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Chunghi Choo poses in front of sculptural piece.
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CHUNGHI CHOO An accomplished artist and exacting teacher says her students are her finest work.

When Chunghi Choo reflects on her 40-year career, she doesn’t talk about how her fluid metal and fabric sculptures found their way into the Museum of Modern Art in New York City or the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Instead, she gushes about her students, their work, and how proud they make her.

Choo, originally from Korea, started teaching in the jewelry and metal arts program at The University of Iowa in 1968, after a three-year stint at the University of Northern Iowa. She was head of the UI program for 33 years, until 2001. The F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor of Art has garnered several awards including the Regents Award for Faculty Excellence (1993) and the Amoco Senior Teaching Award (1987) for her dedication to teaching.

“The most pleasure I feel is when my students surpass me, when they’re doing well, and I go surprise them at their openings,” she says, throwing her arms wide as she explains how she did just that to a former student the day before.

Choo doesn’t accept offers to showcase her work unless the offer extends to her students. She says art editors, museum curators, and gallery directors initially hesitate to feature student work, but the originality and quality of students’ designs usually win them over. She encourages her students to experiment with new ideas. And they have, using media such as garbage bags, rubber foam, and tires.

“Chunghi is not just experienced and respected in the field—she really inspires students to create their own work, to create unique, signature pieces that may be going in a totally different direction from her own work,” says Kee-Ho Yuen, a former student who succeeded Choo as head of the UI metal arts and jewelry program.

Many of Choo’s students have won acclaim even before graduation. Some have found their works in art museums around the world. Some have won prizes in international competitions, even when they competed against established professionals.

Choo, however, is an exacting teacher, one who consistently pushes students out of their creative comfort-zones. Her sharp critiques don’t go down well with some students, but she says many later write to thank her for her guidance. 

“I think my bluntness and honesty help students to perform better,” she says. “I cannot go around buttering students.”

Yuen, for one, has benefited from her counsel.

“I’m where I am now largely because of Chunghi’s help in solidifying my ideas, in choosing the direction in which I should invest my time and energy,” he says.

He first met Choo when he was a student in Hong Kong in the 1980s. She immediately offered him a scholarship upon seeing some of his work, and was able to do so because of the many funding sources she developed while directing the program.

“I started fundraising to support students so they can create art without working at McDonalds,” she says. “I don’t believe in starving artists.”

Her students, in turn, have inspired her to innovate new techniques. Many of the new methods were developed out of necessity because UI students, unlike those in professional art schools, only have a handful of studio hours per week in which to fulfill an assignment.

One of Choo’s adaptations—encasing an object within another perforated object—was developed because she was helping a student build a replica of the thing he liked most in the world: his gerbil, in a cage.

“I think I am lucky to be at this university because it encourages you to be innovative and creative,” she says. “That’s part of our success.”

Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tom Jorgensen

April 21, 2008