On a cool afternoon a couple of weeks ago, I made the trek up Mount Emily – winding through Sophia Road onto Upper Wilkie Road, past the lovely pocket of green that is Mount Emily Park to find, at the end the road, a weathered but still gracious-looking white colonial-era bungalow. This is Mount Emily villa, a century-old building with a fascinating history and, since 2007, home to independent arts centre Emily Hill.
I had gone to Emily Hill to visit artist Tan Sock Fong at her workshop and studio space, Art Glass Centre. With all the breathless anticipation surrounding the upcoming exhibition Dale Chihuly: Glass in Bloom at Gardens by the Bay and the Netflix reality show Blown Away making glassblowing seem sexy and exciting , I wanted to find out a little bit more about the glass art scene here in our own backyard. Almost everyone I asked suggested that a good place to start would be to meet and talk to Sock Fong – so that’s what I did.
I wasn’t Sock Fong’s only visitor that afternoon – Eunkyu Park, a glass artist from Seoul currently living in Singapore and tattoo artist Valerie Yang, who had previously studied sculpture at LaSalle and hot glass techniques in the UK, were there as well. Over coffee and snacks in Sock Fong’s light-filled showroom space, surrounded by some of her lovely glass art creations, I was given a brief primer on glass art, glassmaking techniques, commonly-used terms like blowpipes and glory holes (the GA-rated meaning of the word!), as well as some insights into the glass art scene here in Singapore.
But first, some background. Glass is an organic, naturally occurring material, formed when sand or rock undergoes rapid and extreme temperature changes. While Stone Age societies are believed to have used glass in cutting tools, the earliest known made glass objects were glass beads, from the third century, BC. Archaeologists have uncovered glass vessels and ornaments from as far back as the ancient civilisations of Egypt, India, China, Greece and Rome, among others.
Stained glass, glass that has been coloured by adding metallic salts to it, has a more than thousand-year history – but its use as a major architectural and decorative element in the great European Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages took this art form to new heights. In the 19th and early 20th century, the ancient art of stained glass was re-interpreted into modern art forms – notably in the Prairie School-style windows of architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art Nouveau Tiffany Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Murano is, of course, another name that is famously associated with glass. Venetian glass has also had a long history – dating back over a thousand years, with the island of Murano becoming Europe’s elite glassmaking center, peaking in popularity in the 15th and 16th centuries. The master glassmakers of Murano have been responsible for many innovations and refinements in glassmaking, inventing and developing techniques that continue to be used today.
Up to the early 20th century, glass objects were generally made in factories equipped with huge furnaces and large numbers of glassmakers. However, with advances in design and technology in the 1970s, smaller furnaces became available, enabling artists who chose to work in the medium of glass to design and make works of fine art in a studio environment. Today, what is considered a work of contemporary glass art has less to do with the size of the space it is made in, or the number of people involved in its production (large or complex works may require the collaborative effort of several glassworkers, performing a series of precisely timed and choreographed movements). Rather, the question is whether or not the work is a one-of-a-kind object, made substantially or wholly of glass, which is the product of an artist’s unique creative vision and imagination.
“Glass is captivating. It is alive in the way that you can control its transparency, reflectivity and form. It is strong yet fragile, making it a challenging material to work with. However, it never ceases to amaze when it captures impressions of fluidity, malleability and softness.”
Glass artist Florence Ng
Glass is a very versatile material and contemporary glass artists use a variety of techniques to create glass art works. As Sock Fong explained, these techniques can be broadly classified into three main categories, namely cold, warm and hot glass work. The names, as you can probably guess, describe the degree of heat involved in the process. Hot glass work involves working with molten glass at literally white-hot temperatures of around 1,090 °C (2,000 °F) – the hot, viscous glass produced in furnaces is used in glassblowing, sculpting and glass casting. Warm glass work involves heating glass in an oven or kiln (or sometimes with a handheld or bench torch) to lower temperatures, till it is soft and pliable enough to bend, shape, mould or be fused with other pieces of glass. Cold working involves any technique or process done to glass that is not hot and includes etching, sandblasting, engraving, as well as stained glass work. New processes for working with glass are constantly being invented and developed, providing new opportunities for creativity, inspiration and innovation for the contemporary glass artist.
So, if watching Blown Away has you convinced that you’re meant to be a glass artist, or if you aspire to one day make works as stunning as Dale Chihuly’s glass installations – where do you sign up? Unfortunately, our local fine art schools do not currently offer a programme specialising in glass. Speaking to the glass artists whom I met for this article, I was struck by their passion for glass and the lengths they have gone to in order to pursue that passion.
Sock Fong explains that, back in the 80s and 90s, many young artists like herself were first introduced to glassmaking through jobs with specialty glass design companies like Synergraphic Design, established in 1986 by glass artist Florence Ng and Genesis Stained Glass, founded in 1989 by glass artist Janet Goh. She also had the opportunity to be involved in the first national art glass exhibition Glass: Passage of Evolution, curated and organised by Florence Ng in 1993, which included works by local glass artists and designers, as well as internationally-renowned glass artists from the US, Belgium and the former Yugoslavia.
With a lifelong passion for glass firmly established, Sock Fong eventually left for the UK to pursue a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art and Design, specialising in glass, graduating in 1995. She has been working as a glass artist ever since, making glass art works and installations for exhibitions and corporate commissions, as well as running workshops and classes in the medium.
Artist May Chua studied visual communication at a local polytechnic, working as an illustrator and graphic designer after graduation before leaving for Toyama, Japan in 2018 to pursue her passion for glass at the Toyama Institute of Glass Art. “Toyama is famous for glass. I’ve always had an interest in Japanese culture and respect their dedication to craft. When I decided I wanted to learn glass in Japan, Toyama was the best place to go,” she says. In the short time that she has been practising as a glass artist, May has had considerable success. Her work has been selected for exhibition at the Toyama Glass Art Museum and, in 2019, she was one of seven glass artists whose works where shown in Toyama Art and Glass Exhibition: The Spirit of Toyama Glass at the Japan Creative Centre during Singapore Art Week.
When asked if she would like to one day return to Singapore to continue her art glass practice, May says she is definitely keen on sharing her love for glass in Singapore but fears she may lack the necessary resources to do so. Setting up a glass workshop or studio is an expensive proposition, especially if one wishes to engage in hot glass work which requires large furnaces and considerable space. Equipment is also expensive.
Australian-born glass artist Peter Kane, whose gorgeous glass art works (above) can be found at Art Forum gallery, cites similar obstacles to pursuing a glassmaking practice in Singapore. Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, he used to travel to the US and Canada to teach in glass studios there, where he would also take the opportunity to make work. From time to time, he also travelled to Langkawi in Malaysia, where he would rent space at a glassblowing studio and hire a couple of assistants on a short-term basis. He had been in the process of setting up a glass workshop and studio in Johor Baru before the travel restrictions kicked in but is hopeful that he will be able to get it up and running soon.
It appears that there is no shortage of talent or passion for glass art here in Singapore. What, then, is needed for the industry to grow and flourish and to nurture budding Dale Chihulys or Lino Tagliapietras? Valerie Yang wishes we had a space like Vancouver’s Terminal City Glass Co-op, a non-profit co-operative glass arts facility which offers high-quality glassmaking equipment and resources to members, as well as educational programmes in glass techniques. May Chua agrees that a shared or rental facility would be helpful, but adds, “However, I think just having a glass elective within the current fine art programmes would be a great start!” How about it, ADM, LaSalle and NAFA?
Feature image by Tan Sock Fong, courtesy of the artist.