Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Lia Chang: Inside the fiery furnace of glass sculptor and painter Arlan Huang

Arlan Huang, Painter. (Photo by Lia Chang)

Arlan Huang, Painter. (Photo by Lia Chang)

updated 3/12/14
I’ve 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.

Suddenly Laughter Jacobi Medical Center

Suddenly Laughter
Jacobi Medical Center

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.

Suddenly Laughter Jacobi Medical Center

Suddenly Laughter
Jacobi Medical Center

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 Cafe 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 grandparents’ New York Chinatown tenement, with 100 numbered glass stones among the glass inventions representing a family history passed down from generation to generation.


Dim Sum, Heart’s Desire
168x96x72 inches (h x w x d)
installation by Arlan Huang. Photo courtesy of

“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 grandmother’s 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 Origins” 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.

Detail of American Origins, Red Wall 168x96x72 inches (h x w x d) site specific installation "American Origins, located in P.S. 152, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of

Detail of American Origins, Red Wall 5x x 128 inches site specific installation “American Origins,” located in P.S. 152, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of

Fabricated of glass stones encased in glass blocks, there are 247 transparent, translucent and opaque colored stones numbered from 152-399. 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.

American Origins, Red Wall 168x96x72 inches (h x w x d) site specific installation "American Origins, located in P.S. 152, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of

American Origins, Red Wall
56 x 128 inches 
site specific installation
“American Origins,” located in P.S. 152, Brooklyn. Photo courtesy of

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.

Huang credits his mother’s side of the family with nurturing his artistic spirit. His mother played piano and the church organ. One uncle introduced him to model making. Another planted the seeds for his love of the Sierra Nevada, and the idea of being one with nature. His mother’s childhood friend, an art teacher, instilled in him the love for art. She offered him a perspective into seeing, making and critiquing art.

Arlan Huang sculpting a glass vessel in Brooklyn in 1999. Photo by Lia Chang

Arlan Huang sculpting a glass vessel in Brooklyn in 1999. Photo by Lia Chang

From age 7 to 11 Huang was obsessed with winning the San Francisco Chronicle’s weekly art contest. The budding artist was confident that he would win, but his highest ranking was second. Unperturbed, his mother would give him more stamps for the next contest, and by age 11, he had a stack of honorable mention certificates. He decided that Jr High School was more exciting, and the contest faded from his interest.

“One year later, before heading off to class I casually flipped the newspaper to the art page. This time the winning painting looked familiar. There it was, my painting, my name. I had won. My family was ecstatic. Who submitted my art? Alas, my mother was faithfully submitting my art for a year.”

Arlan Huang sculpting a glass vessel in Brooklyn in 1999. Photo by Lia Chang

Arlan Huang sculpting a glass vessel in Brooklyn in 1999. Photo by Lia Chang

Arlan Huang sculpting a glass vessel in Brooklyn in 1999. Photo by Lia Chang

Arlan Huang sculpting a glass vessel in Brooklyn in 1999. Photo by Lia Chang

“The heart and soul of my art belongs to my mom. Quite perseverance comes from my father.”

“My father’s side gave me the humorous, raucous and most joyous aspect of family living. My father quietly gave me his shoulders to stand on. And most of all, grandma made lobster Cantonese.”

Huang began his formal art studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, the City College of San Francisco and chose 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.

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.

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.

1977 Street Fair," by Arlan Huang. 1977. Courtesy of Tomie Arai

1977 Street Fair,” by Arlan Huang. 1977. Courtesy of Tomie Arai Taking Back Chinatown
“A strange thing happened on the way to graduation. The anti-war movement, ’69. ’70, ’71. That took up more time than school.”

During Huang’s last year of college, he participated along with other Asian American students, artists, and community activists in the publication of Yellow Pearl, a compilation of Asian American poetry and songs by Chris Ijima, Nobuko Myamoto, and “Charlie” Chin. The group met at Basement Workshop on Elizabeth St., an Asian American community arts center in New York’s Chinatown.

“The publication of Yellow Pearl took a year. We had meetings, once, twice, three times a week. That time was a magical time. It was a romantic period. Because you were audacious, you thought things could really change. The time was revolution. Those were times when things were being defined. Even the term Asian American wasn’t made up yet,” he said.

Recently, Arlan returned to his first love painting and 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. Huang’s 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.

Heaven's Due

Heaven’s Due

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. It’s 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 I’ve 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 I’ve 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, it’s 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. It’s the hope. I’m 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

Other articles by Lia Chang:
Photos: Bryan Cranston, Peter Jay Fernandez, Roslyn Ruff, Tamara Tunie, Leslie Uggams, Ruben Santiago-Hudson Celebrate All The Way Opening Night
Mar. 7-Apr. 6: André De Shields, Adam Chanler-Berat, Kyle Beltran, Kevin Mambo and More Set for DTC’s World Premiere Musical The Fortress of Solitude, A Co-Production with The Public Theater
André De Shields, Kevin Carolan, Usman Ally, Mary Zimmerman, Doug Peck Among 10 IRNE Nominations for Huntington’s World Premiere of The Jungle Book, a co-production with The Goodman
Mar. 21-May 4: Richard Thomas, Ron Rifkin, Hallie Foote and Khaled Nabaway Set for Arena Stage’s World Premiere of Lawrence Wright’s Camp David
Photos: Backstage and Opening Night of Signature’s World Premiere of David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu
Rome Neal’s Banana Puddin’ Jazz Presents “LADY” Featuring Lia Chang, Monica Garrido, Carolyn Holmes, Noel Simon’ Wippler, Linda Hudson, Adi Meyerson and Kathleen Doran
Photos: Harriet Harris, John Tartaglia, Christine Toy Johnson, Alan Muraoka, James Saito and More celebrate Ann Harada’s Debut at Lincoln Center in the American Songbook Series
Photos: Steve Rosen, David Rossmer, Hannah Elless, Vadim Feichtner, Cathryn Salamone, Ken Triwush and Kate Wetherhead Celebrate The Other Josh Cohen Opening Night
Celebrating the Year of the Horse with David Henry Hwang’s Kung Fu at Signature Theatre; Previews begin February 4, 2014
Q & A with Meet Me in St. Louis: A Live Radio Play’s Garth Kravits Photos: David Henry Hwang, Annie Baker and Rajiv Joseph honored at Sixth Annual Steinberg Playwright “Mimi” Awards 
Photos: Christine Toy Johnson, Baayork Lee, Jose Llana, Ann Harada, Dodie Pettit and More at Charles Randolph-Wright’s “Three Voices” concert series at Stage 72 
Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.

Lia Chang. Photo by Charles Richard Barboza

Lia Chang. Photo by Charles Richard Barboza

Lia Chang is an actor, a performance and fine art botanical photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia recently starred as Carole Barbara in Lorey Hayes’ Power Play at the 2013 National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, N.C., with Pauletta Pearson Washington, Roscoe Orman, Lorey Hayes, Marcus Naylor and Phynjuar, and made her jazz vocalist debut in Rome Neal’s Banana Puddin’ Jazz “LADY” at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York. She is profiled in Jade Magazine.

All text, graphics, articles & photographs: © 2000-2014 Lia Chang Multimedia. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Lia Chang. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. For permission, please contact Lia at


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