Daniel Lai: Visual Sculptor and Fine Artist

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Daniel Lai is a fabulous sculptural artist out of Knoxville, TN with an unforgettable talent. Daniel’s sculptures incorporate human figures and literary texts combined to arouse an emotional response from the viewer. The human forms tend to take positions toil or effort–whether physical or mental and all of the books are recycled from old texts others have discarded.

Daniel’s works seem to comment on the human situation as builder and keeper of knowledge and creativity–something Daniel, a PhD student studying Criminology–embodies in himself as an artist.

A truly unique artist, we are excited to introduce Daniel to our readers as  a featured artist on the Herald.


GTH: Daniel, you were born and raised in Malaysia and came to the United States in 2000, is that correct? Do you think this transition from Malaysia to the U.S. has influenced your artistic talent and muse? 

DL: It was actually December 20th, 1999.  I experienced the Y2K in New Jersey.  I arrived as a blank canvas ready to soak up every pigment!  When I was in Malaysia, it didn’t even occur to me that I would be a professional artist.  Growing up in an Asian background, being an artist as a career was never encouraged.  I moved to the U.S. to pursue higher education.  Naturally, this process prompted a lot of personal growth and revelations.  I was introduced to a variety of art, western art history, mediums and processes, practicing artists in the U.S., etc.  All of these exposures inspired me to push my art to new levels.  I had dabbled with photography as an amateur at that time.  Meeting these artists began to sensitize me to the intersection of personal aesthetics and expressions as art forms as these artists had demonstrated.  I learned so much as a result.  My confidence built up, too.  I started to expose my photography in a more professional way such as juried exhibitions and publications.  I subsequently gained some success.  So, I kept going.

And then I got bored with photography.  Applying what I learned, I started painting and sculpting.  I think I will be sculpting for a long time.  I find sculpting very fun to do.  My sculptures open up a lot of dialogues.  They generate great conversations between me and people who see my work.  I enjoy the limitations and possibilities of sculpting all at the same time.  This has a lot to do with my linguistics background.

GTH: You received a BA degree in Linguistics at Montclair State University before pursuing further artistic study with an MA degree in Art Studies/Art History from the same institution. Does your former study in linguistics have any resounding correlations in your art?

DL: My study in linguistics shapes and influences a lot of what I do.  Art is a visual language.  Language has limitations.  Its units and rules are predetermined and predefined.  Language users have to use their adequacy and creativity to effectively express how they feel.  Even so, for people to make sense of what is expressed they need to have a certain degree of language adequacy.  Likewise, sculptures have their limitations.  Generally speaking, your sculptures can be in existence only if physics allows it to be so – nature of materials, structural integrity, etc. determine whether your design will hold up.  In my case, I have some self-imposed limitations.  I only use books that people have discarded and the visual design of the finished sculpture depends solely on the book structure.  In other words, I let the object “tell” me what to do.  I like the interaction between me and my books; it transcends the boundary of words and meanings printed in them.  When I truly listen, the language in the books (or anywhere else) will take my mind to new heights and open up possibilities.  Upon these breakthroughs, I can then tell my stories and the stories I have heard; so, I am part of the wheel that has to turn to get us somewhere.  Isn’t this true about art?

Art and language are inseparable.  That is fascinating to me!

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GTH: Do you recommend higher education for artists pursuing professional recognition?

DL: I recommend higher education for anyone pursuing anything.  Period.  Nothing comes out of the void.  Not art.  Not science.  You have to start somewhere.  Education is a good place.  Knowledge always opens doors; ignorance doesn’t.  Having more options is always good.

GTH: Tell us, briefly, about your process. How do you come up with your ideas for sculpture?  How did you become involved in three-dimensional art, particularly using books?

