‘Nothing static’ about glass

Helen Lee wants to ‘capture the exploratory spirit’ of the UW–Madison Glass Lab’s historic past — and help build an exciting, innovative, and more inclusive future for glass artists.

By Kari Dickinson

Helen Lee working with glass
Helen Lee at work in the UW–Madison Glass Lab (Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Helen Lee first discovered glass at a summer arts camp in high school.

“It was the first time that I learned that one could even work with glass with your hands,” she says. “And that was very short, just a couple of weeks. But it was enough for me to become very enamored with the material.”

Lee didn’t get to work with glass again until she was in her first year of college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), pursuing a degree in architectural design. The university offered a popular beginner course in glassworking during the January term, and Lee “lucked out” and got a spot.

She was hooked. Within a couple of years, Lee was helping teach intermediate and advanced glass courses at MIT, and applying for grants to expand her knowledge off campus during the summers.

“I got a lot of support from the MIT Arts Council,” she says. “I would go to different workshops and intensive classes all over the country at places like Haystack, Pilchuck, Corning,” she says. “I even went to Venice on a grant from MIT.”

Lee worked for four years as a graphic designer and typesetter after earning her undergraduate degree from MIT in 2000. Wishing to explore becoming an artist, however, in 2004 she enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design’s master of fine arts program in glass.

Over the past two decades, Lee has established herself as an acclaimed artist whose work — centering on themes of language and identity — is breaking the traditional mold. She is also a fierce advocate for inclusivity in the glass field and since 2013 has led UW–Madison’s Glass Lab, which was launched in 1962 as the first collegiate glass program in the nation, and is considered by many to be the birthplace of American Studio Glass.

Derrick Buisch, a professor and chair of UW–Madison’s Art Department, was on the search committee that hired Lee. He recalls that she quickly became a top candidate.

“Helen has a level of enthusiasm for the medium, and for her students and for her peers — you could just tell she was genuinely excited about glass,” he says. “It was also clear she is active in shaping the conversation in her field.”

Now, nearly a decade later, this is a big moment for Lee and glass, with the United Nations declaring 2022 the “International Year of Glass” to celebrate the essential role it has in society. In a nod to this, the Wisconsin Science Festival in October also put its focus on glass and how it impacts science, art, and technology, spotlighting Lee’s work and the art of glassblowing in multiple events.

In addition, 2022 marked the 60th anniversary of the UW Glass Lab, with Lee recognizing and honoring the program’s past, while highlighting how it has evolved in important ways to remain on the leading edge of the field.

“This material is super unique for so many reasons,” says Lee. “Glass is molten, transparent. The particular poetics of what glass can do and what it is materially, I feel makes it a really ripe material for so many of the more complex issues that students are grappling with in their work and in their explorations now.”

At work in the ‘hot shop’

Helen Lee works with steaming glass
(Photo: Sarah Maughan)

“There is nothing static about working with glass,” says Lee.

Known as the “hot shop,” the UW–Madison Glass Lab contains two furnaces that are heated to 2,150 degrees Fahrenheit. Glassblowers work collaboratively in pairs — gathering glass out of the furnace with long pipes and working swiftly to shape the glass with tools, gravity, heat, and breath. They reheat the material repeatedly to extend its malleability until it cools and solidifies into the desired form.

Lee says her approach to teaching is similar to how one would teach a sport or movement discipline: “What I’m really instilling in their body is this sensitivity, this kinesthetic knowledge of how to move one’s body with glass in its molten state.”

When glass comes out of the furnace, it is heated to over 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

“So it’s goopy. It’s like the consistency of honey,” Lee says. “And as soon as we yank it out of the furnace, it’s going to cool, and at some point it will cool to a point where it’s not moving. The whole practice of blowing glass is just intercepting that cooling curve.”

Adds Lee: “You can see there’s this choreography that happens with no words. It is similar to playing an instrument or knowing a certain dance, or how to dance with a certain person that moves a certain way.”

Lee believes that all of her students can learn this dance.

“Any student can walk in the door and where I will start from is believing that they have potential and a voice in this material and that we just have to find it,” she says.

