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 Assistant Professor and Head of Glass in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
My artistic practice is built out of a material lust for glass and an insatiable curiosity around language. Born in NJ in 1978 to two academic immigrants from Taiwan, I was raised by my grandmother—a woman 70 years my elder who only spoke Chinese. I spent most of my youth in translation, inhabiting that third space between Chinese and American. Approximate translations, gestures, made-up words, and guesswork: I have always been in awe of witnessing meaning change shape from one language into another. I spent my teen years identifying as a poet, but ended up studying Architecture at MIT with considerable influence from the cultural inclinations of my elders. If I could do it again, I would study linguistics. Instead, I am an artist who uses glass to think about language.
My studio practice fuses my trades as a glassblower and a graphic designer. I investigate language and the body by experimenting with glass and typography. My work posits language as a somatic experience. The confluence of objects and semiotic units in my work collapses the physical with the linguistic. In mechanical terms, I have an extensive repertoire of vitreous typography. I blow glass in capital Roman and lowercase script letters. I type on a computer with a font made of glass. I write with light; I write in shadow.
At the core of my practice is a curiosity about the morphological nature of language. My early work does this by traversing a circuit of relationships through glass, design, and the body. In the space of boundary, duality, and transformation, I dwell on the moments in which: breath becomes sound; sound becomes spoken; the spoken word turns written; and the written word is shaped back into dimensional form by my own breath.
My cultural background has always been integral to my practice with respect to shaping my relationship to language. In early 2015, this relationship shifted as my daughter moved into this world. I have been revisiting the dual experiences that have shaped my life—between the dead and living, Chinese and American, Mandarin and English, sound and silence. The inscription of my cultural identity has become a focal point of my recent work, where I have been playing with literal mistranslations, slippery interpretations, crossed wires of communication, and other unintentional consequences of bilingualism.
I see my studio practice as not unlike my subject matter in the sense of its evolution. The linguist John McWhorter offers this wisdom on language, which I liken to my practice: “Words never keep their meanings over time. A word is a thing on the move. A word is a process.”