A core value of the Well-Trained Mind Academy is the pursuit of life-long learning. We were thrilled, then, when students in the Class of 2025 had the chance to talk with artist Kira Nam Greene to learn more about her decades-long career and personal goals. Greene is a working artist who is truly the embodiment of a life-long learner. Greene shared her paintings with the students, interweaving explanations about her work with sage advice for living a fulfilled life.
Academically, Greene took a standard path toward a corporate job, earning her Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University and then working in the private business sector for many years. From the outside, it looked as if she had it made, but Greene found herself often unhappy in her work. An unfortunate traffic accident forced Greene to take a month-long leave of absence from her job. During this time, she took an art class, and her true passion awoke. She found she couldn’t wait to start painting when she got up in the morning.
Taking the Leap to Become an Artist
She thought about becoming an artist, but the roots of her Asian culture pulled at her. Growing up in Korea, her parents were interested in her doing well in school so that she could become a professor, a government official, or a doctor — something professional and stable. She understood her parents’ point of view. However, when she moved to America, she saw that these weren’t the only fruitful avenues towards success; anything was possible.
Watching those around her, she realized that it was acceptable for someone to change their career in pursuit of something different. So, she did some deep thinking, talked to a lot of people, and decided to switch gears and go to art school. Greene says this is what she loves so much about American culture. It’s okay, and possibly even admired, for a person to take the leap, make a decision one day, and just get up and change their life.
Kira Nam Greene’s Inspiration for Her Artwork
As a creator, Greene is very interested in art history. Her work is often in dialogue with old masters, turning old tropes on their heads. In the series of paintings Greene showed students, she made portraits from a feminist view, putting women at the center of power. She called this series “Women in Possession of Good Fortune,” a play on a famous line from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
The paintings, which showcase women thriving in their personal and professional lives, turn Austen’s quote upside down.
Self-Portrait with an Ermine as a Pillow (2018)
Greene’s Self-Portrait with an Ermine as a Pillow (2018) is based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine (c. 1489-1491). The painting pokes fun at the original while also paying homage to Da Vinci. Greene shared an interesting tidbit about the old masters’ portraits. She said they were like the Instagram of the 15th and 16th centuries — an opportunity to showcase one’s “best self” to their friends and family. For instance, a wealthy family could have their daughter painted and then send the portrait to a potential suitor. Likewise, men used portraiture to showcase their professional achievements.
Chloe and Tommy (2018)
Each of Greene’s paintings similarly winks at its subject, including important details about the woman’s life, often included at the subject’s request. For example, in Chloe and Tommy (2018), Chloe’s cat peeks through the patterns on the left side of the painting. This painting holds particular importance because it was submitted to the National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, and Greene was selected as a finalist in the 2022 competition.
As Greene talked about her paintings and gave the backstory behind each portrait, the students chimed in excitedly: “I love all of the colors. They make everything pop from the page,” wrote one student. Another followed, “Each detail is so essential to the individual’s story — that’s so cool!”
I Slay (Kit) (2020)
In I Slay (Kit) (2020), we see the youngest person Greene has yet painted, her friend Kit. This painting plays on Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (c. 1610). Greene explained that in the original painting, David holds Goliath’s head and a sword. In Greene’s modernized version, Kit’s weapon is their selfie-stick, and the severed head is replaced with a designer bag.
Kira Nam Greene’s Artistic Process
Discussing her process, Greene shared that she first has the subject of a painting come over for a long talk, what she likens to a “tea party.” She finds out more about their life, so she is able to put those intimate details into their portrait. She then uses color, detail, and the dramatic use of light and dark — chiaroscuro, another of Caravaggio’s influences — to bring her portraits to life. She points to post-impressionist paintings as an inspiration for the use of bold and jumbled colors. Greene also references Picasso, Matisse, and Braques as inspirations for the way she uses space, where three-dimensionality and flatness go back and forth.
Starving Artist, Art Star, or Something in Between?
Reflecting on her own path to her current position, Greene gave the students excellent, albeit sobering, advice about following their dreams. She said that one of her teachers told her classmates they would either be a starving artist or an art star. Greene hasn’t found this to be true for most of her contemporaries who are still in the art world; she told our students that most working artists are somewhere in between. There is a limit on how long you can be a starving artist. You have to eat, find housing, and support your family, so many artists pursue different, more lucrative careers.
And there are only a limited number of people who will ever be art stars. She told our students what is most important when following your dreams is deciding how passionate you are and how much you are willing to sacrifice to get somewhere. For example, Greene spends 6-8 hours alone every day in the studio painting or drawing. While it is a lonely profession, she is willing to make that sacrifice because it is her true joy.
WTMA Students’ Responses to Kira Nam Greene’s Life Lessons
Our students were clearly struck by Greene and her contributions to the art field. After hearing Greene speak, student Emaan A. commented, “I loved how she said that because she was a good student, no one thought she’d become an artist.” Greene’s experiences helped students realize that they need not be defined by what others believe them to be. Student Adelee B. said, “It was wonderful meeting Dr. Greene! Her words were an inspiration and brought a renewed determination for me to follow my dreams of being a writer! Her art was powerful, with deep meaning to the person she painted for each and every painting. Dr. Greene’s story of how she became an artist after being bedridden [showed me that] sometimes bad things can be turned into wonderful things.”
In sharing details about her life and her path to today’s success, Greene has helped our students re-evaluate their own passions and renew their commitments to living the lives they envision. The Academy was thrilled to host Greene’s visit, and we look forward to seeing how she continues to make her mark on the art world.