Speaking Transparently: Helen Lee’s Worldbuilding Practice  

Portrait photo by Kaleb Autman.

[ID: Asian woman in light grey long sleeve shirt in a studio environment with book shelves, neon light, and tool cabinets behind her.]

Helen Lee is one of the most dynamic thinkers in glass today. In an artistic practice that spans both studio and advocacy work, she has spent her career investigating the many meanings and possibilities of transparency. The way that it can lay bare structures that need changing, the way that it can be mistaken for passivity and silence, and the way it can give people the vision to change what isn’t working.

Lee is a world builder. A key aspect of her practice has always been to create platforms and opportunities for others. A few years out of graduate school, she teamed up with some fellow RISD alums to create Hyperopia Projects, a curatorial and publishing platform designed to bring attention to artists overlooked by mainstream glass. Then, ten years ago, she joined University of Wisconsin-Madison, reinvigorating the program and graduating some of the most progressive glassmakers and thinkers in the country. Four years ago, in the dark days of 2020, she founded the nonprofit Glass Education Exchange (GEEX) with Emily Leach and Ben Orozoco. GEEX bills itself as a “virtual textbook” for the glass community that centers the voices of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ artists. She sees this as critical work, aimed at building the “field in which [she] wishes [her] work to be seen.”

Platforming other people can, at first, seem like silencing the self. When you pass the microphone, you are, necessarily, amplifying somebody else’s voice. But to Lee, who has contended with the negative stereotypes of Asian silence her whole life, that read is too reductive. “If I make the metaphor of ‘seeing through’ as equivalent to being silent, the materialist in me is like, ‘Yeah, but wait! Seeing through is the f***ing magic trick of glass! It’s really powerful. It’s not to be dismissed. It’s not to be minimized. Perhaps we could re-look at that quality of silence, and where it comes from, and what role it plays with a little bit more attention to the complexities behind it.”

Lee made this comment while describing her piece Obverse/Reverse (2021), a collaboration with type designer Alice Chau. Deceptively simple, the piece consists of four Chinese coins made of transparent gold glass, woven together in a way that recalls a Feng Shui good luck charm. To a non-Chinese speaking public, the piece appears mute: its glass is passive and transparent, the words encoded on its front and back in Chinese and Chinese braille appear as so much pattern. What’s more, as you look at the piece, it seems to disappear from view as it rotates on its axis exposing the coins’ thin edges.

But the piece is not silent. It’s anything but. For those who are familiar with Chinese culture and language, the piece nearly screams with associations, meanings, and rhymes; dichotomies of Lee’s diasporic existence. Obverse/Reverse is a “good luck charm” in a decidedly unlucky arrangement of four, a number whose name sounds like death. Four words occupy the cardinal directions on the coin’s front faces replacing the traditional inscriptions of date, place, and value. In their place, “life” appears opposite “death,” “sound” appears opposite “silence,” each one a homophone for its pair chosen specifically for its poetic nuance.  On the back the words are repeated in four dialects of Chinese braille, a Rosetta Stone for an imagined public that unlocks layers and layers of meaning where others see only ornament.

Helen Lee in the studio. Photo by Kaleb Autman.

[ID: Asian woman in light grey tshirt and jeans holding a blowpipe and rolling a glowing hot glass bubble on a steel table in front of her.]

It’s really powerful. It’s not to be dismissed. It’s not to be minimized. Perhaps we could re-look at that quality of silence, and where it comes from, and what role it plays with a little bit more attention to the complexities behind it.

Beyond the words, the piece’s physicality hints directly at the “magic trick” of transparent glass. Because even when you are looking through its frontal view, the image you see is not an objective transparency. Rather, the reflective coating and the glassy surface itself spits back snippets of the room in a layered complexity that changes continually as the piece makes its transit. What some might dismissively see as a quiet work—a trinket—instead creates a layered frame that platforms new insights into the world around it. Sights that would not exist without the work’s presence.

