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Shattering the Glass Ceiling: 6 Artists Who Transformed Glassmaking From A Craft to A Fine Art

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Shattering the Glass Ceiling: 6 Artists Who Transformed Glassmaking From A Craft to A Fine Art
Dale Chihuly via Channel 3000

What comes to mind when you think about glass-blowing? Bongs? Date-night Groupons? That weird Netflix competition show? Maybe even Dale Chihuly, whose explosively colorful installations dissolve the boundaries of logic, gravity, and everything in between. Interestingly, just fifty years ago, none of these options might have occurred to you.

Fine art glass making, typically termed "studio glass" by its participants, has only been a viable art form since 1962, when ceramicist Harvey Littleton, known as the "Father of the Studio Glass Movement", brought the inagural stateside glass workshop to the Toledo Museum in Ohio; he founded the first ever collegiate glass program at University of Wisconsin-Madison just one year later. The 1950s had ushered in a new respect for craft media in gallery and museum spaces all over the world, but the creation of glass objects still operated under the dominion of artisinal factory teams that could be hired out by studio artists, but never comandeered for individual projects. To this day, glass art requires expert staff oversight, specialized equipment, and, of course, copious amounts of fire, which means space and funds are always prohibitive factors. Shared work stations and access specificity make studio glass a tight-knit community, and there are a finite number of glass hubs in the United States, including the aforementioned Toledo Museum in Ohio, the Studio at the Corning Museum in upstate New York, the Pilchuk Glass School in Seattle, the Pittsburgh Glass Center in Pennsylvannia and UrbanGlass in Brooklyn. All of these locations offer workshops, artist residencies, and studio rentals for folks who want to push their respective practices into new dimensions. It's not at all unusual for emerging artists to share studio resources with blue-chip icons. 

 A still from Netflix's "Blown Away" via the New Yorker

Modern glass techniques run the gamut from glass-blowing, the pipe-and-furnace process most legible to laymen, to flame-working, which requires torches and kilns, to casting, which involves molds made out of refractory, sand or plaster employed for large-scale sculptures. While glass may be an unforgiving medium, it is extremely versatile, and it's capacity for shape-shifting, illumination, and three dimensional alchemy, not to mention its unparalleled beauty, has made glass a heavy hitter in the catalogue of museological media to which art viewers have grown accustomed. 

But who are the pioneers of studio glass, and what did they contribute to the field? Here are five artists who helped transform glass making in the fine arts space. 

 

DALE CHIHULY 

 "Summer Sun" 2010 at Kew Gardens via Artcritique

Chihuly (b. 1941) hails from Tacoma, Washington, and after a series of fits and starts with higher education, found success under Harvey Littleton's tutelage in the mid-60s, going on to recieve a Master of Fine Arts in Sculpture at RISD in 1968. After a stint at the Murano glass factory in Venice, Chihuly launched more than a dozen monumentally important series of works, like his Cylinders and Baskets in the 1970s, Seaforms, Macchia, Venetians and Persions in the 80s, Nijima Floats and Chandeliers in the 1990s, and Fiori in the 200s. While his themes vary from project to project, viewers can always count on Chihuly for mammoth conglommerations of pluming, candied color, often metamorphic references to flora and fauna in utterly Martian proportions. In context, his pieces take on a seductive, alien quality, at once immersive and extrinsic to onlookers. A co-founder of the Pilchuk Glass School, Chihuly has been the subject of a number of high-profile retrospectives, including exhibitions at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2013. Chihuly pioneered the use of picking up colored glass threads with molten matter in the United States, and while he hasn't handblown much since the accident in 1976 that cost him the use of his left eye, his role as a glass "choreographer", in his own parlace, warranted his own outdoor museum at the Seattle Center, a glorious garden of otherwordly glass creations. 

