The Dirt: Yunice Kang

The question of why we do what we do is never simply answered. The stories we’re told, the places we’ve been, the people who’ve held us, the experiences we’ve had; we carry our past, in all its complexity, with us as we wind our way forward. Whether consciously or not, it shapes our visions of the future and the expressions contained within our present. Nearly five years ago Yunice Kang’s father passed away. This story begins soon after.

Yunice is a Los Angeles based photographer and plant woman. She’s the owner of Sanso, a plant shop housed in a small commercial complex at the end of a dead end street in Echo Park. The Los Angeles river winds through the suburban landscape; the concrete banked watercourse spills over with willows and weeds, offering a somewhat confusing glimpse of urban wilderness. Terracotta pots filled with some of the most incredible cactus specimens I’ve seen cluster around the entrance of Sanso, delineating the shop from the carpark. Inside there’s greenery, of course, but plenty of breathing space too. At the rear is the ceramic studio, where many of the pots housing Yunice’s striking collection of plants are made.

Sanso is a physical expression of a series of experiences and ideas beginning many, many years previous, the most formative being the death of Yunice’s father. He got sick when Yunice was living in New York and working as a photographer. She came home to LA to be with him. “I had a few years with dad before he passed. He was the first close family member who had died and I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was just floating, and didn’t have my feet on the ground.”

The year after his death was incredibly hard. “I was lost. I started to meditate. I was trying everything to heal, to address my grief and be active in getting better. Meditation helped so much.” During this time Yunice was drawn instinctively to plants. “I had a new level of awareness when I was healing from grief and when I was meditating – it was very different to when I was more active and productive, focused on pragmatic things. During that time, I felt connected in a different way and on a much more intense level. Plants helped me tune in to this slower frequency, and to find wonder again.”

Each weekend she’d visit a different plant nursery, or take a road trip into the desert with her boyfriend. A love of travelling, camping, and being in wild landscapes was something she shared with her photographer father. “He was a cowboy. He used to wear cowboy hands, bow ties, boots and a cane. He loved exploring, and I grew up with a sense of that.”

Soon, new stories began to emerge from Yunice’s grief. She realised that her link to plants runs deeper than just aesthetics, but leans towards ideas of connection and relationship. This speaks to the influence of her father, but also of broader cultural ideas. We talk of the popularity of indoor plants, and she suggests there’s more going on than a simple trend. “It’s bigger than that”, she says.

I don’t see what I do as a matter of selling plants. Yes, right now I’m sharing these wonderful, interesting and beautiful characters, living things, with others but there’s a bigger influence I can have.”

“For me, the bigger work is creating experiences and bringing people together. That’s it. Connecting people is what drove me as a photographer. It was never about the pictures, and here it’s not just about the plants. It’s not at all about keeping a particular plant, or admiring this one thing and valuing it, it’s more about creating a place where people can connect and learn something. I think that’s huge.”

“There are a lot of people who come in here and buy their first plant ever. That, to me, is the gateway.” What interests Yunice is bringing the awe and perspective she’s uncovered from meditating, from exploring wild landscapes, into the city, into an accessible space. “Not everyone can take a weekend to see what I see. Or even if they’re driving past, they don’t see it the way that I’ve learned to see it from meditation and practice and taking the time.  And not everyone has the time.”  Yunice’s goal is to offer a space for people to start re-connecting to the frequency of the non-human world. For her, a pot plant is a gateway drug. It’s just the beginning.

We go for a walk to the river across the road from Yunice’s shop. It’s a curious landscape – wild yet entirely contained. Yunice heads off down to the water, weaving her way through washed up plants, picking flowers for the shop. She’s at home here, but wasn’t always.

Yunice and her family migrated from South Korea to the USA when she was nine years old. “I was young and very naïve. That comes, I think, from immigrating – changing culture when you know what you know and then suddenly everything is flipped. I couldn’t speak English, and I became very, very quiet.”

After spending her high school years “trying to fit in”, Yunice went to art school. It was here she began to feel more connected, more at home. She became a photographer like her father. “My soul is very much like my father’s but my behaviour is much like my mum’s. We act alike, but our interests and philosophies are very different.” When Yunice told her mum she was going to open a plant shop, she was met with surprise and concern. “Mum couldn’t believe I wanted to have a job where I have to do physical labour. I know where she was coming from because she worked hard so that I didn’t have to do that, so I could have an education and a professional career. That’s what she aspired to. In Korea, a more comfortable life means a desk job.”

But Yunice’s soul was filled with earth, like her father’s. Before long, her mum came around. I guess she had no choice. Yunice began sourcing plants and meeting growers, testing and growing and making. She found the space, set it up, and so began her new journey. She’s learned a lot, she tells me. Mostly from passionate growers and personal experience. She’d like to formally study landscape design, but having just had her first child, I think she might be busy for the next little while.

Sanso is Korean for oxygen, Yunice tells me as we wind up our chat. But it also means something else. “An older Korean woman came in a few weeks ago with her daughter and we were talking about sanso, the word, and she said ‘you know it also means cemetery?’ I was so taken by that. I had no idea.” Is her dad here, in this space with her, I ask? “For sure”, she says. “He’s here.”