The Artful Life Questionnaire: Reverend Irene Pak Lee (San Jose, CA)

By Paulette Beete
Irene Pak Lee, who is a Korean American woman. She wears a denim jacket and smiles quietly at the camera

Reverend Irene Pak Lee. Photo courtesy of Rev. Pak Lee.

What we know for sure: We all have a story, and engaging with the arts helps all of us to tell our own stories on our own terms. We also know that there are ways to engage with the arts other than in formal cultural venues, and that sometimes it is more about the process of art making than it is about the end product. We also know that living an artful life, which is to say, living a life in which the arts and arts engagement are a priority means different things to different people based on their own interests, their communities, and many other factors, including equitable access. The Artful Life Questionnaire celebrates the diversity of ways we can make the arts a part of our lives, and, hopefully, inspires and encourages us to live our own unique versions of an artful life. In today’s edition of the questionnaire, we’re speaking with Reverend Irene Pak Lee, an ordained Presbyterian minister who lives in California's Bay Area.

NEA: Please introduce yourself.

IRENE PAK LEE: My name is Reverend Irene Pak Lee, and I've been an ordained Presbyterian minister for the past 15 years in various churches in the Bay Area of California. I currently reside in San Jose, California.

NEA: Do you have a current art practice or a way of regularly engaging with the arts?

PAK LEE: I have several ways in which I engage with the arts: through audio, visual, and movement. First, is music. I am a musician (cello, piano, guitar), and I love singing or playing instruments as a way to connect spirituality with music. A few years ago, I also started engaging with photography—seeking to see the holy in the ordinary—and began a social media account surrounding those themes and images. The third way I regularly engage with the arts is through dance. I have found movement and expression through dance to be a fun, energizing, and a creative way for me to embody art and movement.

NEA: What are five words that come to mind when you think about the idea of living an artful life?

PAK LEE: Play, unafraid, experiment, try, courage

NEA: Pick just one of those words and expand on how you see it as part of living an artful life.

PAK LEE: The word "play" doesn't seem like it would be an obvious word to connect with living an artful life. However, through those outlets I've named for myself personally, I can see that they're all connected to play. Enjoying the different art forms in a way where I'm not self-conscious is what makes it all come alive for me. As children, we are so good at play and experimenting and trying new things without fear, and I think art flows from that childhood sensibility of playfulness and creativity.

NEA: Where do you currently live, and what are some of the ways that your community tells its story through the arts or through creative expression?

PAK LEE: I live in San Jose, California, also known as Silicon Valley. Although the stereotype is big tech companies and digitized living, there is an amazing diversity of creativity through all the different art forms and creative expression that comes to play here. Brainstorming new apps and startup companies come from creative expression and thought, and I think the advantage here is that it truly does feel like global living condensed into a city. That also means the live music scene, art shows, ballet, and theater, are all lively here and accessible for everyone. 

NEA: How do you think that living an artful life can improve the well-being of your community?

PAK LEE: I think we all desire a freedom from any kind of daily grind that can consume us—especially here in the Bay Area. Because the arts on every level are so accessible ranging from Broadway shows to free concerts in the park to art walks, if we take advantage of those opportunities, continued innovation and creativity can be sparked. Being a pastor in the midst of a community like this and helping people touch into the artist within each one of us, I believe can give us respite in the hurried pace of this area and connect us with meaning beyond the daily grind.

NEA: Is there a particular place in your neighborhood that is a creative touchstone for you?

PAK LEE: This might sound strange, but the Rotary PlayGarden in San Jose is the first all-inclusive play space that was developed for children and families. It is a beautiful space alongside the Guadalupe Gardens and features play structures that are designed for all abilities. My children love it there and seeing the accessibility it provides for all children demonstrates an intentional created space that welcomes all...and it's fun!

NEA: What’s your favorite informal way or space to engage with arts and culture?

PAK LEE: Honestly, being home with my young children, playing music and painting with water color, whether we are painting boxes or rocks or paper, is my favorite informal way to engage with art. It seems so simple, but it is a space and time where we can simply be together and enjoy creating together.

NEA: Can you share an arts experience or moment of arts engagement that has had an identifiable impact on your life?

PAK LEE: I had the privilege of playing cello with a symphony at the Closing Ceremonies of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was an incredible experience to be on this worldwide scene and celebrating humanity at its best together at the end of the Olympic games. Coming together and sharing our musical gifts as an orchestra but also with musicians from all over the country and the world was something I'll never forget.