metaphysical connection to him.

I studied character animation in the Film/Video program at Cal Arts, learning the Disney style visual narrative for which they were famous at the time. The grueling program prepared me for a career in the big studios, but after 4 years & 4 bad films, I felt empty having sidelined my original passion for pure drawing and painting. The following year I decided to return to Cal Arts for the graduate program in Experimental Animation. In actuality, I needed the leeway and time to do a film entirely for myself with everything I had learned and wanted to try in drawing and motion. That short film went to Sundance and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Those successes led me to freelance directing animated commercials for a while until the frustration of not doing my own thing once again became too much.

I took non-creative, part-time jobs to earn my own time to do the work I wanted and was happy doing it. That has been worthwhile because since then I’ve had 3 solo gallery shows, a handful of group shows, and off-the-wall freelance illustration gigs. And I’m back to that most powerful, creative place of innocence that kicked it off -that place of magic and childlike imaginative wonder that made me pick up a pencil in the first place … pure love of pure drawing and painting.

Has it been a smooth road?
My biggest struggle has been finding and developing my own unique artistic voice through the noise of market trends. My biggest personal challenge was learning to completely ignore the current and go for what was truly me and trust that whatever is me is going to work and be timeless.

On a practical level. with day jobs I had x-amount of hours left in the week to do my own projects, so the discipline of time management became ‘the’ first skill to master. And since time is precious, I’m constantly measuring how much I’m in love with an idea, piece, or project. If it’s ‘meh’ or even ‘okay’ then both aren’t worth my time. I won’t do it; life’s too short. It’s gotta hold me down and demand I do it. So learning to say no used to be a challenge for me as well as knowing what to say yes to and why.

The last one I’ll mention is the funnest and one I’m glad to know I’ll never be short on. It’s the challenge of improving the craft and form of drawing and painting as problem-solving. Necessity is the mother of invention, and a big part of my approach to working is I need rules and restrictions in order to find creative ways to bend or break them. That’s my discipline, thriving on the problems which force me to think outside the box. So looking back I wouldn’t change a single obstacle -even the ones that seemed insurmountable, and my attitude now is to seek out creative problems that interest me and I think I can bring something different to that we haven’t seen yet.

When you look back, what are you most proud of?
Hanging my most recent solo show ‘Schools of Thought’ was a hell of a moment for me. My goals for the show were to develop and contribute a unique, honest, intuitive body of work on a scale larger than what I was used to. A full-time job and freelancing left me w/ 3 months to physically complete 10 large paintings; so I busted ass evenings and weekends to finish. It was a marathon challenge on a practical level and also a labor of love. So that first moment of seeing the pieces in the gallery working as a whole was like crossing a finish line I’d held my mind’s eye since the initial offer of the show, which was about a year before. So I was proud it worked on all the levels I wanted it to.

In addition, the show’s reception turned out some of my father’s colleagues, fellow painters who knew my dad’s work and who I hadn’t seen in 30+ years came and approved of my work. And most importantly in attendance were family members of a man who became my surrogate father figure, someone who helped shape me into the artist I am. I will elaborate on this in the following question. But to share and celebrate a body of work pertinent to people from my past I care about was big.

Were there moments when you had to struggle?
In 2006 I saved up for time off to write and illustrate a children’s book called the Anchovy Fishing Crew. I completed it after 2 slavish years and shopped it to publishers who weren’t interested, saying it was too unusual and didn’t have a target market age group. Also, in that time leading up to and after the 2008 bubble, publishers were not taking risks, editors were being laid off, and major book chains were closing down for good. So with every card stacked against me, I shelved the entire project. Then 4 years later the illustrations were shown at my first solo exhibit in 2012 and sold well. Looking back I see I was a stubborn, novice writer. I had a clunky story but the illustrations were engaging and worked on a level beyond my lousy story. The whole experience was a lesson about where my strongest suits lie. I learned it’s not about what I or anyone thinks I ‘should’ do in life, but rather what I was ‘created’ and ‘meant’ for.

Another more recent and heavier experience was while painting the ‘Schools of Thought’ show. Halfway through the series, I learned a person who’d played a key role as my surrogate father figure had passed. When I was a kid he and his family took me in afternoons and weekends, while my single-parent mother worked to keep us fed and housed. He had a boat & took me on the first of countless fishing trips off the California coast and Baja to fish and snorkel. Every trip was epic and every fish caught was a revelation to my visual language -their shapes, colors, textures, habitat, and so on, galvanizing my aesthetic sensibilities. He noted & encouraged my interest & fish became my creative totem. The ‘Schools’ show was the first mature, distilled culmination of that sensibility. I mention all this to punctuate the gravity of his loss. I imagined he’d see the finished show, the fruits of seeds planted decades before. And with facing a show deadline and needing 5 more paintings in 5 weeks, I wanted to give up and quit. Runners have that ‘wall’ they dread hitting & this was mine. The experience tried my emotions: excessive metaphysical soul-searching, painting through tear-filled eyes, insane stuff like that. If painting under a deadline wasn’t tough enough, I now had an opponent. My struggle was to create in the face death and loss, to not let death break my spirit. Either do it or don’t. I don’t yet have the words to fully describe it other than spiritually profound. I named the 5th piece “Requiem for Rob” in his honor.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
I don’t live in central LA. I purposely placed myself in an outskirt suburb just banal enough to force my creativity and quiet enough w/o distractions to allow me to focus on the art. But the freak show is just a half-hour drive whenever I need a dose. Ultimately, home is where my heart is and for me LA doesn’t just work, I identify w/ it. I’m inspired by our unusual potluck brew of cultures. Being Korean & Japanese I spent a lot of time in Koreatown and Little Tokyo. LA is my backyard and it’s the culture I know best. I grew up hiking, fishing, skating, surfing, and snowboarding our streets, beaches, & mountains. The weather and light are perfect for visual artists. We’re relatively newer in the global art market but we’re for sure on the rise in DTLA w/ places like Hauser, Wirth, & Schimmel and the Broad appearing, and I’m still scratching the surface in exploring our numerous pockets of art galleries and communities across the city. So as long as you have a reliable car & do your due diligence as to which neighborhoods would suit you best, I’d definitely recommend people to come start out in LA. Hit me up and we’ll grab fish tacos!

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