DL: How I got into 3D art and book art is a three-part process.  About seven years ago, I found a very fun and interesting way to “document” my personal experiences.  I made these figures that are about 6-7 inches tall and they represented me.  They were like self-portraits.  I incorporated objects that found their way to me so that the figures would inhabit or interact with these objects.  These interactions reflected my thoughts through three-dimensional images, hence the title “3D hieroglyphs.”  The second part is a trip down memory lane.  As a kid in school, I found the teachers absolutely boring.  At my desk, I would fold the pages of my textbooks.  I got into so much trouble for that.  Then, I learned to do it subtly and undid everything right before school ended.  I became pretty good at manipulating books.  So, as an adult and an artist, I wanted to revisit that part of my life and the universe heard me.  About a few years ago, a friend of mine was spring cleaning and wanted to get rid of some vintage books.  But she didn’t want them to end up in the trash.  Having seen my sculptural work, she gave them to me and asked me to do something creative with them.  And, I did!

GTH: On your website you describe your sculpture series as consisting of journals that convey “snippets of [your] emotions and feelings toward life.” Do you prefer to use personal journals for your fine art projects?

DL: I do use a personal journal for my art but there is a difference.  As far as I am concerned, journals are private and art is public.  Art is my stories that I tell people.  It is not a note-to-self type of a thing but a journal is.

GTH: I should include that you also write, “I often write my experiences in a journal but find it inadequate to convey how I truly feel.” Why do you think words have been an inadequate medium for you? How does fine art make this attempt at communication easier?

DL: If I show you my journals, (which I won’t,) you will see a lot of drawings, scribbles, and foreign words.  I don’t put them in there because I want to be speedy or creative.  That’s just how my mind works.  Being multilingual allows me to appreciate the non-linear, circular way of thinking.  The benefit of the non-linear, metaphorical way of understanding things is that it keeps the mind very flexible like a child.  With this flexibility, nothing is set in stone, viewpoints become multidimensional, clichés become interesting, hard stances become soft, grey areas between black and white become visible.

Readers read written words in a sequential way – from a beginning to an end.  Art doesn’t do that.  It doesn’t have a beginning or an end.  Everything is restricted in one piece of art object.  The entire story is in this single piece of art.  No doubt.  Singularity can be a limitation.  Because of this circular way of thinking, I see limitations as possibilities.  If a person looks at the art and (s)he can relate to one thing in it, the story will unfold in his/her mind.  The viewer has the freedom to interpret, feel, and respond.

This is by no means to say that one form is better than the other (writing versus art.)  In fact, this “better-than” thinking is exactly what I was referring to as linear, inflexible way of looking at things.  I am just saying that I like the variety of expressions and I enjoy overcoming the inadequacy of each form.  That is what creativity is about.

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GTH: One of the pieces available for purchase on your website, “My Best Days are Beside Me,” features a clay figure submerged into and emerged out of a book with folded pages, in the middle there is a crab.  In your own words, what does this display communicate regarding your thoughts and feelings about “Best Days?”

DL: One of the greatest lessons I have learned is to be able to see from other people’s perspective and respect that angle (i.e. walk in the shoes of others.)  Another great lesson is that to reach the destination, sometimes we have to walk around the hurdle instead of jumping over it.  Of course, to emerge as an informed person, one has to submerge in the study.  This is what this piece is about.

The piece reflects the submergence and emergence in the sea of knowledge that I experience as a PhD student.  A few years ago, I was in Provincetown and I collected a couple of whole crab shells.  They were orange in color and caught my attention.   Crabs are very interesting in the study of metaphors.  They walk sideways; so, if they could speak, they would say that their best days are “beside” them, instead of “ahead” of them like the way we say it.  In different cultures, the crab symbolizes different things.  For instance, in Chinese, crabs signify prosperity, success and high status.  In other cultures, they symbolize strength (its armor-like shell); just what I need to survive graduate school.


Learn more about Daniel Lai’s work at daniellai.artspan.com.

Purchase and browse works by Daniel Lai on Etsy.

See Daniel’s feature on Tennessee Crossroads here.