Mei-Ling Hom's wire mesh sculptures are symbols of good fortune.
by Roberta Fallon
My friend and collaborator Libby Rosof and I went to Mei-Ling
Hom's South Philadelphia studio on Aug. 9. Hom invited us in to preview a body
of work she'd soon be installing in the Smithsonian Institute's prestigious
Sackler Gallery. A sculptor whose work deals with the issue of being Chinese in
America, Hom is a public artist whose work I've long admired.
Not only is the artist and Pew fellow installing at the Sackler,
but she just won a design competition for the campus walkway at Fleisher Art Memorial.
In October her "Chinatown Eyes" will debut as part of the Asian Arts Initiative's
PEI-funded "Chinatown Influx" project. (Hom's the only local artist
included in that effort.)
And the morning we visited she'd just shipped some large
sculptures (her "Silkworm" pieces made in conjunction with the Fabric
Workshop and Museum) to Tufts University Museum for a show. All this is in addition
to teaching at Community College of Philadelphia.
Hom is a gentle, generous soul. Our visit, which I thought would
last an hour, stretched to more than two and a half, fueled by green tea and a bubbly,
wide-ranging conversation about art, studio life, South Philadelphia and China.
Hom's husband David McClelland-himself an artist, writer, carpenter and
Hom's assistant on her installations-was an active participant in our
discussion. The couple seem to be completely in sync.
Seeing work in an artist's studio requires imagination. Studios
are happy places but usually cluttered with tools and raw materials. In Hom's
cavernous, high-ceilinged studio, the new work-35 wire mesh clouds, hanging
from the ceiling, sitting on boxes and curled up in the corner-was almost invisible.
Hom's clouds are made from standard-issue chicken wire that
the artist bends into shapes and closes at the ends the way you would if you were
making a pillow or a stuffed animal. She doesn't start with a pattern but goes
straight to the chicken wire for inspiration. Hom uses the scratchy wire mesh itself
to close the seams, twisting and knotting it with needle-nose pliers. Sometimes
she makes a dart this way too. (She covers her fingertips with electrical tape to
Like real clouds, the metaphorical clouds are dreamy and evocative,
but take up real space. It'll take four trucks to get the almost three dozen
clouds down to Washington, she says. The pieces will be on exhibit at Sackler for
six months. "Free storage!" Hom says. Actually there are six more clouds
waiting to be installed at Philadelphia International Airport, she adds, which is
even more free public-sector storage.
The airport clouds burst on the scene last year in a show at Fleisher-Ollman
Gallery, for which Hom commissioned Curtis grad Eli Marshall to compose a musical
accompaniment. She commissioned Marshall again for the Sackler piece. The recorded
music, played on a bamboo flute by a Chinese musician, will create a soundscape
that ebbs and flows as you stroll beneath the clouds suspended at different levels
and coming together in what Hom calls "a critical mass" at one end.
Hom met Marshall through Community College. "His grandmother
was my student, and she said, 'You should collaborate with my grandson.'"
Marshall, now living and working in Beijing after completing a Fulbright residency
there, will help install his new piece in Washington, D.C.
These are tight budget days for the Sackler, which has no money
for a reception. And Hom had to pay for the brochure out of her artist's fee.
But Smithsonian Magazine is doing a story about her.
Hom started making clouds in 2001. "The cloud is a symbol
of fortune," she explains. "Repeated cloud forms means never-ending fortune."
Her first efforts were carvings of laminated wood blocks using a hatchet. That's
bringing on the big guns to make something so ephemeral. But the small wood clouds
I saw in the studio strongly resemble their wire mesh second cousins twice removed.
"Chinatown Eyes," Hom's outdoor project for the
Asian Arts Initiative, was planned for the side of a building, but because the building's
going to be demolished, it'll be on the cyclone fencing on Vine Street. The
artist, ever flexible, retrofitted her idea to accommodate the new space.
Working with digital photographer Richard Ryan, Hom is photographing
the eyes of Chinatown community members. She'll enlarge the photos and place
the eyes, mural-like, on the fence facing both the passers-by on the expressway
and the residents of Chinatown. That project will have its official opening in late
Hom's eyes will be upon you this fall and her lyrical clouds
will be just about everywhere. Don't miss a chance to see them.
"Perspectives: Mei-ling Hom"
Sat., Aug. 27. Through March 5. Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence
Ave., SW, Washington, D.C. 202.357.2700. www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/future.htm