Studio Glass at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts
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The Studio Glass movement is truly an American revolution. To fully grasp the beauty and innovations of works by the Studio Glass artists represented in the collection of the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, we must review the history of the movement.
Studio glassmaking is defined by the efforts of a single individual or a small group of artists to determine the design of an object and complete the execution of it. In the 1960s technical advances in glassmaking allowed artists to work alone at a modest glass furnace, which thus permitted shifting production from a sizeable factory setting with numerous assistants to a studio setting.
The movement began in Toledo, Ohio, where Harvey Littleton (b. 1922) a ceramic artist held two glassblowing workshops in the spring and summer of 1962. Littleton was the son of the director of research at Toledo’s Corning Glass Works, and he had combined his father’s research with both his own experiments and what he had learned of Italian glassmaking techniques. In this effort he worked closely with Dominick Labino (1910–87), vice president and director of research for a fiberglass corporation, who himself had a sizeable body of technical knowledge. After formulating a successful approach to creating a small-scale studio furnace, they decided to share their knowledge and techniques with other artists.
The Toledo Museum of Art’s director Otto Wittmann, quite a forward-thinking man, encouraged them to hold two workshops and allocated both space and materials on the museum’s grounds. The weeklong workshops included morning-long lectures on the history of glassblowing, tours of Toledo’s largest glass plant, and instructions on constructing a kiln and on various ways of creating with glass. The afternoons were devoted to glassblowing. Workshop attendees, numbering fewer than a dozen, consisted of artists working in ceramics at various career levels, from university art department professors to the undergraduate art students.
This project funded, in part, by a grant from the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass
A year or so later, Littleton had launched a glassmaking program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he had been a faculty member since the early 1950s...
By 1965 the established and well-respected Penland School of Crafts, founded in 1920 in the mountains of North Carolina, also integrated glassblowing into its programs. At about the same time Dale Chihuly—who went on to become the unequivocal champion of the Studio Glass movement—studied at Wisconsin with Littleton and took what he had learned there and at the Venini glass factory in Murano, Italy, to the Rhode Island School of Design, where he was invited to teach as a visiting artist. He followed Littleton’s footsteps by assisting with the formation of a center for glassworking there and subsequently undertook the gargantuan task of establishing Pilchuck Glass School in 1971 in Stanwood, Washington (50 miles outside of Seattle). Begun as an informal studio setting offering summer residencies devoted solely to the numerous and diverse possibilities for the creation of glass art, this world-renowned school is now the largest and most comprehensive summer retreat for teaching and learning the art of glassmaking.
The Montgomery Museum embarked on forming its Studio Glass collection in 1998 and considers this growing collection an important complement to our contemporary paintings collection. These stunning artworks in glass encompass the range of fabricating and decorating techniques used by the many talented Studio Glass artists working today: free blowing, lampworking, incalmo, murrine, and reverse painting. They illustrate how studio artists can create diverse and superb sculptures and vessels in a very delicate and luminous medium.
H. 17 in. 1998.13, Gift of Lina C. Levine in memory of her husband, Herman Levine.
Sonja Blomdahl (born 1952)
Red/Clear/Aqua, a mirror smooth, symmetrical, and luminous vessel, epitomizes artist Sonja Blomdahl’s life-long explorations of form and color and her avoidance of a set color theory. As she explains, “I want the colors to glow and react. The clear band acts as an optic lens. It moves the color around [and] offers a look at the inside of the vessel.” To achieve this she employs the traditional Venetian incalmo (or “double-bubble”) technique. She blows three separate glass shapes of equal diameter, joins them while hot, and then blows the three-part form into one curvaceous and seamless vessel, all of which can take up to two hours.
