Spotlight On Art and Art Education Instructor and Ed.D.CT Candidate Hong Wan Tham ☆
Hong Wan Tham received his BFA from the University of North Texas and his MFA from Pratt Institute. He is a working artist and teaches sculpture for the Art and Art Education program at TC. A citizen of Singapore and a former Malaysian, Hong Wan finds that his experiences living in both countries and in the U.S. allow him to contemplate his cultural identity—an exercise that is a vital component of his studio art practice.
Prior to TC, your education was in studio art practice. When did you decide you wanted to teach?
I always wanted to be a teacher. I did my Bachelor’s and Master’s in studio art practice, but it is quite difficult to survive as an artist where I came from, so I decided to pick up a teaching position without hesitation.
I taught high school for 10 years in Singapore, and then I felt the need to do something else. I wasn’t really doing my artwork because I was too occupied with job expectations. It was fun and I liked teaching, but it was strenuous and I was left with little time for other commitments. Also, I found myself trapped in a dilemma: I was struggling to find my own footing against the hegemony of an examination-oriented education system. I needed a break.
It has always been my goal to teach at the college level, so I decided to pursue a Doctoral degree in education in 2007. I had been to New York City before and I really liked what the city offered to an art-lover. So I decided to come back to study. Seriously, I didn’t really know much about Teachers College other than that it was in New York City, it was affiliated to Columbia University, and that it offered a Doctoral degree in education. TC is the only school that I applied to.
I hardly see myself as a “full-time” artist. In order to survive as such, you have to sell your artwork and that entails many thing that are not in my personal favor. However, when I teach studio art, I can do my own artwork as a “hobby”, and I will actually have a job! To teach art is a great possibility.
How did you find yourself teaching in Singapore, after studying in Texas and New York?
Originally I am Malaysian. I went to North Texas as a Music major and switched to Art after about four semesters. After graduation from Pratt, I went back to Malaysia and then got a job in Singapore. I worked there for 10 years and they gave me citizenship. So now I am Singaporean too. It is a long story!
And now you are American as well!
Yes, I have been here on and off for 14 years. I guess it really depends on what you mean by “American,” but to think about it, I have been in this country long enough that I think I can call it a home.
Did it take coming to TC to get your art practice back?
When I was in Singapore, people would say to me, “Where is your artwork?” I would answer, “My students are my artwork.” Somehow I didn’t feel I had the creativity. I guess I didn’t really have the conversation going on and there were just too many job and other commitments that I felt drained. After coming back to New York City, it took me a couple of years to get back into this studio art practice type of routine again. It’s a great struggle in the beginning but I would say the journey of searching a way back is fun and rewarding!
What medium are you working in now?
I had been a GA in the Ceramics Studio for a few semesters and it gave me unlimited access to the materials and equipment in the studio, so clay has now become a very important component in my artwork.
Nevertheless, I am one of those people who doesn’t focus on using only one media. For example, in Singapore at the school where I used to teach, I was asked to help out with the scout troop. It was a part of the school’s extracurricular offerings. I knew nothing about scouting when I first came on board so I went for a few courses. It actually opened up other possibilities to enrich my studio art language. I learned how to tie knots from the courses that I took and also from my fellow scout students, which in a way became the method I used to make wooden structures in sculpting.
I also like combining things I’ve found along the way, such as giving something that is going to be thrown away a last chance to shine or incorporating organic elements that I find along the river or in the wilderness into my artwork. I guess there is something about the organic or rustic quality in the world around us that really intrigues my sense of feeling.
Does being an artist yourself makes you a better art teacher?
Yes, definitely, because you know the process of creating artwork. First, to me, art making is not the final product, but rather the whole process of it. So you can actually share with your students the process you are going through. Individuals have different paths in creating the artwork, and you, as a teacher will know how to go through a process and guide students along the way. You know what the whole thing entails.
Can you please explain the balance between theory and practice in your program?
At Pratt we focused on the philosophy of art practice. At TC, the focus is more on pedagogical theory and educational history. So the theory I’ve received at TC completed the whole picture for me. Being an artist and an educator, you need to know both. It’s a great program.
Macy Gallery is unique because it’s a space not just where art hangs, but where people also work and study. What has been your experience there?
My art has been shown there often, and it has been a very good experience. Generally, when people put up their artwork in galleries, they would worry about whether it will sell or not. Since Macy is non-profit, I don’t need to think about that. I don’t have to worry if it is marketable or not, and that gives me a lot of leeway and opens possibilities. Personally, I don’t want to bring business into art making. That’s not my priority. To me, artwork is like my diary and writing my story. At Macy, I don’t have to worry if people want to buy it, and that adds an interesting dynamic.
Curating art shows in an academic environment is great too: I have curated shows at Macy Gallery and feel like I have much freedom in deciding what I want to do and show.
What will be your contribution to the upcoming NAEA (National Art Education Association) convention, which will be this March in New York?
I heard that Professor Burton is planning a group show, and I’m very interested in taking part in that. I’m looking forward to it.
What is your long-term goal?
I am looking for a college-level teaching job, preferably in studio art like ceramics and sculpture. I went back to Singapore this summer and I had that same feeling—that I’m not ready to go back. So I will stay in New York a bit longer and see what kind of job I can get here. I will see how it goes. I am writing my dissertation right now, and was planning my defense for next spring semester. I’ll hang around a little bit more!