This is intentionally a bit of a broad question, but how do you think of the relationship between glass and language? You’re a glassblower, but your artist statement foregrounds your interest in the “morphological nature of language.”
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between glass and language. In my most succinct summary of that relationship, I often will say that I am conceiving of glass holding light in the same way that words hold meaning. Glass is this material that has a really unique state of matter — that is inherently an amorphous form. I find that really akin to what interests me about language. As someone who grew up bilingual, it’s always this moving target, and it's changing constantly in ways that we might not perceive in our daily lives.
How modern devices are impacting that is another thing that is a concern in the practice. Glass has this backbone role in contemporary digital communication, in that it constitutes all of our networks that we’re actually using to transmit this information.
That reminds me a lot of your Em Space Engram / Em Quad Phase Change piece, where you're exploring the relationship “between words and what they stand in for” by casting a glass replica of a lead em quad, and then melting the original.
I mean, that piece in particular is interesting because it’s so small and so slight, and yet what it suggests feels so much larger. For me, it engenders questions of death, of what it is to have a ghost presence. I think of language as this living organism that's shifting shape all the time, and has all these components that remain invisible or hidden or vestigial.
There’s another body of work, too, that actually addresses my cultural background, and I think my cultural background has really heavily influenced why I'm so interested in language. The death element is really curious to me as a thing that feels resonant between the two, in that I feel somewhat tuned into the ghost layers of what used to be there.
Can you say more about how your cultural background plays in?
I think I spent my whole career trying not to make work from my cultural background. [Laughs.] That was an unspoken rule that I was not so subtly told in school. But then I came to a point in life where I was about to have a kid, and it was really hard for me to not have that moment come up in the practice. Because in my case, my relationship as a child was encoded through a different language. I was raised in America by a woman who only spoke Chinese, and so I had this individual, singular relationship to the language in that I only spoke it with one person, and this was also the person who was completely responsible for raising me. And so as I was crossing the threshold into becoming a parent, it was really hard for language not to get dragged into it.
Did Chinese become something like a private language to you, then?
What I’ll often say is that I feel like I have an umbilical relationship to my grandmother. I think of those stories that you hear about twins developing a language between themselves. But also, in reality, if you strip that away and just think of me as a person in the world — I speak really crappy Chinese. And so this language that I associate with the most intimate relationship of my entire life: I would get ridiculed speaking it in public. [Laughs.] ‘Cause I probably speak like a five-year-old. It’s this weird interior/exterior contradiction.
To return to glass: have the projects you've been working on in Wassaic been glass-related? Or have you been moving away from that in the past couple weeks here?
They have not been related to glass at all in the actual materiality of them on purpose. It's really interesting to use other materials to explore formal questions that might translate back into glass. I feel like that’s always this question in my practice: When does the work happen in the material, and when does it migrate from the material? In general, I think there are lots of characteristics of glass that are hyper-unique to that material, that just don't happen in so many other materials. For myself, the visibility issue comes up a lot: I'm often asking the viewer to exist on this cusp between what's visible and what’s invisible, as well as what is legible versus illegible.
At Wassaic though, it’s been really different. I ended up coming here right after closing out another big project, so I came here with a totally fresh slate. I took one of the smaller 100 square foot studios, spent maybe $50 at the hardware store, and had a lot of fun playing and making things just for the sheer joy of making things. [Laughs.] It's been a fun exercise in just seeing what I gravitate to, and it's been really interesting to see someone come in for a studio visit without the glass background, because they're able to imagine things moving into glass that — given my relationship to the material and my limitations and boundaries of what I know is possible — I might not imagine.
Like, as an example: back at home, I started doing these nested bell jar shapes and these nested tubes bent into a half circle. I made a couple and wasn't really sure where I was going with it. It's challenging, and with glass, there’s so many hurdles just to get the form — and then the form is really rigid and really fragile. But here, I’m playing with pool noodles. [Laughs.] It’s been a really fun way of getting my hands on the form, thinking about how it might exist in space, what I might do with it, without all the preciousness around the material. And I think that potential energy of movement carries back both to my relationship to language and how I think of it as constantly changing, as well as to the nature of glass in its molten state.
Helen Lee is an artist, designer, educator, and glassblower. She holds an MFA in Glass from the Rhode Island School of Design and a BSAD in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her honors include the inaugural Irwin Borowsky Prize in Glass Art in 2013 and the Edna Wiechers Arts in Wisconsin Award in 2014. She was nominated for a Louis Comfort Tiffany Award in 2015 and a USA Fellowship in 2016. Most recently, Lee received the Gold Award in the 2016 Bullseye Emerge exhibition. Her work is in the collections of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, the Corning Museum of Glass, the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio, and Toyama City Insitute of Glass Art. Lee has worked as a freelance graphic designer for Chronicle Books and Celery Design Collaborative, and was an Affiliate Artist at Headlands Center for the Arts from 2009-2011. She has taught at Rhode Island School of Design, California College of Art, Toyama City Institute of Glass Art, Pilchuck Glass School, Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Pilchuck Glass School, the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio, and the MIT Glass Lab. She is currently an Associate Professor and Head of Glass in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
2019 Summer Residency