hiejin yoo discovered tea, 1919, by henri matisse
On her first visit to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Hiejin Yoo discovered “Tea” (1919), by Henri Matisse. The encounter proved inspirational and aspirational.
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; COURTESY OF LACMA

When I moved to Los Angeles from Chicago to attend graduate school in 2015, I was so excited to live in a new city without winter. The first thing I wanted to do was to visit all the city’s museums before school started. I went to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see its collection, and I ran into this amazing painting called Tea, by Henri Matisse.

Matisse has been one of the greatest influences on my painting. His work is known for its color, abstraction, and reminiscences of his personal experiences. Matisse’s paintings contain countless everyday elements that he returns to repeatedly to find something new in each encounter. Those objects create an intimacy and interact with a space that he fills with a variety of patterns and, often, the white of exposed canvas. I similarly observe objects to find their representational imagery, extract an abstraction from it, and then create an imagined space, personalized to convey its unique qualities that I perceive.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.

While I was looking at this painting, I was smiling, telling myself, “This is the life I want to live,” and picturing myself inviting friends over to a house that has a backyard, having teatime with them, talking about how life is going, with my dog, Chester, just chilling next to us—actually not right next to us but a little bit of distance away. He is that kind of a dog. I thought, Maybe I will have some lemon trees as well, so we can make some tea with lemon or a pitcher of lemonade to lighten up our afternoon.

The most interesting parts of this painting are how the woman on the right sits and the dog. One of the woman’s shoes is almost falling off as it dangles from the tip of her toes. That tells me how much she is enjoying her teatime with her companion. The dog is also comfortable and having a good time. The pet scratches its neck with one of its hind legs, something dogs do when they are relaxed and ready to take a nap.

I often return to LACMA, and I always visit Tea first to make myself smile before I head off to see other works. It’s become my routine.•

Hiejin Yoo was born in 1987 in Münster, Germany, and lives in Los Angeles.