Blomdahl began her glassmaking career as an undergraduate student during the 1970s at Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, when she took a course taught by glass sculptor Dan Dailey, who had trained at RISD under Dale Chihuly and at the Venini glass factory on the island of Murano. Two years after earning her fine arts degree from Massachusetts, Blomdahl, too, turned to Europe for more training; she enrolled in the intensive six-month program offered at Orrefors Glass School in Sweden (her ancestral home). At Orrefors she learned and became so in-sync with the Swedish style—clear, crisp lines and unadorned surfaces—that it came to permeate her work. Upon her return to the States, she became Dailey’s teaching assistant at Pilchuck and then decided to make Seattle her home. There she operates her own glass blowing studio and teaches at and serves on the board of Pratt Fine Arts Center.
Blown glass, H. 19 3/8 in. 1999.1–12, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase.
Cam Langley (born 1942)
Birmingham-based artist Cam Langley draws inspiration from the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Over the course of his twenty-year career Langley has created a rich body of work comprised of stunning floral arrangements and functional stemware and bowls. Melon Bouquet exemplifies his creations: he follows Tiffany’s fixation with bringing the natural world into interior decorative and functional objects. Instead of having a beautifully crafted vase for fresh flowers, Langley forms both the vase and the flowers. He achieves radiating colors by combining rod-form glass sticks with molten clear glass. To add the smallest of details, he then applies powder colors (made from finely ground glass) as the piece is being blown, as is apparent in the leaf veins on Melon Bouquet.
Langley’s passion for glass was piqued by the renowned glass collection at Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, located near where he grew up in Virginia. After working for a decade as a civil engineer, he opted to pursue a career in glass, learning his craft through a few studio visits with Harvey Littleton, a couple summer sessions at Penland School of Crafts, and courses he took as a non-degree student at University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Langley enjoys creating bouquets of bursting flowers and stalks of leaves—all perfectly balanced in their vase—and has a deceptively simple sounding creative philosophy: “With the bouquets I try to change both the forms of the flowers and the mix of flowers. I like to select different floral forms for each bouquet so that each composition is an individual, unique sculpture. A number of possibilities exist, depending on the selection of the flower, its colors, and the number of flowers and stems grouped together. Most of my work is totally experimental.” His voluptuous blown-glass objects were the focus of an exhibition at the MMFA, January 30–March 28, 1999.
Lovers Sweet Embrace while Dream Chariot Waits
Blown glass, H. 17 in. 2000.3. Gift of Bowen and Carol Ballard, Jim and Jane Barganier, Lucy Blount, John and Joyce Caddell, Dorothy Cameron, Herman and Anne Franco, Ralph and Lila Franco, Mike and Julie Freeman, Corinna Gauntt, Barrie and Laura Harmon, Charles and Donna Ingalls, Richard and Sue Jaffee, Mike and Kent Jenkins, Ray Johnston, Jim and Mary Lynne Levy, Jim and Joan Loeb, Michael and Laura Luckett, Maurice and Peggy Mussafer, Jim Sabel, Philip Sellers, Charles and Winifred Stakely, Andy and Lisa Weil, Jean Weil, and Laurie Weil.
Cappy Thompson (born 1952)
Cappy Thompson paints narrative scenes on blown glass vessels, dubbing them “self-contained environments where a story can be told from beginning to end.” She combines stylized themes and people from her personal life with a sense of the mythological derived from Persian and Indian art and the Hindu religion. Lovers Sweet Embrace while Dream Chariot Waits is a picture-poem portraying Thompson and her husband cuddling on their bed with their dog curled up on the floor beside them. Above two smiling cherubs drop flowers onto their richly decorated canopy bed. On the opposite side, a goddess spills waves of stars and dream dust into a chariot pulled by two winged horses.
Thompson has been painting such scenes on vessels since 1987, when during a summer teaching appointment at Pilchuck she moved from painting stained glass to painting vessels, following the example of ancient Greeks who painted clay pots. She begins by commissioning blanks—vessels blown in opalescent white glass—from the various glassblowers working in and around Seattle, where she lives. Next she draws the entire design on the outside of the vessel with black marker, then lays the piece down on a light table. Working horizontally, she retraces the drawing with black paint on the interior, and then fires the vessel. Using the grisaille technique (painting an image only in grays), Thompson next applies a wash of gray paint over the interior drawing, scrapes away the gray to create highlights and a tonal quality, and fires the vessel a second time. Then she paints the various elements of the scene with bright enamels and fires the form one or two more times until she achieves her desired colors. In each case the resulting image resembles a stained glass scene: bright jewel-toned colors surrounded by thick black lines.
