She is a glass artist that captures with her artworks untouchable moments that she would not like to forget.
Meng Du graduated from Central Academy of Fine Arts’s Graphic Design department, Beijing, fell in love with glass after seeing Chihuly’s exhibition and moved to the U.S.A. for M.A. in Glass Making at Rochester Institute of Technology. In June 2016, she had her first solo exhibition in New York. The same year, she won an Honorable Mention for The International Exhibition of Glass Kanazawa in Kanazawa, Japan. In 2018 she got a solo exhibition at Shanghai Museum of Glass, as the youngest artist whoever has a solo show there. This year she won the 2018 Saxe Emerging Artist Award at 48th Glass Art Society Conference, Venice, Italy. She has been teaching as the Adjunct Faculty at the Central Academy of Fine Arts since 2016. Her work has continued to exhibit in China, Europe, and in the United States. She recently has participated in Mind the Gap, a group show about different generations of female Chinese Contemporary Artists at Delaware Museum of Contemporary Art, and had her recent second solo show in New York, Meng Du: Embers, at the Fou Gallery.
I was very impressed by your “Artist statement”. Can you tell us how this affirmation of yours leads you to choose the path of art glassmaking? Can you tell us about your beginnings?
While I was working on my thesis project in my senior year in college, I was the only student in my studio who chose to collaborate with my hands more than software. I engraved all my printing wax plates myself, and hand-printed every single page of my design with a “low-tech” stencil printer I found on Taobao. All of my failures and unexpected surprises pushed me to continue exploring. Since then I found I am very interested in all kinds of process which are related to practicing with my hands and time. My first trip to the United States introduced me to many amazing museums and galleries. It was the first time I found glass could be introduced as an art language in a museum setting. Soon after I returned to China, I began to look up for the graduate programs in glass in the states and that’s how my path got to lead to RIT which located in Rochester, NY.
How long did it take you to learn? Did you find any difficulties that made you ask if it was your right path, during your training?
For kiln-working and cold-working techniques, it took me about a year to feel comfortable working by myself. For glass blowing, it took me a very long time, almost three years, to get used to the heat and feel more confident working in the hot shop. Besides broken glass and failed experiments piled up in my studio space, cuts and blisters were my good working buddies too. Not even mention about my poor English skills at the beginning of my graduate study, which made it extra harder to make little progress in my study. It was a rough year, to be honest, but I am very proud that I survived. Of course, I question myself a lot every once in a while, even today. Glass has many unique characteristics, challenging and unpredictable, sometimes it could really give me a headache, but after all, it’s an amazing journey to get to know the nature of this incredible material little by little.
There is a quiet beauty in the moment that triggers personal memories. I am interested in preserving memories and keeping a record of them so they do not fade over time. I also want to show memories in decay, as a way of memorializing them and showing the process of their slow disappearance from our consciousness. Collecting and drawing found objects are the ways I record my life. With a natural instinct to extract meaning from narrative, I also find these activities to be the inspiration of my work. I incorporate the drawings and illustrations, which come from my personal life experience into the surface treatment and imaging techniques of glass. To represent the nostalgic feeling and memories of certain times and places that I do not want to let go of.” – Meng Du
What fascinates you most about the various steps in glass processing? What feelings did you experience when you finished your first creation?
To be able to shape the glass with temperature and time, I believe that’s the most fascinating parts about working with glass. As I mentioned in the previous question, my English was broken when I just started grad school. When I had difficulties to express myself verbally, it forced me to learn how to express myself visually. And I felt so relieved after finishing my first work.
Not only because I finally made it, but also the work was helping me telling the stories about myself.
Unlike other art forms, glass is a substance that you can’t touch with your hands when you are working with it. Can you tell us about your relationship with the material?
Under most of the circumstances, to be able to manipulate glass when it’s hot, tools are very necessary. But before practicing how to use the tools, observation is more essential during the learning process to me. A good eye helps me to understand the logic behind every step: the temperature charts, gravity, and all the details that affect my work…etc. Gradually, tools become part of my body, as an extension of my gestures and movement. Then everything starts to flow smoothly. The state of glass could be changed between liquidity and solidity depending on the temperature. It is such a magical material that shows the nature of sensitiveness, fragility, yet at the same time, it could also be strong and powerful. It balances itself. I see the glass as a good friend and a life mentor, who enlightens me in every way about life. Most importantly, glass introduces me to embrace things in a more equilibrious way.
The sadness, fear and even hope that has always existed there, intertwined and fleeting. The narrative glass pieces not only record the artist’s life experience, but also portray a sophisticated, but the refreshing world through the various shining forms of glass.
While the material is a liquid, and then it turns into a solid, it’s like a sort of magic. What are the main difficulties in making artwork with glass?
