Nestled between East William and South Second Street in San Jose, you’ll find Gallery Suha Suha. Located in the downtown SoFA District, Gallery Suha Suha provides a unique and fresh space for local artists to display their work. Founded by Haelee Choi and Sung Jae Bang, gallery doors opened in December 2017, but the journey really began in 2007. When walking through the gallery, you find art neatly displayed across the white studio walls. If you continue through to the back, you’ll enter the Suha Suha gift shop. In it, you’ll find bags, pins, artwork, and above all else, colorful tiles and clay knickknacks.
After completing their respective art programs, Haelee at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and Sung at the Art Institute of Chicago, the two met in the Bay Area while working as art teachers. The concept of Suha Suha was born when the two artists began experimenting with making decorative tiles, ultimately bringing them to different farmers’ markets all over the Bay Area. “When we first started making the tiles, we tried a lot of strange things, but really it was a lot of narrowing down, narrowing down, narrowing down,” Sung reflects. It was trial and error as Haelee and Sung searched for their signature, eventually ending up with something that was accessible though different from their own personal work. In Haelee’s own words, it was the necessary realization that “making an art piece and making a product are very different things.”
For 10 years, Haelee and Sung continued to regularly display their work at Bay Area farmers’ markets. With different artistic backgrounds, Sung’s being painting and Haelee’s being character illustration and animation, two different tile styles were born. While Haelee’s tile designs focus more on characters and animals, Sung’s tiles feature objects, one of which is a coaster that looks like an egg. Not an easy task, making the tiles is time consuming and involves drying the clay flat, which takes around two weeks. “The first market we went to was Willow Glen. We sold one tile that day,” Haelee says, laughing. “Now, over the last 10 years, we have probably sold over 5,000 tiles. It’s scary to think about that sometimes.”
Moving from farmers’ market to farmers’ market, Haelee and Sung’s work began to be noticed, and soon, their tiles were being discovered, recognized, and collected. “We met a lot of wonderful people and have a lot of funny stories from that time,” Haelee reminisces. “There was one time, when we had recently moved into a new home. Our new neighbor invited us in, and so we went inside, and there were our tiles! She was showing them to us, and of course, they looked familiar. She just didn’t know we were making them next door.”
While they previously struggled between creation and practical living, the gallery space provides Haelee and Sung with the motivation to create.
With the money made through sales, as well as flourishing jobs as art teachers at their private school, Studio Suha Suha, located in both Sunnyvale and Cupertino, the two were able to open Gallery Suha Suha in 2017. Their very first show was an apt celebration of their signature tiles, and since then, the space has housed other artists’ work, as well as some of Haelee and Sung’s own personal work. While they previously struggled between creation and practical living, the gallery space provides Haelee and Sung with the motivation to create and show their own work despite their busy teaching schedules.
Each Suha Suha show stays up for approximately two months, with their next show, featuring Sung’s work, opening in April. A part of the San Jose Art Walk, Gallery Suha Suha participates in First Fridays, displaying work and offering their signature Suha Suha work, which now includes bags, magnets, tiles, and other small objects. “We see a lot of local San Jose people in the gallery,” Sung says. Haelee adds, “they really love and appreciate art, and we want to offer them this space.”
This article originally appeared in Issue 11.2 “Device”