Over the last few weeks I have been busily working developing a new line of work. This work employs a process made popular by Louise Comfort Tiffany in the 1800’s called fuming or irridizing. This process became a signature of the Tiffany style and has been repeated many times over because of its intense popularity. I have always said that I would not fume my work, and quite recently I went back on that promise in order to investigate this method to see if I could create new interesting forms that break some new ground.
Doing that is not easy to do. There is a lot that has been done…millions of processes and combinations….Some would say there is nothing new under the sun. Perhaps it is true….until we actually come up with something new. To that end, I am giving it my all.
Yesterday I went into the studio with the intention of doing what I have always done in glass, which is to bring a
sculptural sense to my work and giving the forms a different kind of quality that sometimes departs from traditional vessel forms.
The forms I came up with were an effort to create seashell like forms with the abalone shell being one of the chief forms for inspiration. I grew up on the beach as a child and can remember many small oblong and rippled shells that had beautiful mother of pearl interiors. I am in truth recreating that moment of discovery on the beach some 45 years later with this body of work.
What I am doing are making relatively small-scale pieces that I can control and work into shell inspired forms. A lot of this has to do with making the pieces off-center and breaking a lot of the rules that make blowing glass feel comfortable and “right.” So much of what we learn about glass blowing has to do with keeping a piece centered. So much of what I am doing now is knowing how to let a piece drift of center in just the right way in order to develop a sense of asymmetry amidst the natural order that is symmetry. The work is in its infancy and yet I have enough ideas and directions to keep me busy for a lifetime. Lucky for me, I am impatient and like to try new things and make new work so I guess I am making work for someone else to do in another couple of lifetimes!
I hope you enjoy looking at the pieces. They change so much in light, as some versions of the same piece in this post reveal.
All of this is fun and exciting and there is so much more to do, to make and to explore and discover. This really is the most interesting part of design work because everything is so new and the possibilities are endless. The key to creative viability I think is remaining fresh and new. As old lines of work are being retired in my studio work, new lines, like this one with a decidedly oceanic bent to them emerge. The tide comes in, the tide goes out. In the interim it leaves new treasures for us to see and explore….seashells and all manner of flotsam and jetsam to pick through….
If you like this work you can see more of the earliest work that was first done a few weeks ago in the post Breaking New Ground. You can also see and interact on my facebook business page by typing in staffordartglass.
There are a number of stories that suggest the genesis of glass as an expressive and utilitarian material. Some are more believable than others, but what we do know is that glass, unlike other materials was discovered in one place and spread from that locus (in the middle east near Ur or present day Iraq). Glass was an entirely new and unique material whose secrets remained with those who discovered it. It did not pop up in many places at once as did other better-known inventions or discoveries.
Glass was not first blown but was instead heated in small batches over fires more like a forge than anything we know today as being like a glass furnace. The feat, though was significant since the temperatures necessary to make sand turn into glass requires a pyrotechnology that rivals iron smelting, and THAT dear reader is some significant heat. Consider that with our advanced knowledge and ready liquid fuels, it still takes between 2200° to 2300°F. to induce sand to move into a glassy phase. The first objects were trails of glass wrapped around a solid core made up of sand, clay and camel dung. These were the early core formed vessels that were not blown and sported wraps of color like ribbons running down the sides of these miniature vase-like or amphora forms that were used to hold the most valuable of unguents, ointments or perfumes. Only the rich and royalty could afford these objects. They were incredibly rare and the price for a vessel would be on par with the similar prices for a nice sapphire, garnet, or emerald. The craft, science, and art of glass has been highly secretive for millennia. Its secrets were hard won and its keepers sought to keep the gems for themselves.
That was about 3,500 years ago.
About a hundred years before Jesus walked the earth, Romans discovered that you could dip irons in glass and blow bubbles. By coupling their knowledge of mold making in creating mass-produced ceramic items, these enterprising people turned their attention to a new way of working. Offhand glass blowing was born. During that two thousand-year period many epochs in glass creation have come and gone. The empires of glass are many, some more famed than others, and the march continues for the hope of the new. For as much as we would like to say there is nothing new under the sun in glass, artists and artisans continue to tease out new forms that have never existed before, cutting new soil and turning up fertile ground for new movements, ideas, and advancements.
