Life works kind of funny sometimes. Joseph Lee came to LA a handful of years ago to pursue his dreams to professionally act. After meeting a handful of quirky creatives in DTLA while juggling auditions, Joseph landed a gig that would take him on set in Korea. To pass time while camped out in his foreign hotel rooms? Joseph began to create on canvas. Joseph's work speaks for itself. It evokes emotion. It tells a story. It is lively. It is recognizable. Joseph was an absolute treat to speak with. His modesty about his talent paired with his passion for pursuing his creative endeavours make him uniquely charming. Simply fantastic is one way to describe his work. Read our interview with him below to discover more.
Portrait of Joseph Lee by Sarah Ryu

Portrait of Joseph Lee by Sarah Ryu


SS // Please introduce yourself to our readers.

My name is Joseph Lee, and I am an actor and fine artist based in Los Angeles.

When’d ya move here?

I moved to Los Angeles 8 years ago from a small town in Indiana.

What about a city inspires people? How important is your immediate setting on the in order to succeed?

Growing up, I had only seen and heard about Los Angeles through media.  It felt more like Disneyland than a real place to me. I had originally moved here to pursue an acting career, and naturally started engaging with a lot of the surrounding artwork and the artist community.  I was immediately drawn to the diversity of cultures and personalities.  For the first time in my life, I was in the same ‘club’ of creative misfits and dreamers. It is much like Disneyland, in the sense that the line between fantasy and reality is very thin here. For me, that type of environment breeds delusion, madness, and vulnerability.  I try and visualize all of these traits into my work.


What was the first gig you thought you’d come out here for?

I didn’t come here with anything lined up.  I was completely green.  The first thing I did was walk to a nearby coffee shop and google what an ‘agent’ does?

How did acting turn into painting? Or did it?

The instability in an actor’s life led me to painting.  In between jobs, I needed to stay creative. After a failed audition, I needed some sort of creative outlet to put a lot of my anxieties and frustrations into. After working on a long project, I needed to protect my energy and be selfish with my time.  I don’t have any formal artistic training and coming from a theater background, human behavior and emotions were the closest references I had to paint.


"Being Korean-American, I have the best of both worlds in my DNA. I am a dreamer with an immigrant’s work mentality. I am optimistic in my outlook on life, as well as being brutally harsh on myself."


Have you always have a thing for creating abstract acrylic portraits?

I started with acrylic because they were affordable. Now that I paint primarily with oils, I find myself constantly agonizing over the drying time.

When did you land on the style you currently rock?

At some point last year, I found myself getting creatively stagnant with my work.  Coincidentally, it was during this time that I was cast in a Korean television miniseries to go film in Seoul for 3 months.  While this was an incredible acting opportunity, I was also thrilled to get away from my studio and put my energy into other things.  It wasn’t long before that I found myself painting in my hotel room. Korea was another place where I was intensely inspired to create. All of my senses were infused by the surrounding architecture, fashion, customs, and overall local aesthetics. Being Korean-American, I wanted to completely immerse myself into the culture and learn the ways of my own bloodline and lineage. Through this experience, I gained a lot of understanding about just how ambiguous my own personal and cultural identity is between these two different cultures. Hence, my work began to take a more abstract, ambiguous direction.


Describe your process.

My process always begins with an hour at the gym followed by a cup of coffee. I don’t take too many breaks while working, so I always try to start my day by being physically loose.  My creative process is a bit of a blur.  Painting is a time where I mentally shut off. I am not conscious of what I am doing much of this time. Obviously, there are times that call to be analytical and business-minded, but the actual process is to be fully engaged with my piece without interruptions. There are times when I’m just throwing paint around mindlessly, and other times where I find myself staring at a blank canvas for hours. In my studio, every day is a different day. That keeps me excited.

What was your first event like?

My first-time exhibiting was at a local poetry reading in Silverlake. It was a bit unnerving at first, but it gave me all the confidence I needed to continue to show work and gain feedback.

