Q&A with Resident Suzanne Rhee

 
Suzanne Rhee.jpg

To whatever extent you’re comfortable, can you share about your project?

My project is a graphic narrative about my grandfather: a German-Jewish immigrant fighting as a U.S. soldier during World War II. The narrative is based on his war letters and supplemented with recorded interviews, newspaper articles, and anecdotes from family.

Unlike many German Jews during that time, Lothar was not a direct victim of Nazi violence. Instead, he served as an instrument of justice, first as an army interrogator and then as a handler of evidence in the Nuremberg Trials. This story is really diving into what it would have felt like to be him, the emotional heft of escaping a fate that many others did not—and then how it drove him to action.

Ultimately, it’s a story about the challenges of ethnic oppression and the immigrant experience and how Lothar overcame them. I look at it as one way of humanizing an issue that’s still a hot political topic today.

 

What do you find alluring about your medium? What capacities does it offer that complements your project?

Comics, because they are primarily images, are a very accessible form of storytelling. The visual aspect of a narrative can enrich characters and the space they inhabit in a way that words cannot. One of my favorite things about comics is the human face and the complex array of emotions it can portray. There is no replacement for seeing the weight of emotion in their eyes or their posture. It invites the audience to interpret and participate in the emotional work, not just receive it. Leaving the heaviest things unsaid is such a beautiful thing, and I think comics do that really well.

 

In what ways do you hope/expect 212 will help to develop your work?

I’ve jumped into comics on my own but haven’t had other people to guide me in this journey. Working in physical and professional isolation is hard, and I think 212 is a great way to remove those barriers.

What I think 212 will do for me and my work is provide structure, education, community, and an audience. Continual practice and production is essential for developing as a creator, and often I need outside accountability to get things done. More importantly, this arts incubator provides a community network with resources when I have questions that a search engine can't answer. Being so new to the world of visual storytelling, I need a little help navigating publishers and platforms. They will guide me and work with me to make sure this project actually gets seen by people outside of my family. Everything I learn from this project in terms of artistic and professional development, I’ll ultimately be able to take with me in future solo projects.

 

Part of the 212 program is that you are assigned a mentor who will help guide you as you develop your project. What excites you about working with a mentor? Do you have any anxieties about it? How do you imagine it will affect your process?

I look forward to working with someone who has that industry knowledge. My mentor, Ken, is actually an animator, but he has so much experience in visual arts that I have no doubt that this mentorship will be extremely beneficial. 2-D graphic narration is different from animation, but elements like character design, frame composition, and viewing angle can be related and translated between the two. Having a mentor will push me to develop as a professional and learn essential skills that wouldn’t even occur to me if I continued making art on my own.

 

In what ways do you think working in a shared space with the other residents/artists will affect your process?

This is part of what excites me so much about 212. I think simply creating in the same space is going to generate energy and excitement to make good art. I’m looking forward to the community of creators. Not everyone is going to be working in the same vein, but unexpected insights come from creators working in other media. When someone looks over your shoulder to offer compliments or advice, it helps you get outside of your own head—the project takes on a fresh angle. That's incredibly beneficial during the creative process.

 

My Dear Folks is based on the experiences of your grandfather – as both a family member and an artist, how is it interacting with his story? How do you approach the creative handling of such personal material?

It’s been challenging, but so rewarding. My grandfather passed away in 2005, so I can’t just call him up and ask him questions. My biggest fear is that I won’t represent him correctly. Everything I create has to come from his letters, from research, and from asking my family questions. I’m not a history buff, and doing the researching footwork can be difficult. I know that as much as I aim for accuracy, I’m going to get some things wrong. That's something I have to wrestle with.

However, it’s been beautiful because as I read through his war letters, I feel like I’ve become his friend in a way that I couldn’t be when I was his 10-year-old grandchild. I’m in my twenties now; going through 75-year-old-letters penned when he was about my age, it feels like we are experiencing some of the same things together. His personality really shines through in his writing: his humor, his inquisitiveness, his love of languages and the arts. I think if I can at least capture that, I’ll feel at peace with how I’ve represented his story and experiences with accuracy and truth. I hope that his story is as compelling to others as it has been to me.

I come from a multi-ethnic home, and every side of my family is very proud of their heritage. That can get confusing for my sense of self, as some of these cultural identities are incongruous. Diving into my Grandpa Rhee’s life and letters, I’ve really been able to take pride in the Jewish side of my identity and honor it. It’s made me feel more rooted in my family.