There is nothing like hot glass. I have had a broad background in sculpture that has put me in contact with a variety of metals for casting including pewter, silver, bronze, aluminum, and iron. I have fabricated in steel, aluminum and bronze. I have carved wood, fabricated in wood, along with stone and a variety of materials all made in molds including paper, wax, polyester resin, chocolate, and clay. I have built forms from slabs of low fire and high fire clay, slip cast clay, coiled it, pit fired and raku-fired it. I have developed a slip cast clay for pit firing when I was in graduate school, and I also developed a new take on papier-mache that involved a glue that was highly reactive to heat that provided me unusual coloration. I have worked in mixed media, cloth, wood, encaustic and oil paint. I wont claim to be an expert at all of these things, but I do know that when it comes to the mainline materials used for creating three-dimensional objects, there is no other material that is like glass.
Drop it on the floor and let it drizzle along like honey from a spoon and what you have moments later once it cools is a beautiful tenuous thread of liquid frozen light. Add color and it gleams like a gemstone. Exert expert control and you have a vase, a bowl, a sculpture, or a window of stained glass. No matter the methods or the means, glass is intrinsically beautiful. It gleams. Like gold, glass wont save our souls but it certainly will bring us delight. We could certainly hold our milk in ceramic jugs and life would continue perfectly fine if we didn’t have an ounce of gold upon the planet. But we seem to need the twinkle, the sparkle. Somewhere deep inside of us glass just makes us feel good. For me, it is nothing short of a miracle. For someone who has been in business since 1997, I think that is a significant statement.
The truth is, in order to master glass it takes years to develop the requisite skill needed to command a material that is frustratingly difficult to manipulate. In the glass houses of Murano and earlier in Venice, a maestro was only so-called after many years of practice. Boys who were allowed to first sweep the floors would take years of service before they could rise to the level of a gaffer, the name used for the individual who blows the glass at the bench and heads a small team of workers who move together as a crew to help move at the speed of molten glass, which is most certainly fleet. I did not feel like I had begun to “get it” until two years of weekly practice. I stuck with it and I did this because the moment I saw the bubble emerge from the blow pipe. In fact, I am a little embarrassed to say that when I saw glass being blown while in graduate school for the first time, I clapped my hands like a gleeful five year old. I am a little embarrassed to say that, yes, but also proud. I am proud because this material had lit such an intense and immediate fire under me right from the start. Through all of the comings and goings in life, the hardships and uncertainties, glass has remained as the royal and regal presence it has always been in my life. My fall for glass was instantaneous. When I close my eyes I see a world of wooden buildings rising up along the canals of Murano some four hundred years ago as hot shops or glasshouses held the honor of being the glass center of the world. It wasn’t until Dale Chihuly began a school in Pilchuck Washington that the center of glass shifted to the United States in a Pacific Rim city called Seattle. Wherever the crown goes, glass remains what it has always been; so simply beautiful that we need not even speak a word or seek to describe it in order for others to “get” it. We get it.
Glass eats light. Refraction is measured by an index that actually describes how much the glass impedes the FLOW of photons through its form. By slowing down light, it is accumulated, and this is what gives glass its sparkle. It seems to glow from within. And just so you know, I came by the refraction definition in a book on engineering and optics. As light gathers within the body of a piece of crystal, it shines and glimmers. It makes us feel more alive, reflecting perhaps the shimmer that is most assuredly in our own souls, that it reminds us in such simple and uncomplicated ways.