What can you compare being an artist to for those who are interested in what it’s like?

The closest thing I can think of is stand-up comedy.  There is an immediacy in feedback where I can sense whether or not my work connects with the viewer.  I hear stories of comics, where they spend a lot of their time torturing themselves over a specific bit or a finishing tag. In the same way, I am constantly beating myself up over a single stroke or color choice. At the end of the day, it is just you up there exposing yourself to an audience.

How do you grow your style?

I feel very fortunate to be an artist during the age of social media. It has democratized the art world, and brought what was once so esoteric, into the hands of anybody with a phone.  You’re able to absorb all different types of genres and artistic mediums. The difficulty comes when you have to filter through all of this to create of your own voice. An artist is only as good as his or her point-of-view. There wasn’t a structured plan in how to grow my own style. From the beginning, I tried to be a sponge and absorb as much as I could. I visited galleries, had discussions with other artists, and researched my favorite painters.  As important as it is to do your homework, the real cultivation comes from creating work.  When you’re putting in that many hours into anything, you can’t help but to evolve and grow.


What role do the colors in your work play?

Colors are the jumping off point in my work. I look a lot into fashion trends. The fashion world tends to dictate a lot of the color trends that become popular seasons ahead.  I find there to be a connection in the color choices people choose to wear and what they choose to aesthetically surround themselves with.

How do you strive to be better, creatively and personally?

Being Korean-American, I have the best of both worlds in my DNA.  I am a dreamer with an immigrant’s work mentality.  I am optimistic in my outlook on life, as well as being brutally harsh on myself.  Everything starts with gratitude. Though I constantly struggle with this, it has been life changing for me personally and professionally.  Art doesn’t need me. I need art. It is a privilege to be able to do what you want to do and build a livelihood from it. Knowing this, I don’t take my work for granted and always continue to be a better human being and artist.

Do you find it difficult to balance work and play? What are your thoughts on balancing the two, especially when the work side is something so enjoyable and creative?

When I first started painting, it wasn’t difficult for me at all because all I did was work.  Painting was an obsession and I treated it with as much attention and focus as any other demanding profession. As I grow older, largely thanks to my lady, I’m recognizing the importance of balancing that obsession with the reality of being present.  It’s too easy for me to lock myself away and paint for hours.  It’s too easy for me to be some asshole lost in my own thoughts.  All of my creative heroes were terrible fathers and husbands.  I’m not trying to live my life by some romantic construct of what an artist should be.  The difficult and respectable thing to do is to balance all of your creative energies with real life and hopefully add a few more years to your health.


Any tips for a creative who wants to become victorious in the art space? (Or any space, for that matter.)

Victorious is subjective.  Some artists want to be the next big thing while others just want to be able to pay their rent.  For me, the importance of any artist is always placed on their work.  Their authenticity and point-of-view. Finding that is key before anything else. Frankly, we’re all derivatives of someone or something, but the artists I respect most are the ones who are consistently trying to carve their own perspective.

Where can we find your work?

You can find my work at & on Instagram @JOEYUNLEE

Any big gigs coming up?

I will be exhibiting with ABV Gallery in Atlanta next month. I will also be exhibiting and teaching my first workshop in Moscow in September for Art Life Moscow.






Joseph Lee

Life works kind of funny sometimes. Joseph Lee came to LA a handful of years ago to pursue his dream to professionally act. After meeting a handful of quirky creatives in DTLA and juggling auditions, he landed a gig that would take him on a set in Korea. To pass time while camped out in his foreign hotel room? Joseph began to draw on canvas.

His work speaks for itself. It evokes emotion. It tells a story. It is lively. It is recognizable. Joseph was an absolute treat to speak with. His modesty and passion for pursuing his creative endeavours is uniquely charming. Simply fantastic is one way to view his work. Read our interview with him to discover more.

— Gaelan Simpson, Managing Editor SSR



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