Joey Kirkpatrick (b. 1952) & Flora Mace (b. 1949).
Blown glass, H. 7 1/8 in. 1999.1
Joey Kirkpatrick (born 1952) & Flora Mace (born 1949)
Strawberry and Pear gleam as large scale still-life sculptures. Collaborating artists Joey Kirkpatrick and Flora Mace begin with a slump of clear hot glass that they blow out on the blowpipe into a circular shape. When the glass comes closer to the desired shape, the artists then apply the colors. In Mace’s words, “The process we use when making the glass fruit and vegetable forms is unique. Our approach evolved out of our experience using the two-dimensional painting tradition. As in painting, we have learned to build layers of color by sifting colored crushed glass powders onto hot glass during the blowing process. It was exciting to find a method of “painting” onto three dimensional blown glass, creating forms with a painterly surface of realistic color and textures.” Strawberry sports both dimples and seeds; Pear has a brown-speckled upper portion atop a surface otherwise characterized by varying tones of yellow.
Joey Kirkpatrick (b. 1952) & Flora Mace (b. 1949).
Blown glass, H. 22 in. 2001.9, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase.
The two artists have worked together since meeting at Pilchuck Glass School in the late 1970s. They discovered that they shared an interest in the bountifulness of life, a belief that nature should be treated with reverence, and an appreciation for the smallest and the grandest aspects of the world. Their early efforts combined blown-glass figurative sculptures and wood, but during the 1990s they began creating fruits and vegetables that can stand alone or in small groups, including a luscious feast of bananas, apples, pears, plums, and strawberries set in a striking bowl 3 to 4 feet in diameter.
In 2002 Kirkpatrick and Mace designated the fruit and vegetable series complete. Since then they have drawn inspiration from the ordinary and the natural world (e.g., paint brushes, brooms, birds, and trees), and continued their explorations of designs and shapes that express their admiration for the everyday and the environment.
Ginny Ruffner (b. 1952).
The Art Game
Glass & mixed media, H. 19 in. 2003.7; Gift of the artist in honor of Mark M. Johnson, director.
Ginny Ruffner (born 1952)
The Art Game displays the whimsy of artist Ginny Ruffner. A pyramid of chains rises from a playing-card-and-die base and holds what Ruffner terms “issues surrounding making a living from art.” Colored pencils—tools of the trade—stand like soldiers at one side. Another side features a painting of a domestic interior opening toward a garden, representing the “necessity of contemplative space,” above which is a clock reading 2:30, which signifies Ruffner’s lucky number: 23. The third side holds a question mark enclosed in a gilded frame, representing the creativity that allows an artist endless possibilities. All of these are attached to the pyramid of chains, which do not bind but instead provide support. The entire sculpture is the product of lampworking, an intricate process in which the artist heats rods of glass over a gas-oxygen burner and shapes them with small tools. On many of the clear rods, Ruffner then adds details with paint.
The artist received her undergraduate and graduate degrees in painting at the University of Georgia and then worked for engraving and glassblowing companies. In the 1980s she moved to Seattle, where she translated her painting background into lampworking and painting on glass, and taught at Pilchuck. A serious traffic accident in 1991 left Ruffner in a coma for five weeks, after which she had to relearn everything, from her favorite color to who she was as an person. Today she works with a team of glass artists to create painted lampwork sculptures. Creativity: The Flowering Tornado, Art by Ginny Ruffner (June 14–August 10, 2003) originated as one of the MMFA’s touring exhibitions.
Dante Marioni (b. 1964).
