The fiery furnace of artist Arlan Huang

Posted by Lia Chang on Wednesday, 10 November 2004.

Inside the fiery furnace of glass sculptor and painter Arlan Huang

Ive trekked to Scanlan Glass in Brooklyn to experience glass sculptor Arlan Huang at play. In this hot shop built by fellow artist Kevin Scanlan, he works with a crew of several men, including his son Joey, to create his ethereal blown glass vessels.

This afternoon, he is developing the river stone shaped glass pieces for his sculptural installation for the lobby of the new $173 million, 400,000 square foot Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, commissioned by the Percentage for Art in NYC Program.

The design is Huang's homage to a Zen rock garden and reflecting pool which, when completed, will hang 20 feet above the main staircase and escalators of the building, residing within the interior skylight space. 50 blown glass pieces will seemingly be connected by umbilical cords of fiber optic cable. They will be lit from within by a fiber optic system. The art will hang at designated heights with stainless steel cables.

It is a labor intensive process as he melts the glass in the furnace, sculpts it and plunges it into the glory hole to be reheated.

Wary of the blowtorch flame he is wielding as I photograph the glass taking shape, I am mesmerized by the magic. His eldest son Ray, who is studying filmmaking at USC, documents the afternoon session with his camcorder.

I caught up with the artist a few days later back in Manhattan, over coffee and croissants at Caf Gitane in Soho around the corner from his framing shop, Squid Frame.

An avid storyteller, he talked of his colorful family history, his San Francisco childhood, his strong connection to the community and how family and being Chinese have shaped the very core of his being.

I first discovered Arlan Huang in 1994 at the Museum of the Chinese in the Americas in New York Chinatown. Entitled, "Dim Sum-Hearts Desire," Huang's mixed media installation was an approximation of his grandparent's New York Chinatown tenement, with 100 numbered glass stones among the glass inventions representing a family history passed down from generation to generation.

"100 stones for Grandpa," shared Huang, "tells how my grandfather immigrated from Vancouver to Alaska to Bangor and how he went back to China to get his wife and bring her back to Bangor. It is also the story of how migration happens and how they ended up on Mulberry St. There's sort of a microcosm in Asian American history because of the immigration laws passed in the 1950's where more immigrants could come to the U.S. My grandmothers relatives immigrated to New York in the 1950's and my grandparents came to help them get settled."

In 1996, Huang created a glass wall installation entitled, "American Origin" at P.S. 152 in Brooklyn for the New York City Board of Education, in the hope of contributing to the ideas of American public education. The focal point for this installation is the immigrant experience and the collective hope of coming to America to educate children in the best education system possible.

Fabricated of glass stones encased in glass blocks, there are 247 transparent, translucent and opaque colored stones numbered from 152-399; some sandblasted in Chinese calligraphy. The numbers are also etched on the outside of the glass blocks. The block between 282 and 283 in the red wall is the only block not numbered. It contains the shards of a word sculpture by the artist John Brekke.

Born in Bangor, Maine in 1948 and raised in San Francisco since the age of 2, this third generation Chinese American artist was instilled with a keen sense of the importance of community. He was involved with Chinatown groups and at the Chinatown YMCA, where his uncle was the resident youth director.

"My mother's parents were pioneers in San Francisco, steeped in Chinatown lore since they came to the States. Her parents were very civil minded; her father was the president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. My mother's grandfather was gunned down in the street. He ran this racket where he would bring the cheating notes to the people at the Angel Island Immigration Station. He was a food carrier. In the food was all of the notes for the test. For a price. Grandma was the first group of Chinese who developed the YWCA, the current home of the Chinese Historical Society of America. Each of the charter members, have their own rooms," he said.

He credits his mother for nurturing his artistic sensibilities at an early age.

"My family on my mothers side has an artistic spirit. The way they view life is from the artistic point of view. There were so many things that were given to me by my family, gifts of vision. The way you look at mountains, the way you are in society. The way you conduct your life. These are really the basic tenents of why I do art," shared Huang.

From the ages of 7 -11, he was obsessed with winning a drawing contest sponsored by the San Francisco Chronicle. At age seven, he knew his drawings were better than any of the ones that were winning. He would enter the contest faithfully, but would only get an honorable mention.

"In junior high, I was fairly sports minded. The art contest would be on the back page of the Chronicle's Sporting Green section. One morning I was reading the Sporting Geen before school and out of curiousity checked to see who had won the art contest. I noticed that it looked like one of my paintings. Sure enough, I read the line and it was my name. I couldn't believe it, I knew I hadn't sent it in. All these years that I wasn't entering, my mom was sending things in. She sent one in and it won. I was 12. I finally won the contest and it was because of mom," he said.

