A long a shaded garden path beside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, six rustic structures beckon visitors—some get off their scooters to take photos. Those stepping inside discover even greater reason to pause within these exhilarating wood enclosures.
As if in a rugged cathedral, golden-hued boards rise in staggered formation toward multiple, 14-foot-tall peaks. Walls step in and bulge out, suggesting the movement of some organic creature. Slits, peepholes and larger openings pierce the tight joints, allowing light to penetrate. The narrow boundaries encourage close-up viewing of variations in tone, texture, grain and knot patterns. These wood qualities become exaggerated on the exterior as the rough bark of raw-milled lumber projects to create a jagged, primeval profile.
“I love wood because each piece is different—its color, grain and smell. Like every person, each piece is one-of-a-kind,” says artist Foon Sham, who designed and constructed this buoyant work. Called “Arches of Life” and made entirely of pine from Boyds, Maryland, the piece is among several large-scale installations by Sham now on the Smithsonian campus as part of its outdoor “Habitat” exhibit—open for viewing at a safe social distance through December.
Exactly what kind of habitat is this? An accompanying panel describes how fallen trees take on new life as protective shelters for animals. But in its own short life, this multi-part piece has also expressed other ideas. Built in 2016 and titled “Escape,” the sculpture was then a single, 62-foot-long work representing the artist’s response to its setting on the grounds of the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia, the site of a former federal prison.
“There were escape tunnels under the prison,” Sham explains by phone from his studio, also in Lorton. As prisoners might have tallied the days until their release on cell-block walls, Sham wrote in pencil each section’s completed construction date on interior boards. The sculpture also represents a larger story of immigration, of escaping one country for another. Its craggy roofline follows map contours of the U.S./Mexico border and suggests mountain ranges of the American West.
The work reflects elements of its creator’s own history. As a student, Sham arrived in this country from Hong Kong in 1975. “The tunnel is a metaphor for the long journey to my American dream,” the artist observes. “It’s been a journey of hard work, continuing for 35 years.” Repeated openings in the sculpture’s walls indicate other possibilities. “There’s always a chance to get out; most artists do that many times in their lives,” he says. “This is an attempt to keep straight on, to reach the end of the tunnel—the target.”
Born in Macao, China, and raised in Hong Kong, Sham had little opportunity to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. Although he started drawing at age 10, the culture and education system directed students along more dependable career paths—medicine, law or computer science. Sham took painting classes at night and on weekends when, he recalls, “Learning to paint meant copying the Chinese masters. I spent four years copying. I never made a painting on my own.”
Entering the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, Sham took an introductory sculpture class and was baffled by the first assignment. “We were asked to do a self-portrait in any size and any material,” he remembers. “I was lost. My training was copying.” Living at the time with friends whose son was a carpenter, Sham picked up a band saw and some scraps of redwood, looked in the mirror and began assembling pieces into a composite head. It was the first time he had ever cut wood. “There was little opportunity to work with wood in Hong Kong. It’s a forest of buildings,” he says, chuckling.
Despite Sham’s misgivings, his portrait met with hearty approval from the teacher and class. “It changed my life,” he reveals. “That was my first opportunity to think about what I wanted to do as an artist—to follow my own DNA.”
It was the first step in his future career as a sculptor—and a professor of art. Since 1993, Sham has taught sculpture at University of Maryland while also fulfilling commissions, pursuing his own art and winning awards. Last year alone, he created three large commissions, received an achievement award and a grant from ArtsFairfax and exhibited smaller works and drawings at DC’s Gallery Neptune & Brown. Awash in luminous hues, the wood pieces on display were inspired by the colorful dress and landscape he found on a summer residency at the Arkad Centre d’Art in Auvillar, France.
While some of Sham’s works are scaled to interior spaces, others have attained monumental size. “Escape Tower,” the tallest at 36 feet, nearly touched the roof above the three-story atrium at American University’s Katzen Arts Center. Weighing three-and-a-half tons, it was created for the museum’s 2017 “Escape” exhibit of Sham’s work.
A more recent piece also proved complex. Commissioned by the Smithsonian, “Mushroom” is composed of 1,760 wood pieces reclaimed from trees that fell or were cut down during construction on the Smithsonian’s grounds: elm, oak, cypress, birch and katsura. The 12-foot-high sculpture was designed in 15 sections, each carefully color-coded and alphabetized for reassembly at the corner of 14th Street and Constitution Avenue, where it’s now on view as part of the “Habitat” show.
Sham often uses local woods but notes, “I have been chasing wood all over the world.” He has worked with camphor wood in China, and built sculptures from woods milled locally in Australia, Hungary, France and Norway during art residencies in those countries. The sculptor keeps jars of sawdust in his studio as a reminder of the distinctive colors and scents of different species.
“I personally like the smell of pine,” Sham says about our region’s fast-growing, readily available wood. However, he points out, when used for outdoor pieces, it requires regular applications of preservative to extend its life beyond 10 years. He often turns to two imported woods that resist the forces of nature for 30 years or more. “Ridge,” a walk-through sculpture in Arlington’s Oakland Park, was constructed of kebony, a treated pine from Norway; it was also sourced for his 28-foot-tall sculpture in the new REI store in North Bethesda. And recently, Sham awaited a shipment from Guyana of greenheart, a hard, dense wood intended for four new sculptures at the corners of 19th & L Streets in DC’s Golden Triangle district.
In many of his sculptures, Sham combines different woods. Plus, he adds, “You can mix wood with steel, Plexiglas, concrete, paper and cast iron,” all of which he has done. A commission currently underway interweaves brick-shaped pine pieces with real books, which were all donated. Scheduled for exhibit at the National Building Museum from November 27 through January 10, 2021, this 26-foot-square sculpture called “Maze of Knowledge” is based on childhood memories, explains the sculptor, recalling a fort near his early home in Macao. “There were different routes, multiple openings. I want as many people as possible to walk through this sculpture.”
Sham credits one aspect of his Chinese heritage for his approach. “I’m always chopping up wood into little pieces—like in stir-fry cooking,” he says good-naturedly, comparing the mix of colors and textures in both.
Looking back, he also traces his method to that first self-portrait. “It’s still my way of working. I construct by adding, building up small blocks into a giant mass to create the structure I want,” he explains. Sham remains exhilarated by shaping art in three dimensions. “You can look at or walk all the way around a sculpture, and sometimes go inside,” he observes with satisfaction. “Think about it: How many ways can you do a sculpture? There are so many possibilities. You will never get tired, never get short of ideas. There is no limit.”
Foon Sham is represented in the DC area by Gallery Neptune & Brown; galleryneptunebrown.com. Find more at foonsham.com. The Smithsonian’s “Habitat” exhibit continues through December 2020; gardens.si.edu.