Artist’s hobby turns into a career

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Artist’s hobby turns into a career

Lee Jong-wan’s passion is evident just by glancing around his workroom. Adorning the space are intricate, handmade figures - life-size replicas of characters from movies, cartoons and games.

Before becoming a full-time figure artist, Lee created characters to relieve stress or boredom.

“I am lucky to have a job that I enjoy, something that used to be my hobby,” he said.

Lee currently works as the manager of the Korean team at Sideshow Collectibles, a major American manufacturer of collectible figures and statues. But where he is today is largely the result of an eight-year infatuation.

He first encountered life-size replicas in 2006 while surfing the Internet, where he stumbled upon a figure of Dana Scully, the female protagonist in the American sci-fi series “The X-Files.”

“I thought it was a photo of a real person,” he recalled. “That triggered my interest and made me think ‘I want to make something like that.’”

So Lee set to work. Delicacy is the key to making such real-looking figures, he thought; and to improve his capabilities, he practiced for hours, filling in dozens of A4-size papers with 1.5-millimeter dots - equivalent to about half a sesame seed - an artistic technique known as stippling.

At the time, he was working as a staff member at a college in Daejeon while preparing to become an English teacher, attending English academies in the morning and graduate school in the evenings.

At dawn, he made his figures. Those days were “tiring but happy,” Lee recalled.

He needed natural light to make his figures, and even five fluorescent lights weren’t sufficient enough to illuminate the areas on which a delicate hand was required.

“I used to run to my house during lunchtime and worked on those parts under the sun,” Lee said. And when it was time to place the hair and eyelashes on his replicas, he planted each strand one by one.

But in the end, it was his blog that introduced his work to the world. The reaction was strong; and because his figures were so life-like, many visitors to his site wondered whether the statues were actually composite photographs.

But for Lee, the creation process is not simply about technique, or even keeping busy, but about understanding the fictional characters he builds.

“I analyze the character before I start making the figure,” he said. “When it comes to villains, small pupils make the characters look more wicked.”

In 2007, Lee received an email from DC Comics, the American comic book publisher, offering him a position recreating its characters. This made his schedule tighter, and he worked for five years sleeping no more than three hours at a time, he said.

Just five years later, Sideshow Collectibles contacted him with a counteroffer, requesting he come work for them.

“I was so excited that I couldn’t get a wink of sleep. The company is like Apple or Samsung if it is likened to the cell phone industry.”

Sideshow gave Lee basic projects at the beginning, but he appealed for bigger tasks and the company eventually said that it would “consider it.”

Lee quit his job in Daejeon and flew to Los Angeles, where Sideshow’s headquarters are located, with money he had loaned from the bank. There, he met the company’s high-ranking officials and received a definitive answer to his requests: He was promoted to project manager and now oversees a team of five Koreans.

But before taking the position, Lee admitted he agonized over whether he could actually make a living out of something he loved. “I asked myself if I could be good at what I enjoyed doing,” Lee said. “And the answer was yes. I trusted my talent.”


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