Not for pouring

Like many other crafters, Rick Eckerd often gives his own work as gifts. This past Valentine’s Day, he gave his wife, Bridget, a glass heart perched atop a cart-like base. “A heart on wheels — sounds like a Springsteen song,” he quips. Then his middle son requested a glass volcano for his sixth birthday. “I’d never done anything like that before,” he confesses. “It’s pretty ugly: I hope he likes it.”

Don’t expect any free stuff from Eckerd when his exhibit at Asheville’s Vitrum Gallerie opens on April 16. You will, however, be treated to a sampling of the whimsies of this talented local gaffer (glassblower) in the compellingly titled Traveling Preachers & Liquid Movement. Eckerd’s glassworks will be on display alongside those of Penland glass artist Kenny Pieper, whose series of portrait goblets combine a Venetian intricacy with a homey, Blue Ridge Mountain sense of humor. Eckerd’s contributions to the show include both “dysfunctional” teapots and flowing vase forms.

A resident of Asheville since 1991, Eckerd bases his glass operations at the Grovewood Studios. In a 50-foot rectangular space equipped with a smokestack-sized stone chimney, Eckerd produces sculpture, various vessels and even such ordinary objects as paperweights (which become extraordinary in his hands). When I visited the artist, he was in the midst of blowing a vase for his upcoming show. Captaining a team that includes two assistants, he maneuvered his athletic frame deftly around the furnace, the ‘chair’ (workbench) and the “marver table” (a heat-impervious surface on which the hot glass is shaped). Effective glassblowing requires both a smooth, flowing tempo and the help of skilled assistants. “It’s difficult to [keep] good help,” comments Eckerd. “All my old assistants have gone on to set up their own studios around Asheville.”

Eckerd’s own apprenticeship began during his undergraduate years at Tulane University, where he was an economics major. “I thought I was going to go into business,” he admits. But after taking an elective class in glass art, he never looked back. “Basically, I was trying to shake [my attraction] to [glasswork],” he remembers. “I thought a few summer courses would take care of it, but it got worse. … I got more and more into it.” He went on to study with renowned glass artists with widely varying styles — including Michael Taylor, Fritz Dreisbach and Italian master Loredano Rosin.

In graduate school, Eckerd experimented with the two-dimensional shape of the breastplate, because “there was more of a chance for reflection,” as he puts it. “I could go off in a corner to fuse and slump previously blown pieces [onto the solid breastplate]. … The hardest part about them was shipping them.”

Eckerd’s teapot series originated when he and his family moved to Asheville, after his three-year residency at Penland. He claims in his artist statement that these colorful, playful forms “avoid both the constraints of function and [the] pretentiousness of pure art.” The solid-glass sculptural works — often containing inserts of colored glass — are usually cast in graphite molds, allowing high levels of detail and precise control over the shapes. His trademark is a geometric format, although he’s currently trying to “mobilize” his teapots so they will, as he describes it, “‘lift’ off tables or [look like they] are rolling off”; he’s also been loosening the hard angles, to achieve a more fluid look. “I’m sick of static, blocky glass,” he admits, while showing me a teapot that actually rocks back and forth on its base.

The vase Eckerd slaved over while I watched eventually grew to more than 20 inches high and 10 inches at its widest point. The piece began as a glob of clear glass gathered from the furnace. He added some colored glass onto the clear and began the extensive process of blowing out his vase, while picking up decorative elements like “frit powder” (Define) and pieces of cane, along the way. “Vases are the perfect canvas” he notes, describing the “marquetry” technique of arranging color on the exterior of the vase.

As Eckerd works, he keeps the glob of molten glass in constant motion (to avoid drooping), reheating it regularly in the furnace. The unwieldy 15 pounds of glass is swung like a pendulum, rolled along the arms of the workbench and pressed against the marver top to shape and cool. Finally, an hour-and-a-half of labor is precipitously balanced as the vase goes through several more precise, delicately executed steps before being left to cool. Four vases constitutes a full day for Eckerd and his assistants.

Eckerd’s Vitrum exhibit will be the first show there under the gallery’s new manager, David Ross — the son of painter Elizabeth Ross. Also the owner of the Blue Ridge Frame and Gallery, Ross emphasizes Vitrum’s continuing dedication to showing the work of western North Carolina’s premier glass artists. As Eckerd puts it, “Vitrum’s … my number-one gallery in the country.” And that’s saying plenty, considering that his work his been displayed all across America, as far west as Santa Fe — and, in the other direction, as far across the world as Denmark.

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