Daton Kim is a travelling artist from New York. We met in Hoi An, Vietnam, just before she jetted off to Italy. With a love for animals and recycling objects to use as canvasses, Daton depicts animals in human clothes for a very simple reason: it makes her happy.
Two things were obvious when I first arrived at Daton’s apartment in Hoi An: her cat, Maya, means the world to her and that Maya had walked through her paints and across both the balcony balustrade and her laptop, leaving yellow paw prints on both surfaces. Maya was dumped on Daton’s doorstep in late July, as a two week old, diminutive and ill kitten. There were doubts about her survival. Nurtured back to health by Daton, Maya is now a bouncy little cat who spent most of the time I was there chasing butterflies and jumping through the grass…and almost walking through the paint again. Her and Maya shared an instant connection on the Saturday they met. Maya got on well with her new family, but not with the neighbours cat. To avoid leaving her at home with her rowdy neighbour, Daton took Maya to work and to breakfast. Now, after leaving Hoi An, she misses her cat immensely, but is comforted by the fact that, “the best people [she] knows are looking after her”. Before she left, Daton arranged with her landlords, which she refers to as her ‘Vietnamese family’, to care for Maya. To remember her she got a tattoo, a cats face composed of the letters M A Y A. She sketched the tattoo for me on a wet wipe, and days later showed it to me on her arm.
Animals bring a great deal of inspiration to Daton, as she paints them in different, often humorous human situations and dress. Having painted many types of animals over the years, her current fixation belongs to the rooster. She has painted them riding Honda Cub motorcycles, grocery shopping and as busts surrounded by flowers which could be a Flemish piece from the mid 16th century if it weren’t on a broken piece of found marble slab.
“If you look at it and laugh, I did my job. I do all my art for myself, it makes me laugh, it makes me happy, it puts me in a good mood.”
As a traveller, Daton works with what she has. She carries her brushes with her, but uses plastic plates (or whatever else will work) as paint palettes and all sorts of objects to paint on, with paint she finds along the way. Such as a (well) used commercial baking tray whose grimy artifacts of a life of baking become the metallic brown backdrop for the Honda riding rooster.
She speaks of a break through she experienced concerning how she thinks about painting surfaces: “You don’t have to paint on canvas; you don’t have to paint on paper that was made for this type of paint. Whatever works. I gotta follow some rules, but if it works, I’d like to break all of them.”
Years ago, Daton began by taking an abandoned shipping palette off of the New York streets and “giving it another life”. She didn’t stop at one. The work was popular and she made some sales. “It was really interesting to see people offer me money to buy them. Really?” She asks “this was kinda like garbage a week ago and now you wanna spend money on it, that’s great. I give it another new purpose and I like that.”
Inspired by the people around her, her painting is cathartic. She paints for her own amusement. “It’s funny when I look at different animals acting like humans, wearing suits and ties and going grocery shopping… For me, art is nothing difficult. It’s just something that should make you laugh or make you feel. If you look at it and laugh, I did my job. I do all my art for myself, it makes me laugh, it makes me happy, it puts me in a good mood.”
Painting is an escape for Daton, stability found in moments of fluidity, focus and fun. She paints now to accentuate when she is already feeling good and this is a tried and true method of disbanding the blues, a method she discovered in her childhood. “I was not really a healthy kid, I spent a lot of time in the hospital. I was sick a lot. I remember when I was 5 or 6 I had a major surgery on my stomach and I still have a big scar. I spent a lot of time in the hospital and my mom brought me my first water color kit and no one really taught me how to use it, I just did it myself and I liked it. I don’t really watch YouTube videos or read about it. I just do it. I look at it this way: when I’m not really happy with something, I paint to put myself in a better place.”
Her art is uplifting, and puts those who view it in a better place too. Like her, it’s fun and quirky and colorful. May your travels and your friends continue to inspire you Daton, and here’s hoping you get to play with your bouncy little feline friend back in Hoi An soon enough.