Maze of Knowledge, 2021. Pine and books, 9 x 26 x 26 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

The Tree Within: A Conversation with Foon Sham

Recipient of the 2021 Outstanding Educator Award

Foon Sham’s sculptures, made from blocks of salvaged wood, fit together like pieces of intricate puzzles, with gaps inviting the play of light. Using only simple joinery, he coaxes constructions into being that span architectural and anatomical references while lending humanity to his chosen material, which reminds us of our inexorable link to nature. Born in Macau, Sham lived in Hong Kong before moving to the U.S. in 1975. Over the years, this immigrant identity has fueled a personal blend of Chinese culture and geometric abstraction. Organic in feel, yet exacting in their calculations, his energetic sculptures reveal an openness to experimentation and fresh possibilities. Looking up, down, and inside, the viewer is always aware of a different perspective. Growth and decay, as well as sustainability and recycling, play major roles in Sham’s work, as do renewal, protection, and connectivity—all fundamental to the human condition and the natural world of which we are part.

Joint #5, Elbow, 1999. Birch, 6 x 14 x 18 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Sarah Tanguy: You have spent 32 years teaching sculpture and design at the University of Maryland in College Park. How would you characterize your approach to teaching?
Foon Sham:
I teach straight from my heart. Receiving the ISC’s Educator Award has made me think about what I’ve been doing: Is it helping to change somebody’s life, as well as helping them to get to the next stage of their career or to get them through their degree? Growing up in Hong Kong, I was taught to copy in the old Asian way. By the time I was 10, my parents had recognized that I liked to draw, and they sent me to a drawing master to study shading and how to do various perspectives. From the age of 12 to 16, under a painting master, I copied landscapes and portraits from calendars and reproductions without knowing who the artist was or why the trees, for example, had such colorful leaves—trees in Hong Kong are evergreen. But I did acquire technique from this method.

ST: Why did you come to the United States?
Though my parents knew I was interested in art, they told me to do it after school and enrolled me in a science school. By the time I got to the advanced classes, I realized I didn’t like dissecting; I failed calculus. My parents couldn’t support the move, but my sister and my brother did. My sister understood that it was impossible to pursue an art career in Hong Kong.

When I came to the U.S., I majored in textile design at the California College of Arts and Crafts, so I could learn to print T-shirts when I returned to Hong Kong. All I was exposed to was technical, functional stuff. At first, I was angry because of the high tuition, but then I took a required sculpture class and had to do a self-portrait on my own terms. The professor said, “Do anything you want, any size, any material. See you in three weeks.” After being stuck for a week, I started studying photos of myself, and asking, “Who am I, how do I look?” When I put the finished work, which was made of wood scraps, on a pedestal, everyone said good things about it. I had never felt such joy about being original—I didn’t even know what originality meant. That turned my life around. I wanted to become an artist, not a designer. I learned the importance of originality, which has become my primary goal in teaching.

I want my students to learn to be themselves and not copy somebody else. If my students want to emulate somebody, I let them do it, once. If they hold up their phones and ask, “Can I do something like this?” I respond, “You’re copying somebody else’s work. Where do you stand in terms of challenging your creative mind? Nowhere.” If I give a problem-solving assignment to 18 students, I want 18 different solutions, or maybe 20.

Another lesson, and it’s a hard one, is hard work. The time spent making a work counts, but it doesn’t guarantee success—it’s only part of the story. You cannot evaluate an artwork by the number of hours spent on it. Otherwise, it would be easy for me to grade—A for 20 hours and C for 15, F for nothing. Students need to grow, and they all start at different levels. I tell them, “I’m going to teach you to move from point A to point B at the end of 15 weeks.”

20-20-2, Joint (detail), 1999. Pine, 10 x 16 x 10 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

ST: You’ve managed to strike a dynamic balance between teaching and making. What experiences have you shared with your students, and what have you learned from them?
FS: Students help me to build my large-scale works all the time. One thing they have taught me is that there are many ways to get to the same destination. Another is that art-making involves failure, and I learn from my students’ mistakes. Respecting their opinions is important too, because that way, you can see the other side of the coin, you can see multiple things from many angles.

ST: What about your graduate work at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond?
FS: I had lots of choices of professors and could try different things there. I did performance and even music. I was encouraged to grow. I tried plaster, concrete, metal, casting, Plexiglas, wood—you name it.

ST: When did wood become your material of choice?
FS: In my last semester, I realized that wood is abundant in dumpsters and perfect for a tight budget. I just had to take all the nails out and scrape the paint off. My initial sculptures were all made from reclaimed two-by-fours. I wasn’t really in love with wood at that time, but I found it to be very versatile. I didn’t mind getting dusty. Then I discovered that sanding releases a beautiful smell.

I understand now that the reason I am so passionate is because wood is very much like a person. Each piece has its own identity—color, grain structure, texture, and smell. Whether I pick up a piece of wood from a dumpster, a lumber yard, or a tree, it has its own history. It ages differently. So, I’m basically collecting people to become part of my work, and the family keeps getting bigger. When I travel, I meet new people, and new types of wood. Woods from Australia and Chile have totally different color variations and patterns. Without my Norway residency in 1999, I would never have learned how to use wood in its natural state, with the bark on, like I did in the big outdoor work, Torvtak, which also had a grass roof inspired by local architecture. The V-shaped Joint #5, Elbow contrasts bark with smooth segments of birch. Norway made me appreciate the skin of the wood and its source, the land where it comes from.

