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Sat Nov 22 12:45:20 EST 2008
Learn the secrets of glass art
American glassblowers breathe new life into Old World art
by *Richard Nilsen* - Nov. 14, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
There's no mystery to the popularity of glass art.
"Glass transmits light, it reflects light, it refracts light," Seattle
artist Benjamin Moore says. "Glass is a magical medium."
For Scottsdale glass artist Newt Grover, "It is the colors and the
transparency. They are effects you cannot get in any other medium."
Even for the world-famous Dale Chihuly, the answer is simple: "Glass is
popular because light goes through it. Only four things can do that:
gemstones like diamonds; ice; water; and glass - and glass does it best."
*To work in glass is to work in light.*
All three artists are part of the American Studio Glass Movement, a
community of those working in the medium that has grown from only a few
practitioners in the 1960s to a point where, currently, the Glass Art
Society in Seattle has 3,800 members in 58 countries.
Glass has spread.
"It really began in Toledo, Ohio, in 1962, when Harvey Littleton
arranged a glassblowing exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art," Moore
Littleton later established a glass program at the University of Wisconsin.
"It has flourished since then," Moore says. "There are at least 20 or 30
university programs now."
Littleton's students, including Chihuly and Marvin Lipofsky, have spread
the art and techniques. Chihuly's 25,000-square-foot studio in Seattle,
called the Boathouse, is now the world's largest, and scores of other
artists, often trained by Chihuly or his Pilchuck Glass School, have
moved to the area, making Seattle the largest concentration of glass
artists in the world.
"Harvey is the one who really went out and started to get people to
think about working in glass," Chihuly says. "His influence is the
biggest one, getting everyone together."
Now it's Chihuly who is most influential.
"He's done more for art glass than anyone," Grover says. "Chihuly and
art glass are not separable."
Chihuly is bringing an installation of his art to the Desert Botanical
Garden this week for a six-month stay.
But that doesn't mean the subject ends with Chihuly. Glass has a long
history, beginning in the ancient Middle East. No one knows exactly when
and where glass was invented, but as far as art goes, Egyptians worked
in a kind of glass, a vitrified enamel on small sculptural forms.
Glassblowing on an industrial scale began with the Romans.
"Glass has been used as a sculptural medium for over 2,000 years," says
Suzanne Franz, a freelance glass curator and former curator at the
Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. "They blew them in the shapes
of heads, figures, fruit. In a way, there hasn't been anything invented
since the Romans."
But most of the Roman work was functional: glasses, bottles, jars. To
find the point where the purely aesthetic properties of glass took hold,
you have to go to northern France in the 12th century and the
development of Gothic architecture. There, colored-glass windows became
not merely functional, but spiritual.
The Abbot Suger, who oversaw the construction of the first Gothic
cathedral, Basilica St. Denis in Paris,* **saw light as a metaphor of
the divine* and sought a way to incorporate light into his architecture.
By opening up his walls, it meant he could fill them in with images in
No one who has spent time with the great rose windows in Chartres or
Paris can fail to be moved by the luminous quality of their designs.
For Suger, awash in the Neoplatonism of his time, had *three Latin words
to describe light. "Lux" was the everyday sunlight that everyone shared;
"lumen" was the sanctified colored light that came through the
stained-glass windows and transformed the interior of his church; and
"illumination" was the spiritual effect that had on the individual who
took in this light through his senses.*
But you don't have to believe in the divine to see how the light coming
through glass can have an emotional effect on the viewer. If all art is
essentially metaphorical, the essential metaphor of glass is radiance,
the transfiguration of the world.
"The alchemy of glass is what's so exciting," says Pamela Koss,
executive director of the Glass Art Society.
Glass took a great leap forward in the 13th century, when an industry
was set up on the Venetian island of Murano. That industry is still in
business, and until this century it was the most influential element in
glass art. It developed many of the prime techniques still used: Much of
the glassmaking industry uses Italian terms, much as musicians do. The
glass-art vocabulary includes lattimo, millefiori, smalto, latticino,
avventurina and incalmo.
Each factory on the island developed its secrets and specialties.
"Murano is a magical place," Moore says. "It has been there since the
13th century, isolated because of the danger of fire, but also to keep
its secrets. It's in decline now. When I was there in the late '70s,
there were 150 factories. Now there's maybe 50. The number of people
working has gone from the thousands to the hundreds.
"You walk down the streets of Murano now and see glass for sale made in
China or India, where it's cheaper. It's a dying culture."
Besides, says Franz, "It's hard to get young people interested in
working in a factory."
But in the 19th century, Venetian glass was still state-of-the-art.
There was a large public for Venetian craftsmanship, as well as a number
of outsiders who wanted to learn glass and take it in other directions.