New Blue Trio with Red
Blown glass, H. 43 in. 2003.8.1-3, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase, Decorative Arts Committee Fund.
Dante Marioni (born 1946)
New Blue Trio with Red displays its maker’s fascination with ancient and traditional forms—the lekythos, a Greek ceremonial vessel for oils or perfumes (left); the tazza, a Renaissance Venetian footed drinking cup (center); and the footed flask referencing Roman glass and Renaissance pilgrim flasks (right)—all reworked with a modernist bent and in daringly vibrant color combinations. Their appearances are likewise somewhat deceptive: they look fragile and top heavy, yet all three are sturdy and well-balanced; their colors look opaque but under dramatic and focused light are as translucent as a stained-glass window.
The trio is the product of Dante Marioni, who as a teenager in Seattle spent much time at the glass studios of his father (Paul Marioni, a pioneer in the movement) and his colleagues. After high school, he spent a year at Seattle’s Glass Eye studio, where he witnessed the work of Venice-trained Benjamin Moore, whose glassblowing focused on form and stressed simplicity, balance, and symmetry. As Marioni recalls, “I became enamored with the notion of making Venetian wineglasses for two reasons. First,... it was the most complete path to becoming a proficient glassblower. Second, Venetians, even at the expense of function, always seemed most concerned with form.” To build upon this, Marioni enrolled in the master class that Fritz Dreisbach, another Italian-trained artist, was teaching at Penland School of Crafts. In 1984 Marioni, only 20 years old, opened his studio in Seattle and began creating elegant vessels in the Venetian style. A year later he met the grand master of this technique, Lino Tagliapietra, who invited him to go to Venice to experience the technique first hand. Twenty years later the Venetian influence still permeates Marioni’s work.
Richard Jolley (b. 1952).
Relinquishing All Reason
blown glass, H. 44 in. 2004.3, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts Association Purchase, funds provided by the Art Acquisitions Fund, Decorative Arts Committee Fund, and the Decorative Arts Endowment Fund.
Richard Jolley (born 1952)
Vivid colors, tactile surfaces, and figurative elements aptly describe the glass artwork of Richard Jolley. Using a free-form additive technique in which he manipulates hot glass directly (much as a traditional sculptor does with clay or stone), he creates witty three-dimensional sculptures that include both human figures and architectural elements. Relinquishing All Reason belongs to his totem series and presents a combination of humans, animals, globes, disks, and a whimsical allusion to a classical columnar form. Each of the elements is blown separately and the brilliant luscious colors are the result of applying melted canes of colored glass over clear glass as Jolley works his blow pipe. After these are annealed (the process of cooling glass slowly over a number of hours), he attaches them to each other with slow-set glue.
Jolley considers his work sculpture in a nontraditional medium and has completed several other series—vessels, monoliths, line drawings, busts, torsos, and tabula rasa (meaning “clean slate”)—all of which center on the fragmented human figure, and reflect his interest in the human narrative. He became acquainted with sculpting glass while a student at Tusculum College in Greeneville, Tennessee. After finishing his undergraduate work at Vanderbilt University’s George Peabody College and completing his graduate studies at Penland School of Crafts, he opened a studio in West Knoxville out of which he still operates.
Stephen Rolfe Powell (b. 1952).
Prevailing Manic Jones
Blown glass, H. 40 in. 2004.8, Gift of the Antiquarian Society of Montgomery, Bowen and Carol Ballard, Jim and Jane Barganier, Richard and Joy Blondheim, Ben and Ginny Cumbus, Chris and Leah Dubberly, Elizabeth Emmet, Bonner and Sister Engelhardt, Herman and Anne Franco, Corinna Gauntt, Barrie and Laura Harmon, W. Inge Hill and Camille Elebash Hill, Mark and Amy Johnson, Samuel and Liza Kaufman, James and Joan Loeb, James and Margaret Lowder, Frank and Jane McFadden, Maurice and Peggy Mussafer, Phillip and Gloria Rawlings, Bruce and Emilie Reid, Philip Sellers, Adam and Dawn Schloss, Jan K. Weil, Laurie Weil and Tommy Wool, William and Pat Williamson, and an anonymous donor.