For all of the tradition that has built up around such an ancient material such as glass, I will be the first to tell you that I came to glass as something of an outsider. I came to glass later in life and was not privy to the knowledge that such a tradition can amass in ones mind. The American Studio Glass Movement whcih was largely kindled by Harvey Littleton who began the first glass program in the university system in the U.S. It was at the University of Michigan at Wisconsin-Madison that Harvey developed a program that would produce some of the first glass artists who would fan out through the U.S. and begin teaching or working in studio practice to spread the gospel of glass. For as much as I feel that I stand apart, I am part of this upstart tradition, even if only marginally so. Bill Boysen was there in that program that Harvey had just set up and was in on the very beginnings of its big questions and discoveries. It was under Bill that I was able to rediscover glass for myself while at graduate school, and even though I was a full time student in sculpture, he welcomed me into the program and provided me with the opportunity to take part in a program where we made glass,sold glass, and used the money to build new equipment and to purchase supplies. His method was startlingly direct and simple; learn by doing. Let school be a lab for real life and require students to know how to build equipment and develop their own studios. For Bill, nothing resided in the theoretical realm but was discoverable right here and now. You learn by doing, and we all learned under his care. I have remained outside in order to remain fresh and to always look at glass with a fresh eye. I quickly learned that my lack of knowledge was not a deficit but an asset. I might not have been able to blow a dragon-stemmed goblet, but I was free to ask questions that many may simply have not considered due to their involvement in a tradition that was not used to asking those questions. There are great gifts that glass has yet to offer up and they reside within the potential which we have yet to realize. Lino Tagliopietra, arguably one of the greatest of glassblowers the modern world has known expresses the same sentiment; there is more to learn, more to explore, more to know even as he continues to work well into his seventies.
Glass exists at the edge. in order to work glass properly, it must be so hot that it is nearly on the verge of being uncontrollable. There is this small window of viscosity that exists where this vitreous material is worked. The ability to control this unwieldy material now in its molten state is where mastery emerges. This is not easy. Glass becomes a challenge, a mountain to surmount and along the way a great discovery of the stuff that we ourselves are made of. Whether you are the one who has glimpsed the peak of such a mountain or someone observing the fruits of such an expedition, the result is the same. We are enchanted by this impossible, even implausible material. Yet, here it is; a miracle in our midst. Glass is precious partly for how fragile it can be, but also for how difficult it can be to grasp on a technical level. If you listen, it will teach you. My greatest teacher has been the glass itself.
When I first opened my studio in 1997, I began the second leg of my education in glass. I had only a few years’ worth of experience with the material. I had one course in graduate school. After that, everything was considered independent study. I was given a key to the studio for my four hour blow slot where I would blow glass and seek to tease the secrets slowly from the great body of material that were my first years in the field. I worked alone because I felt so behind everyone else who was in the glass field full-time. I was a sculptor working on earning my M.F.A. at Southern Illionois University at Carbondale and I was a late comer to the world of glass. When I left the university and decided I wanted to work glass full-time, I soon learned that the number of pieces of glass that I would make in a week would be more than I would make in an entire semester at school. Time sped up, or seemed to. The secrets of the language of glass began to emerge and carried me along from one discovery to the next. I knew nothing of the world of “paperweights” and chose to make rocks with galaxies hidden within them. The truth is, most paperweights bored me. They seemed stiff and formal. I simply was not drawn to develop any kind of study of the old traditions even though I was aware of them. I think that this is the place where new ground is revealled, even though we may not recognize it for what it was when we look on as observers to what an artist is seeking to do. Instead of making my “rocks” round, I made them bumpy. Instead of brightly colored on the outside, their shells concealed a great secret within their crystal caverns. What would be the bottom of a piece was the top of mine. Everything that was considered traditional in this form was exploded, lain aside like some old tool that had been used but was too worn to be of much service. Without any bias in my mind from the burden of too much information or knowledge, I set about quite innocently making things in a very different way. The glass, in truth, showed me the way. I learned from it. By remaining attentive, I discovered how I could take piece that took forty-five minutes to make and reduce that time down to just six minutes. I found that I could shape glass by how I moved through space instead of touching a cold wooden or metal tool to its surface, which sucked it of its life force, which for glass, is heat. By learning this, I was able to pack into the moment more operations of shaping and streamlined the process in ways I was never taught before. The only way I did this was by observing the glass. I didn’t walk fast, I merely listened to what the glass was telling me. The discoveries came in an incremental way and stacked up over time. What you see in my work is the result of a development or a route that is the result of many small steps in a larger journey.
