Helen Lee wants to ‘capture the exploratory spirit’ of the UW–Madison Glass Lab’s historic past — and help build an exciting, innovative, and more inclusive future for glass artists.

Helen Lee first discovered glass at a summer arts camp in high school.

“It was the first time that I learned that one could even work with glass with your hands,” she says. “And that was very short, just a couple of weeks. But it was enough for me to become very enamored with the material.”

Lee didn’t get to work with glass again until she was in her first year of college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), pursuing a degree in architectural design. The university offered a popular beginner course in glassworking during the January term, and Lee “lucked out” and got a spot.

She was hooked. Within a couple of years, Lee was helping teach intermediate and advanced glass courses at MIT, and applying for grants to expand her knowledge off campus during the summers.

“I got a lot of support from the MIT Arts Council,” she says. “I would go to different workshops and intensive classes all over the country at places like Haystack, Pilchuck, Corning,” she says. “I even went to Venice on a grant from MIT.”

Lee worked for four years as a graphic designer and typesetter after earning her undergraduate degree from MIT in 2000. Wishing to explore becoming an artist, however, in 2004 she enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design’s master of fine arts program in glass.

Over the past two decades, Lee has established herself as an acclaimed artist whose work — centering on themes of language and identity — is breaking the traditional mold. She is also a fierce advocate for inclusivity in the glass field and since 2013 has led UW–Madison’s Glass Lab, which was launched in 1962 as the first collegiate glass program in the nation, and is considered by many to be the birthplace of American Studio Glass.