In a balmy lab on the campus of UW-Madison, a number of students are finishing up their art projects for the semester. One opens up a sliding door to a furnace heated to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the other uses a long pole to gather up some of the molten liquid inside. When exposed to the air, the viscous fluid quickly forms into a malleable solid shape.
“Glass has this really alien behavior,” muses Helen Lee, a master glassblower who teaches in the UW Glass Department. “How do you interact with something that’s changing its behavior as you work with it? It’s just really captivating to me.”
Lee’s glass artwork has been exhibited around the world. Growing up bilingual, much of her work explores language.
“My grandmother raised me and she only spoke Chinese. I had to negotiate between the English-speaking world and the Chinese-speaking world. I’ve always been fluidly moving between them. So in my experience, language isn’t this fixed entity.”
Glass is perhaps the perfect medium for Lee to express her ideas. And she gets great satisfaction from sharing the very physical craft of glass-working with students.
“I think what I’m teaching them, it’s like this act of magic. To transfer that information from my body to a student’s body, that’s really exciting to me.”
The UW Glass Lab is a historic one: it’s the first collegiate glass program in the country. Founded in 1962 by ceramics professor Harvey Littleton, it jump-started the studio glass movement in America.
“Prior to that, glass really only existed in factories and industry,” says Lee. “So it was the beginning of glass being something one could study at a university, as well as something an individual artist could practice on their own.”
While Lee works in a number of art mediums, she considers glass her home base. “A lot of people get bit by the glass bug. Once you get into it, you kind of just don’t stop.”