Jinya Zhao

Chinese glass artist who evokes non-existent existence

What are the biggest challenges of being an artist?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success, mentioned that to be an expert at something, it will take 10,000 hours of practice. I am a glass artist, and it takes a lot more effort to be an expert in this industry.

Let's talk about the materials I work with. Hot glass is one of the most challenging materials because you're working under high temperatures and have limited time to shape the hot glass with tools. This makes working with glass much more difficult than other materials. However, at the same time, these challenges allow me to get closer to the material itself and be more creative and improvisational when creating my work.

It is essential to have a deep understanding of the materials. In my case, that is glass. However, this mastery cannot be fully obtained through research or practice; it requests years of feeling and experiencing the materials you work with. This long-standing dialogue between myself and the glass is indispensable, as it is hardly enough to envision how the glass will perform in the creative process, even though I have prepared a robust concept to work with. I am still learning how to shepherd glass to achieve my ideas while letting the glass open up my imagination along the way.

What are some of the messages that you want to convey through your art?

I have explored various inherent qualities of glass to discover the subtle relationships between color, form, and structure, and my work spans across sculpture, installation, and design. I hope my work allows people to present their emotive beings, recognize their inner-selves, and really understand their state of mind. With this core message, my collections have evolved over the years, following my life journey in China, UK, and the US. My first series is about my homeland, China, where I was born and grew up. I applied a color gradient to the blown glass, resulting in a looming and overwhelming smog-like effect, which invites the viewers to reflect on their own lives. Later, I spent two fulfilling years in London, taking my master's courses at the Royal College of Art. The experience of living in an unfamiliar metropolis hugely influenced my art. For my graduation works, I used opaque and transparent layered blown glass to deliberately obscure the inside enigmatic forms, thus creating a paradoxical interpretation of the interior or exterior. This collection was how I investigated and expressed my Chinese identity within British culture, which I described as 'non-existent existence.'

In August 2019, I was accepted into the Artist-in-Residence program at the Southern Illinois University Carbondale in the States. It was again a purely new journey for me to explore. The beautiful natural environment in the United States caught my eyes. My residency started in August and ended in December, and I just fell in love with the shining sunshine in the summer, the foggy mist in the fall, and dancing snowflakes in the winter. Thus, I created a new collection to record my observation as an outsider – it was an extended theme of my' non-existent existence', but it was in a different context.

What do you hope to achieve, and how do you want to grow as an artist?

I see glass as an ideal medium to explore the themes inspired by environments, emotions, and personal experiences. I hope my work could resonate with others. The art doesn't complete until the connection between my work and the viewers is set up. I compare this to passing on the electricity - you can feel the excitement and the goosebumps on your arms when the connection is built. The connection can be physical. You can hold the hand-crafted artwork in your hands, feel the texture and shape, and try to identify the techniques and skills. The resonation can be mental. There might be a moment that you suddenly empathize with the thoughts behind these mysteriously beautiful glass objects. I would like my work to narrow the distances and become a new way to bring people around the world together. As Steve Jobs said, "The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do." I believe art can change the world in some way, and that is the goal I endeavor to achieve - being brave to explore, keeping curious, creating tirelessly, and inspiring people.

How would you describe your style?

My concept is to explore the subtle relationships between color, form, and structure. "Empathy" is an important word for me. Einfühlung is German for "feeling into," as empathy was originally defined. In Christopher Bardt's Material and Mind, he interprets this word 'allows us to extend their emotive being to others, to feel and understand their interior selves and their perspective of the mind.' So far, I have traveled and lived in different parts of the world; I feel it is invaluable to understand others and share others' feelings despite culture and language differences.

My recent attempts are all under my concept formed in London - 'Non-existent Existence.' It is originated from my own experiences, but it is more and more about empathy. I always invite viewers to reflect on their own interpretations of my work. Recently, a collector of my work told me that the glass's orange color is looming, gentle, and sweet, which makes her feel peaceful and joyful after a busy working day. I guess this is the meaning of my work.

Tell us more about your background and why you were drawn to glass as an art material?

I discovered a passion for glass while studying for my BA at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou (2013-2017). I happened to visit an international glass exhibition - 'Breathing Through Transparency,' which greatly influenced my art career. That was the first time I had the chance to look at contemporary glass art closely. I was deeply touched by the transparency and translucency of glass; hence, I decided to work with this wonderful material to create my own works. Since then, I have been trying different possibilities of glass and working with different projects. I fell in love with glass during my MA at the Royal College of Art in London (2017-2019), where I received systematic technical training in glass blowing and other essential skills. Later on, my time at the Corning Museum of Glass and Southern Illinois University took my techniques to a new level. However, more importantly, these valuable experiences have opened my eyes and mind towards glass arts.

Reading and researching are critical as well. I love reading not only professional publications but all kinds of books to obtain inspiration. You can tell from my practices that personal observations and sensibilities are always the major themes. The longer I have been creating with glass as a material, the more I believe what Susie Silbert, curator of Modern and Contemporary Glass at the Corning Museum of Museum, said, '…glass is the perfect material for provoking wonder.' I am also encouraged by a great number of glass artists and their works. Among all of them, Olafur Eliasson is always my favorite. I love his work 'Space resonates regardless of our presence (Wednesday),' which is the paradigmatic example of what you see is far more than just the sum of four simple parts. Eliasson recreates the original experiment with the addition of the Fresnel Lens, which helps to glorify the spot and enhance the mystery of its appearance. His work blends nature, technology, and art, thus extending the boundaries of glass art, and by extension, it enables people to have a better understanding of art. It is a legacy of scientific endeavor interpreted with a contemporary eye. All his concepts, ideas, and works are my prolonged source of inspiration. I dream that one day I can collaborate with him - if this comes true, I will be the happiest person in the world!