To learn the whole working theory of glass, I need to run lots of tests and spend thousands of hours in the shops for practice. It’s a very time-consuming process that requires patience. I can’t guarantee every day is a good day. Things may go wrong at any moment, sometimes it could be frustrating when I have to look at my work blow up in front of my face after hours of hard work. It could be difficult to deal with, and it takes some time to get used to it for sure. And that’s how I learned when I need to take things easy and give some space to myself and glass. Usually, things get a lot better after taking a break from the studio. Stay calm then try it one more time!
Your work requires precision. Do you reflect on the processing techniques? Have you ever felt worried about possible dangers during work processing?
I do. I am not very good at social. That’s probably why I found myself very comfortable working by myself in the kiln shop, which requires lots of patience and time, taking forever to go through all the process… Above all, I could touch the clay and plaster and most of the materials for sculpting. It’s a “beginner-friendly” technique for me in my earlier studio practice. While I am working in the kiln shop, it also gives me enough time to think before moving to the next step. I got injured pretty frequently when I was a beginner (…Ouch!). I then became very cautious and always stayed alert from the potential false manipulations. Not being hurt is also considered being professional, isn’t it?
Her glassworks contains something hidden and mysterious inside. They are touchable fantasies from the artist’s personal memories.
Glass transmits dainty, fragility but also solidity and protection. From your artworks, we can see transparency, clarity, a point of view, new and unusual. Do these characteristics represent you? What do you want to communicate with those who approach your artworks?
Yes, I believe so. When the light passing through glass, it may be translated into all kinds of emotions. To me, it’s the most touching part of working with glass. And it is probably why my works are so subtle and narrative. That one blink could be represented as time or soul, or it could certainly be anything… Every viewer has a different background with a unique perspective about the world, which may help them to follow that shining moment and recall their memories or stories about the past.
I see my works as “windows”. And I hope the viewers could see through the glass as an observer, or look into the eyes of themselves from the reflection on the mirror.
You realize diverse explorations of art with glass. Your works range from painting, sculpture to installation. What else might surprise those who probably don’t know the art of the glass?
Thank you! I don’t know the answer yet… hmm… Today the technology is blurring the boundaries of all kinds of media. The way how people work with glass has been changing in the past decades as well. For example, instead of drawing on glass sheets with enamels by hand, we can now silk-print high-temperature enamels or glass powder on the sheets then fuse them to show the patterns in different layers.
I am always curious about how glass could collaborate with other materials or techniques for more possibilities. It’s exactly what’s I am moving towards.
Glass can break or shatter if subjected to relatively small changes or bumps. Even people during life are facing this issue.
You have had several professional experiences in different parts of the world (Latvia, Lithuania, UK, Italy, NY). Have these experiences influenced and changed your artistic philosophy and the way you see glass making?
2018 was a special year. I had four trips to Europe in the second half of the year, which was quite unusual for me. Before I returned to China in 2016, I barely knew any artists from Europe or have seen people working in the studios outside of the states. These trips not only widen my world but introduced me so many talented artists and educators and even the random people I met through the journey. It was so fascinating to visit various studios and programs, to learn how people work in the shops in different areas. Sometimes language is not working that well since English is both our second language, but it’s totally fine because we could always share with the same language of glass~ isn’t it amazing? I didn’t get much chance to see stain-glass windows in the Cathedrals or churches when I was living in the states. Therefore, when I was in Europe, I was very glad that I finally got a chance to look at them so closely. When the colorful shadows painted on the floor through the glass, the whole space was filled with a marvelous atmosphere which is hard to express orally. And I believe they did influence me in my future works like the Letter series and Ripple series that I showed at the FOU gallery.
What did it mean to you to have your solo exhibition at the Shanghai Museum of Glass, as the youngest artist whoever has a solo show?
A momentous mark in my career. It was a very very big deal to me when I got the official invitation from SHMoG. And I appreciate the opportunity to work with them and to learn from them through one and half a year of the exhibition preparation process. With their help, my works were more open to the public but personal, plus, I completed my first large installation with sound.
I am very happy about how the result turned out.
You are a female glassmaker working in a traditional industry that had a predominant space for males. What do you think are the most important skills in this profession? Have you seen the number of women increase, during your years of activity?
Persistence, traveling and embracing the difficulties. Yes, a lot! Artists, curators, and galleries staff, most of the people I work with are brilliant females in this field. In 2017, I was the TA for Aya Oki’s class at Pilchuck school of glass (WA). Throughout the whole summer, there were 6 sessions of workshops and every session had different professional gaffer teams for assisting visiting artists for their works. I remembered we were all very proud that it was a girl-power year~ All the gaffers chosen for the summer sessions were female glass blowers, which was super awesome! I also visited Japan quite often in the past three years. I did residencies at Aichi University of Education for two times in both 2017 and 2019. Most of the students in the class were girls too. And there are similar situations in the glass programs in China too. 70-80% present of students are girls. I am truly looking forward to seeing more female Chinese young glass artists showing worldwide in the future!
Photos courtesy of Meng Du and Fou Gallery