In July, School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) MFA alumni and PTDW faculty member Gregory Bae passed away. He is remembered by friends, colleagues, and students as a committed mentor and selfless friend; devoted to enriching the lives of those closest to him, and for his practice as a painter, collagist, curator, and activist.
Greg Bae was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, the first-generation Korean American son of immigrant parents. Leaving home at 17 to become an artist, Bae graduated with a BFA in Painting (with a concentration in philosophy) from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2007. He then completed his MFA in Painting and Drawing at SAIC in 2012, where he was a “driven and critically rigorous grad student,” according to his then-professor, Michelle Grabner. It was during this time at SAIC that Bae would meet many close friends and future colleagues, upon his return to SAIC. After graduating in 2012, he later returned to SAIC in 2019 as a faculty member and undergraduate admissions reviewer for the Department of Painting and Drawing.
While pursuing his MFA, Bae was an amiable and graduate admissions student ambassador. Lisa Marie Majer, then Assistant Director of Graduate Admissions, recalled that “he was just the coolest.” Majer is now the Administrative Director for Art History/Arts Administration/NAJ. “I admired his calm and confident demeanor. He always showed up with a sly smile, and a sense that everything was chill even when I was running around in frantic circles. It’s safe to say he brought me a certain calm.”
After graduating from SAIC, Bae began his rise in the art worlds of Chicago and beyond. As an artist, Bae was a painter and a collagist, assembling found and recycled objects into sculptural compositions which investigated the effects of forces at work in our modern world, from time and space, to consumerism and diasporic displacement of ethnic minorities. His work was exhibited globally, from galleries in Cleveland and Brooklyn to art museums in Milan, Busan, and Seoul, and won him grants from the Chicago Artists’ Coalition and the Pollock-Krasner Foundation in New York City, among others. Bae also took part in various artistic residencies around the world, from Seoul’s Museum of Fine Art to the Fountainhead Studio in Miami, Florida.
Throughout Bae’s artistic rise, his friends unanimously remember him as a perpetually humble and selfless person, who cared as fiercely about his friends’ artistic practice as he did his own. “He generously promoted his peers, and while he was an incredibly innovative artist himself, he always worked tirelessly to shine the spotlight on others,” Jennifer Chen-su Huang (MFA Fiber and Material Studies 2017), Bae’s friend and SAIC colleague, told F News.
“Greg never bragged about his work, but you could tell he lived and breathed it,” wrote Laura-Caroline Johnson (MA, Modern Art History, Theory, & Criticism and Arts Administration & Policy, 2013, now Interim Director at the DePaul Art Museum), who struck up a close friendship with Bae after curating his work for SAIC’s 2012 MFA show. “He was always thinking about [his work] conceptually and carrying that into conversation, but not in the pretentious, self-involved art-world way that we so often encounter.”
“He was good at asking questions. Especially of other people and about other people,” Johnson wrote. “Greg managed to carry a balance between being so cool and reassuring, while caring so incredibly deeply for those around him. He was easy — easy to get along with, easy to care for, easy to offer help or his opinion when he could tell you really needed it.”
Patrick ‘Q’ Quilao (MFA Ceramics 2012, now Associate Director of SAIC’s Graduate Admissions), Bae’s friend and contemporary while pursuing his MFA, recalls how Bae’s humility extended almost to self-deprecating lengths, even as his congeniality and artistic vision gained him more friends. “Greg was respected by and celebrated in a lot of circles, many of which he intentionally didn’t want to leave a breadcrumb trail for, because he never made it about himself, and focused on everyone with the good fortune to end up in his orbit,” said Q. “He was infamous for being completely off social media, and the hashtags #GregBae and #GregoryBae actually started with a few close friends trying to warm him up to social media that he aggressively disavowed but eventually accepted. The scope of his reach was breathtakingly big and present … and is still growing.”
In addition to his artistic practice, Bae was a curator and activist organizer. He was the founder and director of Chicago API Artists United (CAAU), formed earlier in 2021 in response to anti-Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander hate crimes. Ali Aschman (MFA Printmedia 2013), Greg’s partner, said of his activism, “He was passionate and angry and sad about the state of the world and its injustices, and worn down by the constant racist microaggressions towards him (and occasional outright aggression). But rather than staying cynical, he channeled those feelings into concrete action.” Quilao, also a CAAU member, noted that Bae had “single-handedly” mobilized the “entire multi-generational network of CAAU artists” over this past year, a testament to his ability to unite people from all walks of life.
Bae was also a co-founder and co-director of Bill’s Auto, a Chicago exhibition space formed in 2018, alongside friend and former classmate Tony Lewis (MFA PTDW 2012) and Lewis’s sister Chenée. Recalling Bae’s community-minded spirit, Chenée wrote to F, “To say that Greg will be missed is not enough — he gave so much to his art, to his community, and to everyone who knew him. He had a way of building a connection with everyone he met, and was so generous with his time and dedication. His presence made Chicago a kinder place.”
