Congrats to artist Arlan Huang, who recently received a 2013-2014 CALL, or Creating A Living Legacy Award, from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, which provides support to visual artists in creating, through organizing and inventorying, comprehensive documentation of their artworks and careers.
Born in Bangor, Maine in 1948, and raised in San Francisco since the age of 2, Huang is an avid storyteller, who 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. He was involved with Chinatown groups and at the Chinatown YMCA, where his uncle was the resident youth director.
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.
“100 stones for Grandfather,” shared Huang, “tells how my grandfather immigrated from Seattle to 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.
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.
“My mother’s parents were pioneers in San Francisco, steeped in Chinatown lore since they came to the States.”
Huang’s West Coast grandparents were very civil minded; his grandfather was the president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. The Chinese Historical Society of America building, designed by renowned architect Julia Morgan, was originally the Chinatown branch of the YWCA. There is a room dedicated to Huang’s grandmother, a founding member.
His great-grandfather ran an Angel Island Immigration racket. As a food carrier, he would bring the cheating notes, amongst the prepared dishes, to the people at the Angel Island Immigration Station.
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.
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.”
“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.”
Growing up Chinese American in San Francisco, and his involvement with the Chinese YMCA, CCYC – Chinese Christian Youth Conference, influenced his early works which were community based – posters, cards, and projects in silk screen.
Huang’s first formal art training began with a high school art class at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1964, when he was still a senior at Galileo High School. Watercolor was his medium, but at the Institute, he was exposed to oil and acrylic paints, working on canvas, and the Diego Rivera mural painted on one wall of the classroom.
Huang took art and design classes at City College of San Francisco from 1966-1969. These were formative years of Asian American and social consciousness for him. The assassinations of JFK, RFK, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the riots at San Francisco State College and the free speech movement at Berkeley, transformed his view on life. He was drawn to social issues and how art related to them.
“The term Asian Americans was not even around then,” said Huang. “There was an issue with the chancellor, SI Hayakawa. I was going to State from City all the time; it is also the beginning of hippies, Haight/Ashbury. The confluences of all these things shaped my social conscious. I participated in them.”
“I had to struggle to find my identity, as an American of Chinese descent,” said Huang. “It was a big struggle to understand myself as an American. With the Black Panther movement in Oakland, the Red Guard in Chinatown and the anti-war movement, I was elevated to the black struggle in America and the freedom movement. Seeing racism in America and how it is set up. Self-identity movement begins to happen. Asian American politics become natural to me. The Asian American –antiwar movement took a foothold in America. I was radicalized when I arrived in New York to go to art school.”
Attending Pratt Institute in New York 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.
culturestrike.net: 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.
“I think that the art I was doing for the community, served the community and the cause,” said Huang. “There’s this duality, dealing with the art world is totally separate. It has it’s own mechanism. You aspire to be in this world when you go to art school. If you are doing Asian American art, for that movement, that does not fit into that history. In the art world part, I am always trying to integrate my history, fit that into my painting. There are things that are not in my vision. Art has always saved me. The art that I do now is a very personal art. It always brings me through. It has taken years to resolve the two types of art. My art is more Asian American than it has ever been.”
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 commissions 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 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 hangs 20 feet above the main staircase and escalators of the building, residing within the interior skylight space. The 50 blown glass pieces seem connected by umbilical cords of fiber optic cable.
Huang has 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.
To contact Arlan regarding his glass vessels and paintings, you can email him at email@example.com.
Other articles about Arlan:
medium.com: Arlan Huang: Art and Artists
Arlan Huang Celebrates Most Violet
MOST VIOLET:PAINTINGS 2003- 2008 by Arlan Huang
Inside the fiery furnace of glass sculptor and painter Arlan Huang
Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in FebOne1960.com Blog, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.
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