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Life in Translation

Glass artist Helen Lee explores the evolution and transformation of language

Robert Chappell MAx’20
February 07, 2019

Helen Lee’s grandmother never learned to write in English. She did learn to sign her name in the Roman alphabet, but she did it in a very particular way: with the pen not at an angle — as English speakers normally do — but held directly up and down, as one would hold a calligraphy brush, as she would have in her native China. It was an act that placed her solidly between languages, between cultures, even between times.

“It was always such a strange thing to see someone holding this writing utensil from this time and place in the style and gesture of a different writing implement from a different culture from a different time,” reflects Lee, a professor of glassworking and the head of glass in UW–Madison’s Glass Lab.

Lee, who has been on the art department faculty since 2013, says her work with glass and her fascination with language go hand in hand.

“In the briefest summation of my state of practice right now, I’m really interested in how language changes,” she says. “I think the material speaks well to this particular way in which I am thinking about language. As a material, [glass] is inherently in a constant state of flux. It’s a material that is actually defined as a separate state of matter than solid or liquid, but one that can kind of embody both properties at the same time.”

Found in Translation

Lee grew up in New Jersey speaking both Chinese and English, which she says does inform the way she thinks about language. “I was the youngest of three children,” she says. “My parents were immigrants here from Taiwan, and my grandmother moved here specifically just to raise me, and she only spoke Chinese. So, I speak Chinese solely because of her. It was the only language she spoke, so what Chinese I know now is a result of my relationship with her.”

She knows very well how different ideas can shift and change when moving from one language to another, which she says informs her work in glass.

“One definite focal point has been around issues of translation,” she says. “What happens when information moves through a process of translation, or what happens when information struggles to move through a process of translation? What things are lost or just have different emotional hues, based on how language is structured? I’ve spent a lot of my life in translation, and in certain bodies of work that I have, it’s the focal point.”

She says her work is not specifically about Chinese or English languages, though.

“I had actually always refrained from addressing cultural background in my work because it seemed too easy or too obvious,” she says. “Any time I gave an artist talk, the first question would be, ‘Well why don’t you make something in Chinese?’ And I get it, but you’re missing my point. It’s not the specificity of my language, but the way in which bilingualism has shaped my approach to language. It’s the general idea.”

From Art Camp to Glass Camp

Lee’s work in glass began at an art camp at the age of 16. “That was my first introduction to just even knowing that one can do that,” she says. “It was mind-blowing, and I completely loved it. I wasn’t very good at it; but I adored it.”

She continued working with glass when she started at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a freshman on her way to earning a degree in architectural design and writing.

“As a freshman, I started taking classes at MIT in glass and for the rest of my time there, basically spent all of my free time trying to blow glass,” she says. “And then simultaneously, I got a lot of grant money and support from MIT and the MIT Arts Council and all the different grants they have there to study glass elsewhere. So on MIT’s dime, I studied at Corning, at Pilchuck, at Haystack. I traveled to Venice. So, in some ways I kind of got a glass education on top of my MIT education.”

She continued her glass education by earning an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design, and then worked in California as a graphic designer and typesetter for boutique designers, living what she calls “the young-artist hustle lifestyle.” In 2013, she decided to apply for some teaching jobs. But teaching jobs in glass don’t come open very often, so she planned on being patient.

“I applied to all the teaching jobs that were open that year, and I got first-round interviews at two of the three places. Then (UW-)Madison invited me for a second-round interview, and I was so naïve at that point, I wasn’t really in it to win it. In my mind, I was thinking maybe in four or five years I’ll want to teach, and I’ll feel really foolish then if I’d never even gone through the interview process before. So I’d better get some practice. I knew I was in the second round, but I didn’t know how many rounds there were. I didn’t know there only are two rounds. So I started to piece it together once I was here, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is like way more serious than I thought!’ I think that was to my advantage because I had nothing to lose.”

Clearly the interview went well, and she joined the faculty that fall, stepping into an important legacy in glass arts. The University of Wisconsin–Madison was the first to implement a collegiate glass-arts program in 1962, when ceramics professor Harvey Littleton developed an individual-sized glass furnace, allowing individual artists and art students to work in glass without contracting with a glass factory.

“If you look at the students who studied with him then, [they] then went on to other collegiate programs and opened those programs up. So you can actually pick any glass program right now and do the family tree back to this one. It’s really historically relevant for that reason, and it’s a wonderful privilege to be part of that history. It’s not something that can ever be stripped from this program,” Lee says.

The Keyboard in our Thumbs

Lee’s current work is especially interested in the changing relationship between our bodies and our language — whereas once, it was all about a hand holding a pen or brush, now it’s about thumbs on a tiny screen.

“Now it’s more like the footprint of the QWERTY keyboard mapped out on our thumbs. Whereas 10 years ago, it may be mapped out onto both hands,” she says. “I think if you ask the lay person, ‘Where is language in the body?’ they’ll say the mouth or maybe the hand. But really if you think about it, it’s actually in that motor-neuron pathway where we’ve memorized the spatial location of what letters are where on that footprint of the QWERTY keyboard.”

One of Lee’s most recent pieces called Alphabit, a cabinet full of printing-press–style letters rendered in glass. Lee’s website describes the work this way:

All 68 glyphs found on a standard Latin-script keyboard are rendered in tiny 5-pixel by 5-pixel murrine typeface. The murrine process acts as a material metaphor, using a 16th century glass technology to mimic the infinitely scalable nature of today’s vector graphics. Each glyph is sorted in backlit glazed trays that mimic the layout of the QWERTY keyboard with the structure of letterpress type trays in five descending sizes. This work collapses the material histories of typography, paying homage to the era of transition from letterpress to the vector graphic.

Another recent work, Placeholder Shelf, features an empty shelf with the words “lorem ipsum dolor sit amet” glued to the bottom, with light from below casting the shadows of those words onto the wall, visually replacing the objects that would normally sit on a shelf. It’s also a nod to Lee’s history as a graphic designer; “lorem ipsum” are nonsense Latin words whose purpose in design is to take up space of words that will be added later. They’re simply a visual representation of language.

Lee currently teaches three graduate students working toward their MFAs, as well as 10 advanced undergraduates, plus about a dozen each in beginning glassworking and neon classes. She also has exhibits scheduled for the spring at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah, Wisconsin, as well as the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, which she says is “kind of a big to-do because it’s an anniversary exhibition of historic exhibitions in glass art history.”

Take a stroll through the UW Glass Lab, at the very end of North Frances Street in the shadow of the Kohl Center, and you’ll find young artists melting, bending, shaping glass into any manner of configurations, all of them in a constant state of change, a constant state of translation — just like our language, our community, our university, and our world.

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