As a result of this love of glass, I teach glass making to others. I do my part to spread the gospel of glass. My own teacher, Bill Boysen, was a generous, excited, and enthusiastic supporter of his students and of the art and craft of glass making. I try to pass along a little of his own spirit in my work as well as those things I have found to be of value, too. I don’t teach because teaching brings me great economic fulfillment. The truth is, I can make more money just by blowing alone in the studio. That, however, is not enough for me. Being able to be around the hive of activity that is a studio full of newcomers to this very ancient art is something that borders on the mystical for me. There is a satisfaction that I get, a fulfillment that reflects on my early days of excitement and wonder about the potential of this material. Leaning this close to that fire is where the essence of our creative spirit resides. So I teach. I have the best of all worlds in a studio that allows me to display, create and teach all at once if need be.
To understand the expressive potential of glass you have to just see the possibilities. There is cast glass, fused glass, torch-worked glass as well as blown glass. In my own studio I have both offhand glass blowing (glass blown by hand the old way) as well as a studio-within-the-studio with a set up with torches to teach lamp working, another term used for glass made by torch. These two realms of glass making are very different from one another and their appeal includes a broad audience. Some come to learn, while others are content to watch as I blow piece after piece. Looks are completely free. Sometimes I am host to groups who want to see the work finished in the gallery while also being able to see the work being made before their eyes. The studio is especially suited for all of this.
The classes offered at the studio are day-long intensives, weekends as well as short Blow Your Own Ball events (BYOB) where participants work with the gaffer in designing and then blowing an ornament or suncatcher as well as a paperweight option, as well as events that involve working with the artisan closely to create custom designs to your specifications. You are right there as the piece emerges from the pipe and as the collaborate energies flow between you and the glass worker. There is consideration of a glass pumpkin do-it-yourself class, bead-making classes, as well as evening catered events with music, food, and locally sourced beer and wines from our own microbreweries and award-winning vineyards. Everyone who comes leaves smiling, and it is little wonder; there is nothing else quite like glass.
I’d like to take a moment and explain a little about this blog, what its about, what the thinking is that is behind it, and why yet another blog and why a blog about Stafford Art Glass. First off, I am an artist, artisan, designer, and educator. I write a good bit, having a 620 page manuscript in the works (which looks like if I can get a big enough crowbar could be turned into three books), have written some as-yet unpublished children stories and am working on a second book related to the first (this might be that crowbar I was looking for). I also write two other blogs on other subjects related to nonduality and I run a studio in the Alleghany mountains of Virginia. I am a father of two and my life has been turned around recently in such a way that I have begun to look at creativity very differently than I did before. Maybe I should say my thinking has blossomed a little more. While my interests are broad, I am keeping the focus pretty tight on this blog.
We very much need good things to help reflect our values in life. Everyone has different ideas, philosophies, and approaches. All of them are valid, of course, all have merit, and even if by looking over our shoulder at our neighbor we have trouble understanding some of them. The truth is, there is a tendency we as humans have that serves to lock out whole worlds of possibilities, and it doesn’t just happen in art and fashion. Our brains are designed to see the patterns in the chaos, and because of that, we like to hold onto those patterns, and often deify them much to our limit. We become biased and this bias closes us to the possibilities. This has a broad application in life, and this principle is anathema to being innovative or creative in my opinion. I very much love taking the most obvious idea or form and think how I can turn it on its head, turn it inside out, change it, reform and recreate it. This is part of the very essence of the creative, and its necessary if you are going to attempt to think differently, and have a chance at creating something new. By being able to innovate, we as creators and innovators can bring to market those products that matter and that tell the story in an entirely new way. Sometimes new is very very good, but new often is built upon the old in such a way that it changes the conversation, the very content of the past so that it can speak to a new generation. All great innovation is built upon this precept.
It might be a little silly for me to be titling this post “The Exquisite Object” because the truth is, one person’s exquisite is another person’s eeeew! However, I think that the better we can innovate and create the New, the better we are able to insert something into the dialog of our lives that has some meaning. Many strokes for many folks!