You probably have heard their names: Rend Lalique, Louis Comfort
Tiffany, Emile Galle, the Daum brothers. They worked glass, discovering
many new techniques and surface treatments. The Art Nouveau and Art Deco
traditions they worked in were enormously popular, and their businesses
"That period has had an extraordinary influence on artists of the Studio
Glass Movement," says Susan Warner of the Museum of Glass in Tacoma,
Wash. "You think of Tiffany and the extraordinary use of surface, and
Carlos Scarpa, and other fantastic designers, taking material to make
real breakthrough statements."
Scarpa was an architect, but he created many glass designs for the
Venini Glass Works in Venice.
After World War II, there was a revival of interest in craft arts in the
U.S. The Black Mountain School in North Carolina, among other places,
elevated ceramics and other crafts to a fine art, and by the 1960s,
craft was enjoying a true renaissance. Glass became part of that when
Littleton shifted his allegiance from pottery to glass.
Part of the ethos of the '60s was that art should be a shared, not
private, experience. The culture of secrecy kept by the Venetians made
no sense to the Boomers now swelling the ranks of the American Studio
"Murano was closed and conservative," Moore says. "You didn't just walk
into another factory unless you had been personally invited by the
master of that company. But the American sensibility was one of sharing.
Back in the '60s and '70s, everyone shared and worked together."
A few Italian masters recognized this and began working with the
Americans. One of them was Lino Tagliatpietra, among the most respected
of the Venetians.
"One of the reasons Lino came over was that he saw what was going on
here as something special," Moore said. "He thinks of his culture as
dying, and here in America, it's no holds barred, share ideas and work
It's one of the special qualities of glass workers.
"We don't hold our secrets," Chihuly says. "We all work in teams of five
to 10 people, and not even a thought of hiding something. Venetians came
over and worked with us."
There are other glass movements around the world, in the Czech Republic,
Japan and elsewhere, but all of them owe something to the Americans.
"As glass cultures, old commercial cultures are dying everywhere, from
Bavaria to Austria to Venice, falling to industrialization and
mechanization, a lot of old craftsmen are going by the wayside," Moore
"It is the beauty of the American studio movement that it can amalgamate
the various glass cultures, in our own vegetable-soup way of working
with the material, and make a new statement in the medium."
Scottsdale artist describes glass craft
by *Richard Nilsen* - Nov. 14, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
"It's like getting into your car when it's parked outside in the middle
of the summer," says Scottsdale glass artist Newt Grover. "When you work
in a studio in front of a furnace, you get this blast of hot air. You
definitely feel the heat."
Grover, who runs Newt Glass (newtglass.com <http://www.newtglass.com>),
has been a glassblower for 11 years, making both practical work and art
"The furnace runs roughly at 2,000 degrees (Fahrenheit) and it runs
24/7," he says. "It takes two days to come up to temperature and longer
than that to cool down."
Typically, the furnace runs continuously for two years at a time, cooled
only for repairs and maintenance. His natural-gas bill runs up to $2,500
The furnace takes pride of place in the center of his 1,000-square-foot
concrete-and-steel studio. The furnace is about 4 feet around and 6 feet
high, with a small door that opens to the crucible of molten glass.
"The glass looks orange when hot," he says. "Visitors sometimes ask, 'Do
you make anything that's not orange?' But no, that's just the heat."
It's one of a series of questions that seem to come up every time.
"Like 'Do you burn yourself?' No, not a lot. If you're used to working
around anything, you get used to it so you don't hurt yourself."
Or, "How hot is that blowpipe?"
"The pipe is four-and-a-half-feet long. The end where you gather can be
1,200 to 1,500 degrees, but where you hold it, it's room temperature."
Another FAQ: "How hard do you have to blow?"
"Depends on how hot the glass is. If it's cold, it's not going to move
The hotter the glass is, the more liquid.
"It doesn't have a melting point, like water," he says. "It's a constant
variation from liquid to solid, with all stages of viscosity in between."
Grover works his studio with paid apprentices. They get to use the
furnace when Grover isn't working on something.
"I usually have two or three assistants when I'm blowing glass," he
says. "If it's a bigger piece, I may need four or five."
One person will hold the blowpipe and inflate the hot glass, while
others will use various wooden paddles and metal snips to cut, shape and
fashion the glass.
"Glass is like ceramics, but instead of being worked vertically on a
potter's wheel, it has to be kept turning horizontally as you work it,
so the soft glass doesn't sag.
"A lot of the tools are green wood, and you get a kind of burned wood
smell, and you use a lot of newspaper, upwards of 20 sheets, folded into
a pad and soaking wet, to be able to shape the glass. It's the closest
thing you get to actually holding the hot glass. But it leaves a smell.
"Hot shops have a distinctive odor," Grover says. It's a mixture of
burning wood, steaming newspaper and the beeswax used to lubricate the
"And there's generally a lot of sweat in that mix."
Grover began as a jewelrymaker but moved into neon in the 1980s. Most of
his work was commercial signage, and he soon got bored with it. For the
past decade, it has been all glass.
*"For me, it's the colors and the transparency," he says. "There are
effects you cannot get in any other medium. It's addictive, more
addictive that heroin or crack."*
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