Sammy Koh’s landscape paintings are an invitation. Though photorealistic in detail—each frond of a palm tree drawn with a tiny brush—they present as open-ended offerings more than a precise, predetermined point of view. Like the way Sammy views her life, moments of beauty in nature are fleeting. But they can be evoked, regifted, to facilitate peace and healing.
“I wish that people who see my paintings sense the peace and quiet I feel in painting.” She doesn’t draw in human figures so that viewers can “put themselves in the place they want to be…to have a moment to think about their own life.” While pointing to a landscape of California Avenue in Palo Alto, where a street lamp shines its brilliant sphere of luminescence into an overarching tree, she says, “They can stand under the lights. I want them to have time to think.”
Attending school for graphic design in Korea, Sammy did not anticipate becoming a painter. She always held an art dream of her own and worked as an illustrator before immigrating to the US with her family. Once they arrived, her focus was on her son and daughter, who were three and five years old at the time.
Eleven years have since passed, and Sammy has created a community around her in Palo Alto. Just a year ago, she began teaching art classes in her home, focusing on still life and portraiture. Many of her students are also immigrants, mothers of grown children rediscovering the joy of making art for themselves. As they draw and paint, they chat and listen to music. Their finished pieces, many of which feature their children, pets, and plants, can still be found on Sammy’s Instagram.
“I wish that people who see my paintings sense the peace and quiet I feel in painting.” -Sammy Koh
When she transitioned the art class to landscape (painting), the rush of positive feedback stoked her own appreciation for her artwork. In March, as the pandemic canceled her classes, she started to paint more landscapes. As she took more scenic drives and walked around her Palo Alto neighborhood, the ephemeral spirit of sunsets and sunrises stuck with her. “I never miss this moment on a trip,” she smiles. “They are beautiful, but disappear quickly.”
Sammy’s process centers around these precious moments. She prints her photos out, puts them on a wall, and gazes at each to recall the emotion they carried. Much of her time is spent editing images to create a magical effect—a lone bench at Capitola Beach might rise to new heights to overlook a sunrise; a garage door might carry an ocean; and windows, in many of Sammy’s paintings, reflect the warmth of her favorite natural phenomenon.
Within these pieces of art, suburban environments react with romance: street pavements glow in pinkish hues; mailboxes and fire hydrants pop from the sidewalk like ornaments; doorways are always open, revealing worlds of imagination, the sweetness of hindsight. Yet any natural entity—be it tree, bush, or crawling ivy—is portrayed in painstaking hyperrealism. “It can take five hours to draw one tree,” Sammy explains. The contrast should be jarring, but the result is serene.
Yet if the dreamlike elements in these otherwise photorealistic illustrations hint at the shivery, spell-cast atmosphere of the half-light before dawn, perhaps the viewer has caught a rare vibe from the creation process. Sammy’s painting occurs between 2 and 6am. In the quiet, as her family sleeps, she paints. Sometimes, at the break of dawn, she goes out to take pictures. But she returns home soon after, because the “kids and husband ask for food.” After breakfast, she naps before heading to her computer for Photoshop work. Evenings are for family time, walks before dinner, and a second nap before midnight, when she wakes up for more nocturnal art-making.
Sometimes, though, her children join in. On occasions when her daughter accompanies her on photo shoots, Sammy likes to use the photos taken by her daughter. “Whenever I remember the scene, it warms my heart because of her.” And those feelings, in turn, enhance the painting. Other photos are selected by her son. “He kindly explains to me why he picked them,” she shares proudly.
In addition to teaching others to paint, Sammy invests in the community that supported her journey as an immigrant woman. Simple Steps, a 510(c)3 organization founded in 2017 by a Korean immigrant, empowers immigrant mothers to stay in the workplace and further their careers against the odds of limited support networks, language, and cultural barriers. In June, Sammy led a workshop on Instagram marketing for her fellow Simple Steps artists. Sped-up process videos, she shares, are popular right now. Though editing these videos takes time, she aspires to continue posting them for her followers.
Finally living her own dream, she recognizes the different dreams of her children and cherishes their enthusiasm for hers. “I think about when I am an 80-year-old grandma,” she laughs. “I would be happy painting. So, this is my dream.” And if there was ever a proud moment in her life, “I think it’s now.”
Originally appeared in issue 13.2 “Sight and Sound” (SOLD OUT)