Photography by India Halsted
Interview by Eliza Jouin
Hi, I'm Ling, I'm a sophomore at Barnard College, and my main art medium is metalwork and jewelry.
You've done a lot of art throughout your life. What made you choose to start working with metal?
I started in 8th grade, and then I took it every single year of high school. After my junior year, I got into Metals Intensive at my school, which met the same amount of time as math class or English class would; you're in the studio a lot. Metalwork offered me a form of art where I felt successful, in that I was able to effectively create the products I envisioned, in a way I can't in 2D art. This is probably why I don't like drawing, because I can envision things and the reality of it ends up looking terrible. Whereas with metalwork, I'm actually able to produce what I want to.
Can you describe to me your artistic process from when you conceive something all the way to when you present it?
I feel like I'm a very organized, detail-oriented person, which is probably why I like metals so much. You need a certain thought process to know how all the moving parts are going to come together. You have to be conscious of the order in which you construct your piece. You can’t move on to something prematurely, because often times you can’t go back. For example, you can’t go back to solder something once you’ve attached something flammable. So much of it is having a really good outline to start with and knowing what all the steps you need to take are, and ultimately what you're trying to make. But then also, there's this weird paradox because at any moment, you could literally melt your piece to a ball. It's terrifying. So it's about figuring out what to do now and being able bounce back.
What kind of metals do you prefer to work with to create your jewelry?
In high school, we only had access to copper, silver, and brass, and my favorite is brass. I really don't like copper - something about the color. Whereas when brass gets oxidized, it comes into this really nice antique look. It's not as brash as gold or expensive as gold, but it's a nice cheap alternative that ends up having an earthy look.
Since there aren't any metalworking classes here at Columbia/Barnard to create that specific type of 3D art, what's your creative outlet here?
It's been really upsetting to not be able to do studio art classes here. But I did get into embroidery this summer. I’ve wanted to try embroidery ever since I came across Jessica So Ren Tang, this Asian-American artist from San Francisco. She’s amazing. Her work examines exoticism and Chinese stereotypes. She embroiders portraits of sexualized asian women, but then their skin is filled in with embroidered traditional Chinese patterns. For me, her work speaks to the ways in which identity voices itself in art. She also does 3D embroidery, which is insane.
Okay, so it's @jessicasorentang on Instagram.
She's super cool and she deserves so much attention.
So I got into embroidery, and I've been recently trying to figure out how I can do metalwork at school or in New York City. The new Barnard design center seems like a good opportunity. They don't have any metalwork stuff, but they have a lot of equipment for woodworking, so maybe I'll back get into that.
Going back to what you were saying about that artist that inspired you to start doing embroidery, are there any artists that you really look up to or that have inspired your work?
Todd Pownell does really amazing channel setting, and kudos to anyone who does diamond setting because I had a diamond setting project once and it's the worst thing ever. It's a pain in the ass. But he does really stunning diamond setting where he'll have a ring or a bracelet or something and the metal on top will be super textured but there's this channel of diamonds or stones where it looks like somehow the earth is cracked and reveals this horde of diamonds underneath. When I make jewelry, I see myself tending towards representations of nature. I love creating a juxtaposition of a representation of nature in metal, and duplicating nature in something that's so cold and not natural.
Do you feel that your life experience has influenced your art, and if so, how does that manifest itself?
I am a pretty firm believer that your identity and your life experience ends up manifesting itself in your products. I'm less sure in the "how," the visual ways I can see identity in my work. I'm thinking about my tiara piece, and going in I knew I wanted to incorporate thread. For me, one visual image I keep with me is the Chinese mythology of the red thread. This red thread represents the bloodline that connects everything and everyone. Making this tiara was my one biggest meltdown of highschool: the night before it was due I had to thread all of it and it was just a mess! But I'm so glad how it came out.
One thing I've been reckoning with, this year especially, is as a Chinese adoptee, how much can I claim authenticity to my Chinese identity? I've written a lot of things recently on self-exoticism and finding the balance and knowing what you're exoticizing. I feel this attachment to things like the tiara. I named it "Unearthed Empress" which is kind of cliché, but because it's so dirty now because of air and decay it looks like it could have honestly been in the dirt for a year or something! But feeling those connections, and also after making them, being like ‘do I have the right to make those connections and claim these feelings’?
Tell me more about your Unearthed Empress project mentioned earlier.
The way Metals Intensive worked was each term you had a term project. For that term, the project was called the "Add It Up challenge," and all these different techniques and materials had a different number of allotted points, and you had to get up to 500 points. So like the use of enamel was 20 points, cold solder seams was this amount of points. You definitely had to get creative. So I ended up using the gems and the thread in it.
You also won an award for it, right?
Yeah, that was nice! We sent things to the globe show which is the Boston Scholastic show, and if it gets a Gold Key, it goes on to the national level. The tiara one won gold at the national level, which I’m incredibly grateful for.
You also have a human body series, can you tell me more about that?
My human body series explores how you can replicate and represent nature out of something seemingly so hard and inflexible as metal. There's the heart piece, the lungs, and a piece inspired by mitosis. I really loved making the heart. To make it, I used chasing and repoussée, which was a requirement for a term project. Basically, you have this pot of tree sap and you heat it up and put the flat piece of metal in. Then you use different hammers and tools to make whatever 3D shape you want. It's incredible to see the depth you can get out of a single piece of copper. I had to use copper--you can only put copper in this certain type of tree sap, but I ended up covering it. If you look closely, it has my fingerprints in a red design all over it!
What is your favorite thing that you've made?
I really liked making the lungs. Weirdly because is was so much torch soldering, which is a real pain in the butt. Basically, the frame of the two lung cages is all made out of wire. Each piece is a different piece of wire, so soldering it to make it look seamless is hard. You have to hold it in place while you heat one part up, making sure all the other solder seams don't come undone. It's a lot of work but I remember when I was doing it and then filing after--I usually hate filing--but being able to get that flushness was so satisfying. And the fact it opened after, I really liked that. To give it mobility. And the red thread, coming back to it.
Given that metalwork is generally perceived as a more manual and difficult form of art, how do you feel societal conceptions of masculinity and femininity play a role in your art? Do you feel as if you're breaking gender norms through doing this? Does it play a role?
There definitely is a sort of industrial-ness to it, which I really like. I really liked taking woodshop in 6th or 7th grade for some reason. I think it spoke to me more because of the type of labor, and I was actually able to produce something I wanted out of the industrial materials.
As to femininity, the things I make are more feminine. I haven't thought about this too much, but I think part of the juxtaposition that I like between metal and nature is the relationship of something industrial used to make something so delicate. Obviously metal is still natural, but doesn't have that same edifice.
Do you have any ideas for works in the future?
Recently, not being at a studio, I've been brainstorming a lot of pieces I want to make. I’ve been really in to oysters and freshwater pearls and believe that their movement and organic shape would look really amazing represented in metal. I also really like bees, and want to make a pair of bee earrings in brass where the abdomen is this amber-colored gem. I love how earthy, orange colors add nuanced depth and warmth to gold and brass.
Do you have any advice for people interested in learning about making jewelry and getting into metalwork?
I would say it's definitely something to try, just because it's such a different skill set. I feel like we rarely use our hands in that sort of industrial capacity, or in that type of art. In general, sculpture and 3D art should be something we teach people.