Lee has worked with silence, transparency, and legibility since her graduate studies. A piece titled AN•E•CHO•IC (2006), explored this notion in depth. Made using a font she developed in glass, the titular word was composed by slicing specially blown vessels in half to reveal the contours of letters. Formed through the movement of her body, inflated by the exhalations of her breath, the words are literally an embodied text. As concrete a poetry as can be. And yet, because they were blown in transparent glass and backlit by either the ambient light of the street or darkened by the gallery’s interior, the words are nearly invisible, dissipating into their surroundings, leaving—as their title indicates—(almost) no echo or reverberation.

In 2018, Lee returned to the topic of residues in a moving work titled 1/f, based on her childhood memory of her father’s breath as she rested her head on his chest as he spoke. Here again, the particular words—represented by the whooshing of thousands of transparent glass orbs as they shift from side to side on tilting sheets of glass—do not reverberate, their meaning lost to time. Instead, what echoes in the wave-like wall of sound is the pink-noise (as the title alludes) of his body, the calming warmth of the blood coursing in his veins, the air filling and receding from his lungs as he spoke. In other words, the tangible communication of bodies that is lost through death, recoverable through nothing more than biological echoes.

1/f, 2018.

[Video description: Gallery installation of six platforms holding hundreds of marble-sized glass spheres. The platforms tilt back and forth smoothly, causing the glass spheres to cascade back and forth. The ensuing sound they make can be interpreted as pink noise or the sound of rain on window panes.]

It is a voice that speaks to the experience of diaspora and the challenges of keeping heritage and tradition alive on distant and sometimes unfriendly shores. It is a voice that uses the magic of glass to reflect, reframe, and complicate. 

Her recent work also treats generational loss and connection, only now from the perspective of a parent trying to make Chinese culture come alive for her child. Amulet (2022) is a video work that opens with Lee’s daughter reciting the Zhuyin Fuhao, a phonetic alphabet used primarily in Taiwan and diasporic communities to teach Mandarin. We see and hear her forming the sounds—the work is silent no longer—and as we watch, the daughter’s image morphs into that of the artist. Lee completes the recitation, opening her mouth at the end to reveal a gilded glass cicada resting on her tongue, a traditional Chinese symbol of rebirth placed on the tongues of the dead. In Lee’s mouth, the cicada is both an impediment to her pronunciation and a sincere wish that even the imperfect echoes she produces will be enough for the language to be reborn in her daughter.

With Amulet, Lee has quite literally found her voice. It is one that speaks with clarity from the specificity of her experience, but that resonates far beyond the confines of her family. It is a voice that speaks to the experience of diaspora and the challenges of keeping heritage and tradition alive on distant and sometimes unfriendly shores. It is a voice that uses the magic of glass to reflect, reframe, and complicate. 

It is a voice that has come out now because, four years after founding GEEX, she has given form to a world in which she knows it will be heard. In building a platform that successfully foregrounds artists like Dyani White Hawk, Charisse Pearlina Weston, and Tanya Aguiñiga, who tell rich and nuanced stories of tending to the fires of identity, culture, and heritage, and in convening a community of listeners and co-learners, Lee is finally speaking to the field she has dreamed of, a field that is primed to receive the words she has to say. 

—Susie J. Silbert, curator, writer, glassy thinker

April 30, 2024

Susie J. Silbert
She // Her // Hers
Corning, NY

Susie J. Silbert is a curator and writer with a passion for people and the things they make. From 2016–2023, she was the curator of postwar and contemporary glass at The Corning Museum of Glass, but she got her start in the studio, studying glass, ceramics and textiles at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. After college, she moved to the community surrounding the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina where worked with a number of craftspeople in different media and pretended to like bluegrass. Her first break into museums was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, in 2008 and she returned to Houston as a curatorial fellow at the Houston Center for Contemporary Craft in 2011 after completing her Master’s degree at the Bard Graduate Center in NYC. She’s curated shows at a bunch of places, written for a number of different venues, and taught History of Glass at RISD for four years. Her most recent big show was New Glass Now, an international survey of contemporary glass featuring 100 artists from more than 26 different countries.