I am a glassblower, artist, as well as sculptor. When I think of glass, though, I tend to think of it as a sculptural medium, even though I often make very functional items. Glass can be a material that we instantly have certain assumptions about. Its a perfect example of how we can crowd out a world of possibility, as well as innovation and creativity by keeping our horizon limited. The techniques I use to make my work set it apart from the usual run of the mill glass that you might think you know. A lot of what I do, like most good designers and artists do, is seek ways to set myself apart from the pack. I also do what matters to me. If I did what sold, I’d still be making those god awful ornaments I took to New Jersey that one time that were, I thought, horrible color combinations and sold within the first hour of the Artfair! What I know is that I am looking for the right person for my work, and this falls entirely outside the design process and becomes a marketing issue, but it is a basic philosophical precept to how I operate. If I seek to please everyone, I wind up not pleasing myself, and asking just what on earth I am doing. So I stick to what I believe and out of that comes something of consequence to me and my customers. I do not look at the materials I use in a limited light; they are just that, materials, and can become anything. Sometimes the greatest ideas are waiting to be discovered and they are right in front of us. I don’t bring to my glass work any of the same biases that I found once I got into the medium.
Perhaps as a result of this orientation, I don’t have much of a purist heart in me because it is that “purity” that I also know in another language also means “bias” and bias is also a way of limiting yourself. On the one hand, you need FOCUS when doing art or design, but I have always sought a range of different sensibilities that have all informed one another or told different parts of a much larger tale. For sure, I am interested in certain kinds of design, don’t get me wrong, but I am restlessly creative, and this is evidenced in my enormous writing output over the last year as well as my going into teaching sculpture at the local university. Its more like I can’t tell the whole story in English, and I need four more languages with which to explain everything! This flies in the face of everything my teachers tried to convey to me early on, and yet, just like our need to find objects that are well designed and made that help express our OWN sense of style and design, so too must I range across a multilingual landscape in order to tell my own story! Besides, who is living this life, me or my teachers from long ago? Sometimes it also means sticking to your guns and not being afraid to believe in something.
I can remember a number of years ago when I attended a workshop by the well-known sculptural glass artist Pino Signoretto. That’s him at the bench with all the guys crowded around him. It was a demonstration workshop, which meant we all watched. I filmed the whole thing, hoping to learn as many tricks as I could from this great master. As I sat with camera in hand an attendee and I began to chat. He asked what I did in my work and we had a nice exchange that was pretty cordial until he found out that I also made these little sculptural pieces I call Andromeda Geodes and Inscape Geodes. For lack of a better name, these would be referred to as paperweights. With a change in his body language and a roll of his eyes, he said to me that he REFUSED to do paperweights and quickly ceased any conversation with me. He had, at that point, decided I was one of THOSE glass artists, and quite suddenly, I was beneath him. I remember being a bit surprised by the arrogance that was being leveled at me, but also a little happy at the same time. I thought that this was one less person to have to compete against, and how nice it was that I wasn’t so closed-minded about what glass could and could NOT be, or what was good or NOT good.
Since then, I have run across a number of glass artists who look at the subject of making sculptural glass the same way. Its largely from a place of ignorance, and thus bias, and the fact that “paperweights” are thought of as easy to make by those who have dabbled in them, which they can be, the act of bias, a very subjective activity in itself, closes off any intellectual or creative curiosity for some people. Its when we make assumptions about what we THINK we know that we can miss a world of possibility. In fact, many of the great discoveries were accidents that forced people into thinking about a given phenomenon, technology, in a different way. So often, we just get STUCK in what we believe is possible, or not worthwhile. Often, by turning something on its head, we can peel off entire layers of new material and possibility just by NOT assuming we know all there is to know. Truth is, we really know very little, but that ego of ours sure doesn’t want us to believe or be mindful of that!