 

FLORA MACE and JOEY KIRKPATRICK

"Hardy Orchid", 2015 via Traver Gallery

Flora (b. 1949) and her long-standing partner and collaborator, Joey Kirkpatrick ( b. 1952), were the first women to teach glassblowing at the Pilchuk Glass School in Washington in 1979, where they met for the first time. Kirkpatrick earned a B.F.A. in 1975 at the University of Iowa and took graduate glasses at university soon after; Mace received a B.S. in Fine Arts from Plymouth State College in New Hampshire and an MFA in Sculpture and Glass from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana in 1976. Flora and Joey have exhibited, lectured and taught extensively throughout the world, and are best known for their large scale blown glass fruit and vegetable forms, which often incorporate wood and bronze. Newer work includes blown vessels and cast panels sporting applied powder drawings of bird identification facts and illustrations. The pair are reknowned for fabricating their own custom tools and catalyzing the concept of co-signing in studio glass, which, while entirely teamwork oriented, was a rarity in authorship prior to their ascendance in the field. While they were initially met with resistance from gallery owners who balked at seeing co-signed work, the artists have built an enduring career on their collaborative ventures. Their pieces have been included in collections and museums around the world including the Detroit Institute of ARt in Michigan, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, Hokkaido Museum in Japan, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.. 

 

BENJAMIN MOORE

"Exterior Fold" series via artist's website 

Moore (b. 1952) is widely recognized as the bridge between the American studio glass movement and Murano, Italy, the historical epicenter of Venetian glass production where Moore apprenticed for two years after completing his MFA at the Rhode Island School of the Design. There, he studied under Chihuly, who became one of his earliest mentors. His passion for timeless, geometric forms has informed his practice from the outset and contributed to his sterling academic career— he's served both as faculty and trustee at the Pilchuk Glass School and taught at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. His work belies an appreciation for classical technique, and series like "Interior Fold" and "Palla" utilize elegantly old-school methods of decorative form. Straddling the line between fine art and interior design, Moore's work can be found in prestigious collections the world over, including the Venini Collection in Murano, the American Craft Museum in New York, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. 

 

LYNDA BENGLIS

"Vanardo" 2010 via Artnet Marketing

Benglis (b. 1941) became a sensation in New York almost immediately following her matricultion from Tulane University's B.F.A. program in 1964. Her anarchic use of materials like latex, day-glo paint, polyurethane, beeswax and chicken wire to create explicitly feminist commentary set her apart from the Post-Minimalist male crew running the art scene, many of whom she counted among her close friends. Heralded as the "heir to Pollock" by Life magazine in 1970, Benglis went on to a dazzling career enjoyed by few other women of her era, and continues to make ambitious, irreverent, and materially exploratory pieces that throw taxonomy to the wind. One of the first fine artists to use glass with any regularity, it was Benglis' incorporation of the medium as early as 1979 that help put it on the map in fine arts spaces, due in particular to her singular deployment of it's most bodily qualities for abjective rather than decorative purposes. In 2010, after a residency at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, Benglis created a suite of African-inspired handblown masks, which drew from previous artistic investigations into adornment and cultural history. Benglis has had her work collected in public and private institutions all over the planet, and has had solo exhibitions at venues like IMMA in Dublin, New Museum in New York City, and Storm King Sculpture Park in Beacon, NY. 

 

WILLIAM MORRIS 

 "Mazorca" 2007 via Habatat Gallery

Another student of Chihuly's, Morris (b. 1957) was educated at California State University in Chico, CA and Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. As Dale Chihuly's chief gaffer throughout the 80s, Morris fell in love with the medium of glass, leaving the Pilchuk School after a decade of service to found his own studio and develop his own style. Morris's work has long been concerned with archeology and mimeticism, eschewing the naturally respledent properties of glass for more experimental interpretations of its material capacity. His ability to transform glass into wood, bone, fiber, and sinew owes directly to his taste for innovation; Morris pioneered a technique that utilized propane torches to heat specific sections of each piece, allowing for a high level of detail he has become notorious for. Inspired both by nature and ancient civilizations, Morris' oeuvre finds the shared humanity in devotional artifacts. Morris retired in 2007, but his work has been collected by institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musee Des Arts Decoratifs in Paris, and the American Glass Museum in Millville, NJ. 

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