A Conversation with Dr. Ku-Mie Kim

By Joyce Westner


If your professional attention to minute details is a life and death proposition, how do you relax in your off-time? Obstetric anesthesiologist Dr. Ku-Mie Kim paints plants’ minute details. “I had to juggle my schedule.”

How did you get into botanical art?

I had a life-long interest in art but no formal art education, except some Asian brush painting in Korea. I moved to the States in 1985 and when my son was in elementary school his teacher told me he did a good job in his Under the Sea art piece. I was so proud I enrolled him in Korean art lessons and one day after I dropped him off I wondered why I didn’t stay and learn something too. His teacher was very willing and I began to learn–first drawing, then colored pencils and eventually pastel which I used for seven years. I had a big fear of watercolor.

A friend told me about Morton Arboretum classes and in 2002 I registered for the botanical art program–I never knew such art existed. When I met my teacher, my heart was jumping, I was so excited to learn! By scheduling classes around my hospital work, I earned my certificate in 2006.

Are you an artist or a plant person at heart?

Half and half, actually. I do have a garden although watering is my husband’s job. I just buy the plants and watch them grow. My mom, who passed away two years ago, had a green thumb and always had a magnifying glass in her hand. When I was a child she’d say “Ku-Mie, look at this,” and I’d say, “Mom, don’t bother me!” But more and more I feel awesome wonder when I look at the incredible flawless and exquisite design of my plants. It leads me to think about how skilled the Creator is, and I want to share that joy and wonder with others.

Where do you get your subjects?

From my garden and from my 3-foot long Earthboxes. My kids complain, “Mom, can we have food in the fridge?” – instead of plant specimens. When ASBA’s Green Currency call for entry came out in 2010, I decided to paint a cotton plant. I ordered seeds online in winter but the instructions said night temperature should be ~65 F and day time ~ 85 F. I watched the temperature every night, and finally it reached the mid-60s in Chicago at the end of June. I sowed and watched them grow, a total of ten cotton plants. But, alas, before they got mature or opened up their plump fruit, the submission date arrived and I was never able to paint the cotton from my garden. Eventually only one fruit opened to show that soft white cotton inside. I still have it!

What’s your favorite medium?

Watercolor now, even though it was my big fear! Bobbie Brown helped me learn it and I overcame the fear.

Do you enter juried shows?

In addition to other shows and awards my Chinese Lantern was in the ASBA’s Phoenix Art Museum show Natural Perspectives and I won a 2011 Silver Medal in the Edinburgh BISCOT show. My Dog Rose is at Filoli.

When do you paint?

Oh, usually nights and weekends. Chinese bottle gourd flowers open at night. But I just got back from

Margaret Best’s workshop in Italy, I enjoyed every moment of it.  There were 11 of us from all over the world including Uruguay and South Africa and we painted in a new studio full of sunlight while the husband of one of the artists played classical guitar.

Where do you paint?

My study has a desk for the computer and a desk for painting–and lights.

Do you teach, and if so what special aspect of botanical art?

No, I only teach anesthesiology.

What technique are you still trying to master?

Still, it’s watercolor, to attain the luminosity, the light transmission, the delicacy, especially on vellum.

What one thing do you do that would surprise other artists?

For me the art is not full time but my profession requires an almost obsessive-compulsive personality to protect the life of the patient. I bring that to my art; I get lost in it–you don’t know what time it is, you don’t eat, you don’t sleep.

  • Ribes rubrum , Red Currant, watercolor on paper, ©Ku-mie Kim 2011