Here is what I mean: paperweights are normally round, clear, and brilliantly colored. They are a delicious slice of eye candy. For me, though, I never saw the paperweight as anything with a history. I didn’t KNOW the history of these things. I didn’t grow up owning paperweights. I never saw them made. I didn’t know what you were SUPPOSED to do with them, or any of the traditionalist baggage that could have served to limit me. I simply came innocently into their grove and like a child, looked anew at what they could become. I had nothing that told me anything about any of this was bad, or more desirable than any other. I was a sculptor getting my M.F.A. and I was just taking glass because it was such a cool medium. I took a beginning glass class that covered the basics, but was so intimidated by the skill and knowledge of the other glassblowers in the program, that I wound up working alone much of the time. In some ways, it may have been my own loss from a technical stand point, but the flip side was I remained a conceptual vacuum where I didn’t always know what should or could be done. Normally, this way of working is not one I would even suggest as being productive for my students in sculpture, but I have to admit that it served me in a way that helped me to dream in a different way, in a more unlimited way. I learned all of my techniques pertaining to solid work entirely on my own. As a result, I did everything opposite from the way its normally done. Instead of making my “paperweights” clear on the outside, I made them opaque. The design on the outside wasn’t even a design, but a rock-like effect. Light did not dance across their surfaces, but instead they had a shell that obscured their interiors. I also didn’t make my pieces round. They were lumpy, bumpy, and organic. I was more interested in real geodes and how their surfaces looked. I wanted to make the glass NOT even LOOK like glass! Then, by cutting them open, I revealed their interiors, which were sparkling worlds and galaxies full of brilliance and crystalline beauty. Everything about these pieces has defied what the assumed definition of a “paperweight” is to the point that I often have trouble even calling them paperweights. People seem to need to have a way to peg them, so they get this categorization. The truth is, these pieces are hard to make.
Already, have had two artist attempt my designs, one who sought to adapt it to his own color effects and design sense while another has not taken my design very far from the tree from which it was conceived (which bothers me the most since this feels like theft to me). One of them gave up the work because of some technical problems that I faced in the work but worked through. It was interesting looking at his derivative work and being able to see that the issues I had worked so hard on to fix were still remaining in his version. A given type of work can be difficult to make technically, but the user doesn’t want to know about this, they want an object that they can use, and while part of their enjoyment is the “how’d they do that?” factor, it doesn’t matter much since its all just details. When people go to see a movie very rarely do they want to see a film about HOW the film was made; they just want to become absorbed in the art, in the story being woven. Regardless of the level of difficulty (or lack thereof), the bottom line is: is it exquisite? Is it finely crafted, thought out, does it have good design, and does it say something in a way that hasn’t been said before? If the answer is yes to all of this, then its a “go for launch.”
In my teaching, I try to get this across to my students. We talk about what art is, and while its a sticky wicket sometimes, part of what art is about is its ability to take an old conversation and turn it into a new one. Most great artists took what was assumed and turned it inside out. Duchamp took ordinary objects and said they were art, underscoring how important INTENT was in art making, while at the same time also using everyday mundane objects in an entirely new way. Sometimes it can also mean starting an entirely new conversation based on new concepts, new forms, and new ideas. Ultimately its about transforming the mundane into the profound, and this is no mean task. It means thinking different, and it also means not allowing the mundane to trip you up, or to believe that there isn’t some new way to go about making something so that it breathes new life into the artform. Its about not letting our biases rule the day because just beneath the bias runs the strongest and most powerful current we know; creativity. It also means stopping before you begin your eye roll when you hear of something you think you already know everything about! When we can learn to think different, we can also create different. When you can make different, you can come up with new forms, new product, new stories, new ways of seeing and feeling. This is one of the powerful sides of the human spirit, and that is a great thing to embrace!
So much about design and art is taking established guidelines or forms and creating something new out of it. Being able to break out of those old molds, modes, and ways of thinking is the essence of innovation, and that means design, too! To that end, this is in large part what this blog is about; innovation. As I write, I now have several new lines of work waiting for me to continue to tune and tinker with. The concept is well fleshed out, but the form needs to follow the function, and the function is the concept. How well do these two align? How do I pull on the idea of utility and art to create something new? What taboos can I break, or old notions can I leave by the wayside in the search for the next big thing? This is where the rubber meets the roads, my friends, and this is the very meat of what interests me most about what I do. In the posts that follow I will be discussing the processes and ways that have led me to knew work. The studio is a place of flux. I am not a factory, although the studio sure looks like one. It could be one, or it could be an entirely new model based upon a very old one, that of the individual studio artist and artisan creating new work just as they have for millenia. I might even manage to comment on the state of design in our world, perhaps in small bite sized chunks!
Please contact me directly for studio hours: our work is seasonal and sometimes the studio can be down for repairs, for example. Some days we are blowing glass while other days we are running errands or away at a show. Let us know when you are free to come see us and we can work something out that works for you.