Bae returned to SAIC in 2019 as a lecturer in the PTDW department, and also took up an Adjunct Assistant Professor position at the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois – Chicago (UIC) in 2020. “He made sure to go to every student and look into their art styles and interests in order to get the best read on how to help them,” recalls Odin Centeno, a UIC student, who took Bae’s Drawing 1 class during the Spring 2020 term. “He was wise and thoughtful when it came to teaching his individual students. For me, he opened up a whole new perspective on what my art could be. I will truly miss him now that he’s gone, and I will continue to improve until we can meet again.”
As an educator, Bae touched the lives of his students with his uniquely personable manner and his individual-focused approach to teaching. “He would tell me all about his students’ projects and how he was proud of the discussions they were having in class,” his partner Ali told F News. “Especially during the pandemic, he spent way more time than was expected of him having one-on-one meetings with students at all hours of the day and night. He wasn’t concerned with students being ‘good’ at all, he found that boring — he just wanted them to find an authentic form of expression.”
Bae was also a mentor to his students on more personal matters. Angelina Han (BFA 2024) took his Multi-Studio Drawing class in the Fall 2020 term, and confided in Bae, a fellow Korean American, about struggling with her cultural identity. “He gave me a lot of advice from personal experience, and I really felt a personal connection to him, not just as a student but person to person,” Han told F News. “I remember telling him about how I wanted to fit into society when I first moved. I was embarrassed of my own identity. But I remember him telling me that my cultural background, and my emotions and struggles… they were going to be my strengths.” Han went on to focus on painting her own personal experiences with her cultural identity during her freshman year, and credits Bae as “one of the best professors I’ve ever had.”
“Greg was my painting teacher in my very first semester at SAIC,” recalled Natalie Jeng (BFA 2023). “That was one of the hardest times of my life; I was in a new state having a difficult time living on my own and trying to make new friends. I was struggling to keep up with my classes, especially Greg’s class, because it was on Friday, the end of the week when I was exhausted. He could have failed me, but he showed me compassion and understanding when I needed it the most.”
One day, after Jeng arrived to class 30 minutes late, crying, and Bae took her aside to talk to her: “[He] told me that he saw himself in me and that he could relate to the pressures I felt as a young Asian American student. Greg helped me get through those awful times in freshman year so that later, in my second semester and in my sophomore year, I was able to grow and thrive in Chicago. I truly believe he shaped my experience, not only as an SAIC student, but as a young adult.”
Similarly, Riley Yunxuan Xu (BFA 2023) wrote to F News about finding solace in Bae’s class during a difficult period. “That was a tough time for me, and I was facing a lot of uncertainty and self-doubts, and was also struggling with my gender identity. [Bae] was totally supportive of what I was doing. When I felt hesitant to make a choice about my projects, or had to compromise in my art practice just because of critique from other people, he said, ‘You are doing art for yourself, so don’t give a fuck.’” It brought me so much courage and trust in myself. His class was a comfort zone for me to express my real identity as a queer person.”
Many who shared memories of Greg said he was, above all, an infinitely inspiring and devoted friend, sparking friendships and close connections between the friends he made wherever he went. “Greg was a collagist in every sense,” said Josh Dihle (MFA PTDW 2012, now an Adjunct Associate Professor in PTDW). “[He] was the social glue in a lot of circles between unlike people.” Laura-Caroline Johnson shared a similar sentiment about Bae, noting that “Greg’s connection with his friends was so strong and so supportive that he built this beautiful web of friends, collaborators, partners — random people that you think you have no connection to and then realize later that Greg was helping to nurture a relationship for you that you didn’t even know was there until years later.”
Even his students benefited from Bae’s desire to connect and uplift those around him. “Greg informed me of an opportunity for an art competition in February, and my career in art has come to new heights since then,” said Assata Mason (BFA 2022), who took Bae’s Painting Studio class in Spring 2021. “He was the type of person to help you open doors while securing opportunities, and do so with a smile on his face. Greg wanted everyone around him to grow and thrive, so he did everything in his power to help them bloom.”
Rashayla Brown (BFA 2013, now an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Photography) wrote to F News, “Greg was the kind of friend that makes life worth living. Not just for being a skillful and brilliant artist, which he was, but for his deep empathy, emotional availability, and consideration of other people.”
“In my last conversation with Greg, we talked about working together on some upcoming creative projects and tied up some other loose ends,” recalled Maddie Reyna, Assistant Director of Academic Programs at Ox-Bow, and Bae’s close friend. “After that he asked me, in his slow and low voice, ‘How are you, Maddie?’ Not just ‘How’s it going?’ in the way you would say at the beginning of a conversation. He meant it deeply, and he gave me lots of time to respond, more time than I was even comfortable with. Thinking back on that conversation, I recognize that he did this all the time. Over the decade that I knew him, he gave me and others so much space on his shoulder.”
“If I’m being honest,” said Tony Lewis, “being a Chicago-based artist was completely defined by grabbing a drink with Gregory Bae anytime, anywhere. That was Chicago for me.” Lewis said he still sees his friend and the city as one and the same. “I’m heartbroken. You were only just getting started, but I couldn’t be more proud of you, buddy. I love you.”