Shanghai-born, Singapore-based artist Michelle Zheng Kane’s love affair with glass engraving all began during one particularly dreary Valentine’s Day season in 2006 when she had been going through a divorce.
On a routine trip to the mall, she came across a glass artist offering his glass engraving services, and was struck by the fragile beauty of the art form. Thus enamoured, she asked the artist, Dominic John Fonde, to teach her the workings of the craft.
Ever since then, Michelle has honed her skills to precision and worked with luxury brands the likes of Bulgari, Ferragamo, Guerlain, Armani and Dior to create intricate custom glass engravings for their clients.
But what does it look like when Michelle turns her craft onto subject matter of her own choice? We invited her to create some one-of-a-kind pieces for Shop Plural, and had a chat with her to find out more about how her relationship to this unique medium is so deeply entwined with her personal life.
What was your first encounter with glass? What made you fall in love with it?
Back in 2006, during the Valentine’s Day season, I came across glass artist Dominic John Fonde offering his glass engraving services. I found the art form interesting because it was so rare to come across it compared to other mediums like oil painting or sculpture. And I just wanted to learn something special, so I asked Dominic to teach me.
Perhaps it’s because I was going through a divorce at the time, but this medium of engraving on glass really resonated with me. Glass is very fragile. It breaks easily, so you need to be very careful when you engrave it. Once, I engraved a very complex piece of art almost to completion. But when it came to the final strokes, I made one wrong move and it shattered. The entire piece had to be thrown away, and the hours of effort were reduced to nothing.
The aesthetic of glass engraving is also very pure and simple – a colourless engraving is produced regardless of what type of glass you engrave on.
Today, you’re one half of Kane’s Glass Art, which you run with your husband, fellow glass artist Peter Kane. Yet, he speaks no Mandarin while you speak little English. How did you meet, and how did this unlikely partnership come to be?
I first met Peter at the 2015 Ausglass Conference in Adelaide. We got to chatting during one of the breakfast receptions. I didn’t understand 70% of what he was saying – without access to wifi on final day of the conference, I could not even use my translation software! But I remember him saying, “I am an open book to you, you can ask me anything.”
I thought to myself, “There’s nothing that I’d like to ask!” I had already exhausted the extent of my English by then, and besides, I did not want to get too close to a stranger that I had only just met. Instead I asked him, “Your beard is so long, how do you keep it clean when you drink soup? Or do Westerners not have soup?” He must have been quite bewildered by this odd question.
Well, we kept in touch over Facebook messages when I returned to Singapore. Around the time of my birthday, Peter sent me a long text proposing that we date.
What did you say?
I thought long and hard about this.
After my divorce, I had gone on dates with other men. With some men, you could foretell what every day of the next 30 years with them might look like after sharing just a cup of coffee. But with Peter, he gave me the sense that life can still hold some surprises, if I were to be with him. I felt that he has a very interesting soul.
But I also had to ask myself what I wanted out of this life. As a single mother eking out a living for myself, my life had only just begun to become more stable at the time. Was I ready for more surprises – and potential heartbreak?
In the end, I told him: I don’t want to date, especially not long-distance. I want to get married.
I had hoped that this would scare him away, so that I would not get hurt. But to my utter surprise, he agreed, and my plan backfired. And we’ve been married ever since!
Wow, this is a remarkable courtship story – it’s very much all or nothing, and that brittle extreme reminds me of what you were saying about the nature of working with glass.
I think that glass art is very intermingled with my life, which is why I have a lot of passion for it. It’s a subtractive art form – the surface of the object is perfect in and of itself, but the act of carving into it creates a scar. In the hands of an artist, the scars that emerge could be beautiful ones. Therein lies the similarity between art and life: the attitude that you take towards it makes all the difference between whether beauty emerges from destruction.
What were the early days of exploring this medium like, for you?
When I first started out, I did not have much money, but I needed a lot of glass to practice engraving. So I would hunt for unwanted beer bottles outside people’s yards. At the time my teacher’s studio neighbour was someone who really enjoyed his drink, so there would always be a steady supply of glass bottles outside his house. They would be left there for many days, accumulating grime and breeding mosquitoes, but I’d pick them up and clean them so that I could practice my engraving.
By now, I’ve had enough practice that I’m able to tell the make of a glass by the sound and feel of it. Good glass carves more easily and satisfyingly because it’s as smooth as butter, while cheap glass carves with a shriller sound, and is more brittle. It may look smooth, but some grains of silica could have been incompletely fired in the kiln, which increases the possibility of shattering during the engraving process.
What are some brands of glassware or crystal that you enjoy carving?
Lalique crystal is of excellent quality – when I engrave on it, melodious echoes emanate. I always tell them not to tell me how much the object I’m carving is worth, for fear that my nerves would cause my hands to slip! [laughs] When it comes to fragrance bottles, J’adore fragrance bottles tend to be great for engraving, as does Bulgari – the lines are clear and distinct when engraving on these glassware.
These are certainly peculiarities of the craft that the client may not know. What’s the process of engraving like?
I work best under pressure, with engraving. The more customers there are waiting, the busier the mall, the faster I’m able to work. The pieces usually turn out better under these circumstances, too. This is especially clear during the festive season, when the rush of gift-giving can create a rather intense atmosphere in the malls. Somehow, I’ve learnt to let the stress propel me forward rather than stymie me.
What is most joyful to you about being a glass engraver?
Films often depict artists as hermits who cloister themselves in their studio, but I feel that artists are more akin to sponges that continuously absorb ideas from their environment. For me, I most enjoy sharing in the ideas of my clients. When clients share their ideas with me, my own horizons are broadened and I gain fresh perspectives on the world. So I really enjoy this relational aspect of the job.
I see art as a way to serve my clients – my work is to capture what they’d like to see or express to their loved ones. More than creating a beautiful object, what’s paramount to me is that I’ve managed to capture the essence of what my client envisions. But I do feel very fortunate that I’m able to marry my passion for beauty with the meaning that I find in helping others to express their thoughts and ideas.
The pieces that you’ve created for Shop Plural are different in this regard, since they are not custom made for specific clients. How then did you decide on the subject matter?
With these pieces for Shop Plural, I’m very inspired by the plants and flowers of the Singapore Botanic Gardens. This place, along with Marina Bay Sands, makes me feel that Singapore is a very vibrant and exquisite place, so I wanted to capture that energy in my work.
I also considered what the prospective buyers’ tastes might be like. Based on my understanding of this industry, I created pieces that I thought would be well-received for the gift-giving season that’s coming up.
To date, you’ve had 15 years of experience at this craft. What is the next challenge for you?
At this point, I do feel that I’ve had sufficient mastery of the technical aspect of the craft, so I’m looking for my next challenge.
Some of my clients have given me interesting challenges to interpret. For instance, one client asked me to create a piece based on the theme, “Journey of Love”. I had to search within myself to figure out how I might express this idea visually, and in the end I settled on a pair of hands clasped together to symbolise the life journey that the client and her husband have embarked on together as a married couple.
Speaking with fellow glass artists like Tan Sock Fong also helped me to gain the insight that my engagement with glass engraving has become a matter of muscle memory by now.
The question that I’d like to think about next is, what would I like to do with this technical skill that I have mastered? When it comes to creating my own works, perhaps it’s time to contemplate the themes that matter to me, personally.
Note: On the hunt for gifts for the upcoming gift-giving season? Click here to check out Michelle’s exquisite engraved glassware, exclusively produced for Shop Plural.
This interview has been translated from Mandarin to English, and edited and condensed for clarity.