He began his formal art studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, the City College of San Francisco and chose the Pratt Institute in New York which gave him the opportunity to spend time with his paternal grandparents.

"Throughout my life, there was always something special for me with my relationship with my grandparents. I came to New York to get to know them better," he said.

During the week he would be at the dorms immersed in a diverse curriculum of art, sculpture, painting and architectural engineering classes. On the weekends he made his way to Mulberry St. for dinner with his grandparents. He received his B.F.A. in 1972 from Pratt but not before making a slight detour.

"A strange thing happened on the way to graduation. The anti-war movement, '69. '70, '71. That took up more time than school. In my last year of school, I became involved with Basement Workshop, a New York Chinatown Coalition where we were able to express ourselves artistically. We produced Yellow Pearl , a compilation of Asian American poetry, songs and graphics. All of these students headed to Basement Workshop on Elizabeth St. The publication of Yellow Pearl took a year. We had meetings, once, twice, three times a week. I remember going to meetings every night. That time was a magical time. It was a romantic period, because you were audacious, you thought things could really change, youre going to work for them. Anything was possible. The time was revolution. Those were times when things were being defined. Even the term Asian American wasnt made up yet," he said.

Recently, Arlan returned to his first lovepaintingand has been enjoying the luxury of moving oil paint and being "in" the painting in solitude. He considers this medium to be a counter point to his glass blowing activities which are a social, team-oriented process. In May 2004, China 2000 Fine Art Gallery in New York presented his paintings in a solo exhibition called Lost Touch .

According to arts journalist Sam Fromartz, "Arlan Huang's recurrent theme is ambiguity and the search for something elusive and ephemeral. For him, creativity entails motion and transition, growing in maturity and seeking a path towards artistry and beauty. In this exhibition of paintings in oil on cotton painted during the past two years, Huang's paintings have evolved into ribbons of color, braided haphazardly, playful and light and dense. The textured works fill up the canvas, like a state of being or mind. Huangs line is like a melody following an internal logic and intuitive meter. The broad strokes and imperfect arcs skate across the surface, falling in and out of time. There is turmoil and energy here but paradoxically the works seem tranquil and meditative. Like music, but silent, or life's stories, and then their absence. The paintings hold these poles together for a minute and then let go, the still center of a turning world."

Huang has designed public works of art for the National Endowment for the Arts and has created permanent glass sculptures for the New York City Percent for the Arts Program and the New York Dormitory Authority. For Urban Glass, he created "Aquellos Ojos Verdes for Olga," a steel and wood framed blown glass in glass block partition. For Baron Capital, a New York brokerage firm, he worked with Genseler and Associates on an undulating glass block wall.

His latest projects include a glass and steel commission for Laguna Honda Hospital for the San Francisco Arts Commission, an installation for the Borough of Manhattan Community College and the Jacobi Hospital installation.

Insights of Arlan Huang's Artistic Soul
The new pieces in my Heaven's Due collection, which were on view at Gump's in San Francisco, were derived off of painting. It's about heaven's due; something that is owed. Its payment.

One of the hardest things in glass is getting the right tints. Because I am a painter, I am always mixing colors and am very particular about specific tints, shades, grays. With glass, it is very difficult to do that because the colors are not mixable. There is no way of mixing them in a palette and then putting them on like paint. All these years Ive been trying to get a particular tint. And with these pieces I finally got it. Because of the hollowness, you are afforded a couple of different techniques combined to make tints and the quiet subtle colors.

Presenting something new with something old can be difficult. All these vessels that Ive blown, they are old forms, there is nothing new about blowing or the form. That's what the paintings are about, that's what the tints are about, thats what the colors are about. It's about the sublime.

The last couple of years have been very difficult for me. Painting has saved me. It has made me reach back to see why I like painting, why I wanted to paint in the first place.

Art is therapy. It's a way. It's not an end product, it's not a picture, its not a painting. It's not a sculpture, it's the act of doing, it's process. Those things are the evidence that I have been doing it. That process is an investigation. Often times that investigation is not pleasant.

Painting is really not a pleasant thing sometimes. If you honestly try to investigate certain things, you have to face up to certain truths. If you are not facing up to these truths, if you are not going to deal with them, then you are not investigating deeply enough.

Fishing is like art. The head is the same. The intention is the same. Its the hope. Im throwing out a line. Why do you think a fish would bite that? What makes me think that a fish is going to bite that plastic thing?

Blowing the glass that's where it's fun. That's where it is spontaneous. Fishing and blowing glass are my passions.

Scanlan Glass
103 14th Street
Brooklyn, NY
(718) 369-3645
A limited number of Blue Lantern Vessels will be available prior to the opening. For more info, contact Arlan @ 212-966-2205.

For more on the Art of Arlan Huang