Winter 2006 Fellow
“One day you wake up and you have a vision and you go for it,” says John Choi, a 2006 Winter Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America. Born in Seoul, Korea, Choi studied Industrial Arts and the psychology of design at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts before becoming fascinated with glass. Soon, he immersed himself in intensive study with premier artists like Billy Morris, Karen Willenbrink-Johnson, Lino Tagliapietra, Dick Marquis and Richard Royal. He went on to work as a gaffer for the De la Torre brothers, David Leppla, Karen Willenbrink-Johnson, and Jose Chardiet.
At a young age, Choi possesses a high level of skill, marketable to other artists and one which allows him to make almost anything that occurs to him. He has mastered virtuoso cane techniques and finds satisfaction in blowing functional vessels in Venetian style. “It’s the foundation of glass-blowing,” he believes. Nevertheless, simply exercising these skills is not enough for Choi. “People appreciate functional glass and I appreciate it, but there’s no soul. I used to think of myself as a glass blower. I now think of myself as an artist using a material.”
Building on his traditional background, Choi developed a facility in the demanding off-the-cuff solid working typical of Einar and Jamex De la Torre while assisting them at Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center. Thinking of attitude as well as skills, he says, “I learned so much from them.” The orchestration color and technique of Billy Morris is another notable influence.
Choi is a syncretist of art knowledge. In his personal studio at CGCA, books on artists from Rembrandt to William Morris occupy much of the shelf space. “I probably look at more books now than when I was in school” he says. And, in addition, “I use everything: things I learn in the wood shop or metal working.” Any space in his studio not occupied by books or glass is filled with specialized tools, many made by the self-proclaimed “tool junky.”
Choi’s sculpture made immediately prior to his CGCA residency had a surreal character, incorporating images of heads or torsos with flowers or other jarring elements, all executed in strong almost raucous colors. Visually somewhat reminiscent of the de la Torre approach, the subject matter is Choi’s own. One depicts a hand holding a stylus. It is suggestive of M.C. Escher’s hand drawing a hand (a motif which has engaged many artists.) However, Choi’s hand is not drawing itself, but piercing its own wrist with the sharp implement. Gouts of orangey-red blood gush out. The De la Torres also love theatrical gore, but as one might suspect, Dalí is another acknowledged influence on Choi’s imagery.
At CGCA, Choi became interested in a dessert theme expressed through crawling creatures like frogs and lizards. “I’ve never made them before and I’m having so much fun,” he says. He rotates a solid-worked lizard in the glory hole. It exudes white heat like a salamander roasting in the flames. It has a graceful lashing tail, but Choi decides it’s too long: Snip. Still too long. Snip. He sends it back to bask in the glory hole. Pulls the tail out like taffy and narrows it. Snip. Snip. After the lizard is flashed one more time, Choi gives its tail a final twist and fillip.
The annealed lizard is lively and convincing but not a zoological specimen. “I study certain species and look at certain features and pick and blend them into a whole. I’ve learned over the years to exaggerate a little and visually it somehow looks more expressive and so much better.” Choi aims to capture the gestures of the limbs and head rather than “the super-detailed look.” However eyes and lips, though difficult, are important. “Make the eyes and lips well and it comes alive.” Choi sees this abstraction of form as hedges against a “cartoony look.”
His shift away from function and from the sculptural clichés of glass have lead him to avoid the transparency and glitter which are its obvious attributes, but even as his subject matter evolves, his commitment to the medium is unswerving. “Glass is my passion and glass deserves to be turned into something great,” Choi says.