Glowing furnace and glass tools
(Photos: Sirtaj S. Grewal)

She adds that her goal as an educator is not to teach students how to make “objects,” but to cultivate in them an understanding of how to work with the material — and with others.

“I want to give students the skills to go anywhere in the world and watch somebody work and be able to learn from them,” Lee explains. “Because they’re not learning about this cup or this form. They’re learning and watching the body of the person that’s moving with the material in a certain way.”

A brief history of glass at UW–Madison

Harvey Littleton launched the nation’s first university-based studio program in glass art at UW–Madison in 1962, a move that is often credited with revolutionizing glass art in the United States.

In the first half of the 20th century, glassblowing in the United States was done almost exclusively in factories, producing uniform, commercial products.

Littleton arrived at UW–Madison in 1951 as a ceramics professor, and it wasn’t until the late 1950s that he became interested in molten glass. Although largely a forgotten art form in the United States, the use of glass as a creative art medium was still pursued by artist-craftsmen overseas, so Littleton traveled to Europe in 1957 to learn more.

According to an article that appeared in the December 1966 issue of Wisconsin Alumnus, Littleton visited glass factories and got to know several free-form glassblowing artists. The article notes how Jean Sala, a French craftsman, showed Littleton techniques and gave him some tools.

“It was the impact of watching the fascinating technology of the small glass shops in Murano, Italy, that made me resolve to discover for myself if glassblowing was within the scope of the artist,” Littleton is quoted as saying.

After he returned to the United States, Littleton organized a glass workshop at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1962. He then developed an independent study course at UW that he taught out of his garage at his farm just outside Madison — and thus began the first studio hot glass program at an American university.

Harvey Littleton in the UW glassblowing lab
Harvey Littleton (Photo: University of Wisconsin–Madison Archives)

Littleton later built a large glassblowing studio and workshop on his farm, and around 1964 the glass program had its first home on campus in a Quonset hut on North Randall Avenue. It was in the 2000s that the Glass Lab moved to its current home in the Art Lofts at 111 N. Frances St.

Under Littleton’s watchful eye, UW–Madison’s early glass program and its alumni — including Tom McGlauchlin, Marvin Lipofsky, Sam Herman, Fritz Dreisbach, Joan Byrd, Audrey Handler, Henry Halem, Dale Chihuly, and Michael Taylor — became leaders in the studio glass movement, helping to ignite a renaissance in glassblowing in the United States and Europe. Today, a scholarship in Littleton’s name continues to support undergraduate students in the glass program.

A new generation of ‘glassies’

While Lee acknowledges the impact of Littleton and other early pioneers, she thinks it’s time to expand the narrative and make it more inclusive of voices that historically have been marginalized.

“I’m really interested in the way in which the contemporary artists working now are aligned with the spirit of that first exploratory moment,” she says. “There was this incredible energy at the start of that period, but we’re missing a huge part of what grew out of that and what the impact of that was — the decades of continued innovation and experimentation.”

Helen Lee puts glass into a glowing furnace
(Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Artists today are redefining what it means to be a glass artist, Lee says. The field includes more diverse voices, including growing recognition of women and people of color. It is more interdisciplinary, with artists who are trained in glass branching out into other media — and artists in other areas discovering that glass is a useful material to them. Glass artists are also forging connections with researchers and scientists, for example, to create work that is reflective of today’s challenges.

The field today is less about “object making,” says Lee. “There’s such a wide range of ways that artists are inhabiting the world, and what experiences they are bringing into the field.”

Helen Lee works with a student to stretch glass while it cools
(Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Alumni of UW–Madison’s Glass Lab are at the forefront in this new era of innovation in glass. Many have secured prestigious grants, fellowships, and awards to pursue projects across the world. A glass artist trained at UW–Madison recently explored seismic activity in New Zealand, for instance; another was researching drift in the Arctic Circle.

“I want to know where this material can take you,” says Lee. “It can take you to the Arctic Circle. It can take you to New Zealand and to Sweden. It can take you to all these corners of the world where your curiosity will lead you.”

It’s no accident that UW–Madison glass alumni are making names for themselves. Lee says UW–Madison’s program is noted for its rigorous scholarship, but also its interdisciplinarity. Graduate students in art are encouraged to collaborate across disciplines, and also to connect with faculty or take classes in departments such as geology, history, or gender and women’s studies.

