why do I use glass?
Glass is no picnic to use as an artistic medium. It takes very high heat to change its shape or mold it, it doesn’t play nice with other materials and it is finicky and fragile to handle. It takes long periods of warm up and cool down to keep it from cracking due to thermal shock. It readily crystalizes and shows the smallest amounts of dirt, and its broken edges will slice you open. It even will not work with other types of glass, and most random combinations of different types will crack due to incompatability. Many of its colorants are outright poisons. Why would any sort of reasonable, prudent person select such a prickly bed-fellow?
Well it is love, and a willingness to accept your lover’s faults in order to have them in your life. Glass has an interaction with light that makes it unique as a tool for expression. And so we glass artists overlook and learn to live with its ‘personality quirks’ for the sake of its uniqueness. And, when we get it right, make something very fine indeed. It is in getting it right where the rubber meets the road.. where the best artists can work with understanding and skill, and others only with serendipity and luck.
After realizing that I did not have enough creativity in my life, I resolved to try a number of art classes and workshops in a search for something that would help meet my need. I tried a hodge-podge of techniques and mediums. I read, and thought about the work I was drawn to in museums and art shows. Then in 2003 we went on a family vacation in Door County, WI. While we were there we found a hands-on art studio where it was possible to try a number of different techniques and media under one roof. Although it originally was an idea for my girls (they were 7 at the time) it rapidly became my activity. That studio was the first place I encountered studio art glass, and all its compatible colors. They allowed you to assemble a 2D picture, which they would then fire for you. I was hooked! After we left that day, I asked my wife if she would mind if I went back by myself the next day so I could concentrate on making a piece for myself.. (She could tell I was hungry for it, and she agreed to take the girls, as she has innumerable times since, so I could work on glass.)
There are many beautifully colored art media available now.. water color, ceramic glaze, acrylic paint, oil paint.. but for me, nothing touches the intensity or richness of the color of glass. And beyond the quality of the color it can be transparent, and both reflect and transmit light.. This gives it the optical dimension that other media lack. For me, this gives glass the potential to express ideas and feelings more vividly than any other material.
As I reflect back now, I see that the magnetic draw of colored glass was not my first captivating experience of color. That happened when I was in my teens and I became aware of the colors of natural minerals. I loved the bright colors and amazing crystal forms that occur in nature. For several years my friend Neil and I collected rock and mineral specimens from around Colorado. We still have them, and to this day when I look at them I feel a sense of amazement at their forms and beauty. Glass touched that same chord in me.
After Door County, I knew what medium I wanted to work with… and I sharpened my focus. I took as many glass classes as I could near my home, trying a number of techniques. I settled on kiln forming. I never was drawn to working with a blowpipe.. it seemed limiting and old news to me.. and because of my training I found hot shops too cavalier with dangerous conditions. I liked the idea of making glass sculpture by the lost wax technique, which enables more detail and variation in form than is possible on a blowpipe. In 2005, I invested in my first glass kiln, and thus began my journey to learn my chosen material.
I was told by an artist mentor that it takes an investment of 10,000 hours of practice to master an art medium. (Roughly 5 years full time.) With kiln formed glass, this may be a conservative estimate, in that there are so many aspects you must learn to succeed, unlike a medium like water-color, where you apply color to paper throughout your development. To do glass successfully, you must learn how to cut it, how to fire it without cracking it, what materials are compatible and incompatible with it, how to prevent bubbles and malformation, how to keep it from sticking. And you have to learn how it moves and flows as it is heated, and how it expands and contracts compared to other things in the kiln.
I also wanted to do casting using the lost wax method. So in addition to learning about the glass, I had to learn to sculpt in wax, build a proper mold around the wax, successfully clean the wax out of the mold and prepare and load the mold in the kiln so that glass would take the shape of my wax original, and finally how to fire the mold and glass together to make the glass fill the void in the mold without cracking or deforming it.
Then, presuming my piece survived all this learning, I had to clean it up and make it suitable for presentation, which can involve hours of delicate grinding and polishing. All of these skills are about controlling and keeping the glass intact, and not about how you want to express yourself with the material. That you also must develop as you do the rest.
One piece of advice I received early on was to study with the best artists I could find as often as I could afford it. I believe this to be a universal truth for aspiring novices.. that nothing will move you up a learning curve like a good teacher. (I took this to heart, and have had the opportunity to study with many great ones. They are noted in my resume.) I started locally, then regionally, then nationally, and then internationally. Even when you become a master, a workshop is a way to stay fresh and rejuvenate your spirit, and I say never stop learning.
I studied and learned many ways to use my kiln. I made bowls and platters, 2D art work, jewelry, and Christmas ornaments. I did lots of experiments and color tests. I developed my own way of weaving glass rod and decorating with stringer and frit. I tried many things, exploring the material and ideas for my own body of work. I realized that glass can seem to glow with its own inner light.. as if it were surrounding its own light source. I liked that character of glass so much I named my studio Luminance Studio in recognition of it..
I began to see glass as a representation of life and human spirit. Because of its luminance and inner glow, it represents to me our human vitality of both reasoning and artistic expression. And because it can be massive or delicate, sharp or gently curved, dark or bright it also has the dichotomy to reflect our wide range of feelings and emotions. Many sculptural materials have depth like this, but only glass combines it with the amazing optical interactions that so attracted me.
Another good question my mentor Michael Hart asked was ‘why did you make this out of glass?’ If you could get the same representation from another material like clay, why take the trouble to make it in glass? It means that I should strive to make work that features and speaks with the unique voice of glass. For me that is its interaction with light and its representation of life and vital force… to try and make the inner glow of the glass the key component of its presentation and its symbolic message.
I am in awe of how much we have learned about our human origins from DNA testing like the Human Genome Project. We humans are really one big family, no matter how much we look or act differently. Yet our legacy of evolving in different parts of the world has left us with a Gordian Knot of different languages and cultures that separate us and make us suspicious and afraid of each other. This leads me to the other arm of my work.. trying to express those common feelings of all humans about our lives. To use the vitality I see in the glass to communicate visually our human family traits… so that it shows how we are more alike than different, and more deserving of support than animosity.