Picture yourself strolling a beach, perhaps stooping now and then to pick up an interesting shell. A wave comes in, recedes, and a flash of light catches your eye. There, washed by the sea, caught by the sun, is a small piece of cobalt blue glass. It is radiantly beautiful!
Sure, it may be a shard from an old Milk of Magnesia bottle — but no matter. Let’s face it: Glass, in any shape, in any setting, is pure alchemy.
To Buddhists, glass represents the pure mind, perfect insight: It reflects the five colors symbolizing the five aggregates of body and mind. In Christianity, the glass ball denotes the world of the light of God. It is also an Aboriginal symbol of the Great Spirit. All magic.
When John Cram opened New Morning Gallery in the early ’70s, the studio glass movement was just taking hold. Cram, forever quick on the cusp of a trend, exhibited perfume bottles by Mark Peiser, paperweights by Gilbert Johnson and vases by Richard Ritter.
With Harvey Littleton, called by many the father of studio glass, living in the region, it’s not surprising that Western North Carolina became a center of glass activity. Still, the expansive new show at Asheville Area Arts Council’s Front Gallery (including works by Ritter, who’s now the one known for his paperweights, and Peiser) forcefully illuminates the trend, if somewhat belatedly.
Appropriately, Peiser says his work at Front Gallery is, for him, “a personal throwback” to the early days, when things were not so formulaic. His pieces are about nothing but pure process — about how glass reacts and what it does.
“Making these pieces is just plain fun,” he goes on to say. The artist calls his new method “cold stream casting,” wherein the molten glass is extruded and collected into a mold. Peiser says it’s a little like what ceramists do to make coil pots, except the glass falls into the molds in different and unexpected patterns.
According to Peiser, the glass world has seen many changes since the old days. “In the ’70s, we assumed that we had to figure everything out. Then we found out that the Italians had all the information,” he quips.
“Today,” he adds, “there is enormous technical competence: All the processes are clearly defined. Everything is ‘off the shelf,’ and people have more of a vocabulary — but definitions have narrowed; the work is less experimental. Sometimes it is so refined that there is a different feel — the pieces fail to communicate the struggle.”
For his part, Rick Melby has always approached his glasswork with a light spirit — although, like Peiser, he says his current M.O. also favors process over content. Prodded, however, Melby begins to reminisce about growing up near the ocean and spending time on the beach picking up glass, sometimes ground and textured by the sand and saltwater. This, he says, explains the way his small, blue-topped table lamp filters the light. Melby aggressively cut the irregular blown shade of the lamp with a diamond saw, sandblasting it to give it a deeply eroded surface.
Belying its fierce birthing process, the lamp emanates a light that’s soft and restful.
One of many couples exhibiting in the show, Claire Kelly and Anthony Schafermeyer met at New York State’s Corning Museum, and in 1997, began to make collaborative work. The pair are resident artists at the Energy Exchange in Burnsville, a reclamation program that uses landfill gas to run furnaces and kilns. Kelly says the three-year residency that provided free fuel for their work will allow them to invest in equipment otherwise difficult for young artists to acquire. She’s also appreciative of the business classes the program offers. “We are learning how to market our work, and how to determine who is our target audience,” she says, adding, apparently without irony, “We have decided that our work is aimed at people with good taste and lots of money.”
Although they weren’t around in the ’70s, these two boast a strong resume for young artists. Kelly and Schafermeyer enjoy connections with important glass organizations in the U.S. and abroad, and are represented in a number of commercial galleries. They, too, have learned from the Italians, employing the Venetian cane technique to create intricate patterns in bright colors.
Featuring the work of some 20 artists, the show offers a rare opportunity to see it all converge — artists who have toiled in the medium for many years exhibiting alongside others who are, enviable connections notwithstanding, just beginning. Some use ancient techniques, others make very contemporary, concept-based or mixed-media works. Once again, the Front Gallery proves its commitment to local vision.
[Connie Bostic is an Asheville-based artist and writer. Her work is currently showing as part of Road in Sight: Contemporary Art in North Carolina at Duke University.]
The couple that grinds glass together …
Interestingly, half of the artists showing their work at Front Gallery’s Legacy of Glass exhibit also share space outside the gallery. Besides the Becks, the Todds and the Bernsteins, couples include Claire Kelly and Anthony Schafermeyer and John Littleton and Kate Vogel.
“Most [blown] studio glass requires that you have an assistant to keep the glass hot through the shaping stages, to blow on the end of the pipe while you turn and shape the piece,” explains Lisa Morphew, co-curator of the Front Gallery show. “Hence, many people bond because of their love of glass, and marry because they find meaningful work together. It may be cheaper to marry than paying an assistant!”
• Valerie and Rick Beck (Spruce Pine)
• Katherine and Billy Bernstein (Burnsville)
• Rick Eckerd (Asheville)
• Shane Ferro (Penland)
• Greg Fidler (Bakersville)
• Robert Gardner (Asheville)
• John Geci (Penland)
• Claire Kelly (Burnsville)
• Rob Levin (Burnsville)