Likewise, UW–Madison’s glassblowing classes attract students from departments all across campus.

“(Lee) has a way of bringing people in,” Buisch says, “and introduces them to working with glass parallel to their already ongoing research.”

He adds: “When you have a class with people from all parts of campus, the conversation is different. Helen is very committed to making sure that glass as a medium is available and open to anyone who wants to engage in it.”

Helen Lee watches students working in the Glass Lab
(Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Lee also highlights how UW–Madison’s glass program is “highly expansive in terms of how we think about the material.” Career outcomes for students in the university’s glass program are diverse. In addition to glass artists, alumni find work as scientific glassblowers, technicians, performance-based visual artists, and administrators or executive directors within glass facilities, to name a few examples.

“You can leave this program and build a real career for yourself that’s based in a deep engagement with this material,” she says.

Lauren Aria, a 2022 BFA graduate and recipient of the prestigious Windgate-Lamar Fellowship Award, agrees. “The UW Glass Lab is one of the best places for preparing students for a career outside of the undergraduate environment,” she says.

Aria notes that Lee pushes students “to do more than they think they can, and to think critically about their projects and how they fit into the ever-changing field of glass today.”

Another graduate, Anna Lehner — who earned her MFA in 2019 and in 2020 received a Fulbright Graduate Research Award to study seismic activity in New Zealand — says: “When I made the decision to go to grad school I knew I wanted to break down the stagnant walls of my art practice and be challenged.”

Lehner notes that she particularly values Lee’s expertise and mentorship, and adds: “The UW glass program has become robust and pivotal to the collegiate glass sphere because of her leadership.”

While Lee mentors the next generation of “glassies” at UW–Madison, she continues to advance her own artistic practice and gain wide recognition. Language and identity are central themes in her work.

“My relationship to language is heavily informed by growing up in a Chinese American household, growing up bilingual, and being somewhat receptively bilingual now,” she says. “It has also been informed by working in graphic design and having a really physical and spatial relationship to language.”

Seven glass cicadas in shades of jade green
Lee’s “Brood” consists of hundreds of glass cicadas, like these, whose jade-green color fades across generations. (Photo: Sirtaj S. Grewal)

Lee’s work “Brood,” which was recently included in a 2022 group exhibition at the Delaware Contemporary Gallery, consists of hundreds of cast-glass cicadas whose jade-green color fades across generations to visualize the transmission of legacy over time.

Another recent work, “Alphabit” — part of the 2019 exhibition, “New Glass Now,” at the Corning Museum of Glass — takes the form of a glass cabinet for letterpress type. Within the cabinet are 10,000 glass letters in five sizes displayed in backlighted trays, which Lee created using a 15th century Venetian technique called “murrine.”

“Lee’s letters foreground the role of glass in contemporary communication and, by extension, in the formation of contemporary thought,” writes Susie J. Silbert, the curator of postwar and contemporary glass at the Corning Museum of Glass — who also is a 2003 alumna of UW–Madison’s glass program.

In addition to being an artist and educator, Lee is an advocate for opportunity and equity in the glass field. During the pandemic she formed the nonprofit Glass Education Exchange (GEEX) with 2019 UW–Madison glass alumni Emily Leach and Ben Orozco. GEEX is an online platform to increase resource-sharing among glass educators that is dedicated to centering glass artists from historically marginalized backgrounds, establishing new leadership in the field, and modeling fair compensation.

A graduate student works with glass
(Photo: Sarah Maughan)

Through all that she does, Lee is helping to build a future for glass that is creatively vibrant, sustainable, and inclusive. She sees UW–Madison’s glass program — and its alumni — as vital contributors who will help shape this future. Among her projects, she is working toward a 10-year alumni exhibition with an accompanying catalog, and hopes to host a concurrent intercollegiate symposium on glass as well.

“My hope is for the UW–Madison and extended communities to gain greater literacy in the highly compelling new legacies in glass that are being established out of this program in so many divergent ways today,” says Lee. “This is the most meaningful way in which I can truly honor the program’s legacy.”

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