Construction-wise, wood is easy to drill and to sand. I can keep it raw, stain it, or put color on it. Basically, you can dress it any way you want, keep it natural, or combine the two. You can also combine different woods. Each combination is unique. There is no formula. I just improvise. I follow my emotions and my senses. I like using the imperfections, which would never be acceptable in furniture. I’m also crazy about seams and cracks. Sometimes if I feel the gap is too big, I’ll go back and fill it. The gaps establish a relationship between the inside and the outside. Once you create an opening, it becomes a conversation.

Sea of Hope, 2011. Paper, ink, tea leaves, and wood, 3 x 20 x 35 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

ST: I’ve always loved how you transform wood’s physical properties into a metaphor for something else. Would you give an example?
FS: Sea of Hope (2003) comes to mind. I made it in memory of my mother, who had died from cancer, and it was about healing. I could only have used wood for the bent and laminated supine form. Wood is organic. To me, this is her body, and also, her spine, abstractly. One of my most personal works, it became an unforeseen participatory one when cancer survivors added paper boats—a traditional funerary practice in China—and filled them with their messages.

ST: Does being an immigrant contribute to being able to adapt, to being creative in problem-solving? I’ve noticed a political subtext in some of your recent pieces, like Escape (2017), but it’s very subtle.
FS: It’s embedded. Unless you ask, I will not tell you. Escape is a commentary on the U.S.-Mexico border. The contour of the tunnel is the outline of the border. But it’s also about my journey of coming from another country to chase my personal dream. You have to be flexible to be an immigrant. You have to work long hours under bad conditions. All immigrants are willing to do that because we start with nothing. On the other hand, you can always change your mind, you can fail.

ST: And there’s always a light.
I designed Escape specifically for the lights at the Katzen Arts Center at American University in Washington, DC. Each light created an interval, a step or a stage in the journey.

Escape, 2017. Pine, 14 x 62 x 6 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

ST: How does your public art differ from your studio practice?
It’s a very different process. For public commissions, I am given the site, and then I react to it and come up with ideas. For instance, following the call for DC’s Chinatown Metro station, the sponsoring organization visited my studio and invited me to design a work that would serve as a placemaker. Later, in front of the jury panel, I explained, “I don’t make Chinese art. I don’t make dragons.” They responded, “It’s ok, we saw your portfolio.”

For Mushroom (2019), commissioned by the Smithsonian, we initially talked about habitat, the importance of fungi ecology. When a tree dies, do you turn it into mulch for people’s gardens, throw it away, or turn it into a beautiful message about mushrooms? Fungi break down tree materials. They connect underground. You don’t see them, but they are working hard. I made a full-scale model based on drawings. This stage involved very careful, layer-by-layer calculations, in order to figure out the curve and how much I could get away from the center point to achieve the abstract mushroom form. If I went over, the sculpture would snap, just like mushrooms, which are top heavy. To ensure its safety, I designed a steel umbrella armature on the inside. By contrast, with my studio work, I’m writing my own diary. I don’t need to make a sketch. I just respond to the materials. It’s totally intuitive.

ST: You’ve worked in multiple scales, ranging from very intimate wall and pedestal works to monumental sculptures and participatory installations.
I am a small guy, but don’t underestimate small guys—we can think big. To be frank, it’s harder to make a small work powerful. When I came across Christo’s work, I was awestruck. I saw Running Fence in person in 1976. I also wanted to be the guy who could make that from a piece of cloth. It made me realize that a sculpture is never too big. Scale is important, but it depends on context. To achieve full impact, you have to maximize the scale per the space that the work is in. Shaq is relatively big, but not next to a tree. Trees tell me many life lessons. They are always there. They are always growing. Like in my work, they are firm, but you don’t see the underground support. The root system is just as big as the top; otherwise, it won’t stand.

ST: Why is the vessel a recurring form for you?
FS: Because I love the relationship between interior and exterior. The experience at the Grand Canyon—it’s about the canyon, not about the mountain. But how do you achieve that conversation, those gaps? My building method uses blocks to create that separation.

Mushroom, 2019. Birch, katsura, elm, cypress, and oak, 12 x 11 x 11 ft. Photo: Courtesy the artist

ST: What was your first piece that people could go inside?
Vase of Knowledge (1997), which was installed at George Washington University. When you walk inside the sculpture, you experience a skylight in the shape of the planet. You see the clouds. You look up again, and they’re all gone. It’s about chasing the light and creating an oculus to escape confinement. Since then, I have wanted to do more with interiors. The second was 20-20-2, Joint (1999), which was installed in Chicago. In this piece, light leaks through gaps in the wooden blocks. After five months, visitors had put their names on the outside and inside of every block, all the way to the top. I was so mad; I wanted to get a sander and erase all of the names, but then I realized that this was history.

ST: How does the work you recently assembled on site at the National Building Museum differ?
Maze of Knowledge (2021) is targeted to visitors. The installation resembles a ruin and symbolizes how we gain knowledge from the past. I embedded books into the blocks—all discards from public libraries, which people growing up in the U.S. would have read at different stages of their lives, but I hadn’t. Only the titles are visible as navigational clues.

ST: Do you have a dream project?
It would be a castle or shelter-like structure where people could enter and discover different species of sawdust to smell and feel. I have boxes and boxes of sawdust that I’ve been collecting for years. It would create the experience of the woods, not like a nature center, but in a Foon Sham way.