Stephen Rolfe Powell (born 1952)
Stephen Rolfe Powell’s distinctive glass sculptures are symphonies of color and light. Each piece is blown with an elongated neck and a contrasting inflated, globular torso. The grace of his shapes is matched by the quirky nature of his titles, most of which are three words long and roll off the tongue with a peculiar rhythm, as is illustrated by the MMFA’s Prevailing Manic Jones. The first and second words allude to the feeling of the vessel; and the third is a common American last name, emphasizing the universality of the vessel form. (For some vessels the first words may allude to the shape or color; or the second word may have sexual overtones—-such as cleavage, cheeks, buns, sigh, and gasp—that mock society’s preoccupation with the body.)
Like many studio glass artists, Powell uses an Italian technique known as murrine (based on the word for small beadlike bits of glass). He and five assistants make murrine by hand: melting a large bar of colored glass, heating and stretching the bar until similar to taffy in consistency and no thicker than 1/2 inch and nearly 30 feet long; and once the glass cools, chopping it into thousands of pieces that become the raw material from which Powell will create his colorful patterns, as in Prevailing Manic Jones. Powell begins each design by laying up to 2,500 murrine in carefully composed rows on a 10 by 20 inch steel plate. He then gathers a large glob of clear molten glass on his blowpipe, blows a smallish bubble and rolls it across the murrine, which are instantly picked up by the hot glass and begin to fuse and expand. With the color pattern set, Powell quickly moves to a 5 foot high platform, and holding his pipe vertically lets the glob of glass pull downward, simultaneously creating the characteristic thin neck and the swelling body. Concurrently, he blows air through the pipe into the vessel, causing its exterior to swell, at the same time that gravity is pulling it downward. In most instances he situates the hot vessel between vertical, equally hot metal bars that pinch the glass into lobes, in this case two mirroring bubbles. The elaborate process—from picking up the murrine to placing the vessel in the annealer (the kiln used to cool glass slowly over a number of hours)—takes as little as five minutes. Despite extensive planning, preparation, and technical skill, no more than 20% of Powell’s vessels succeed. Yet, as he explains, “My work is based on traditional craft... The rich tradition of vessels furnishes a timelessness and universality that no other object can.”
Powell studied painting and ceramics at Kentucky’s Centre College and Louisiana State University. It was while in Louisiana in the early 1980s that he first experienced glassblowing, which has been a fixation of his ever since. Powell joined the faculty of Centre College in 1983 and began teaching ceramics and sculpture. Two years later, he had a glass studio built and founded the college’s glass program. In 1997 the college opened a new, state-of-the-art glass studio (designed by Powell and built to his specifications), which still attracts visiting artists of international prominence.
Fairbanks, Jonathan L., & Pat Warner, with Linda Foss Nichols et al. Glass Today by American Studio Artists. Exh. cat. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1997.
Frantz, Susanne K. Contemporary Glass: A World Survey from the Corning Museum of Glass. New York: Henry N. Abrams, 1989.
Hawley, Henry H. Glass Today: American Studio Glass from Cleveland Collections. Exh. cat. Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art; distributed by University of Washington Press, 1997.
Hunter, Sam. Richard Jolley. Milan, Italy: Skira; distributed by Rizzoli, 2003.
Kangas, Matthew. Breaking Barriers: Recent American Craft. Exh. cat. New York: American Craft Museum, 1995.
Miller, Bonnie. Why Not? The Art of Ginny Ruffner. Exh. cat. Seattle: Tacoma Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press, 1995.
Oldknow, Tina. Dante Marioni, Blown Glass. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2000.
———. Pilchuck: A Glass School. Seattle: University of Washington Press and Pilchuck Glass School, 1996.
Text compiled by Marisa J. Pascucci, Associate Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Fall 2004