Going ga-ga over glass

I spent some time marveling in a public place the other afternoon. And I was not alone in this activity. Eventually, I found myself in the company of three other people, all of whom verbalized their wonder with the same phrase:

“How did he do that?”

One gentleman in the group had his own theories. He also had the means to encounter an $800 price tag and still decide, “I’ll take it.” So this lucky art-lover can now marvel in the privacy of his own home.

The site of this momentous occasion? Blue Spiral I, a downtown gallery. And the cause of all this unbridled amazement is the Southeastern Glass Invitational 2000. Robert Stephan, the artist who elicited this shared awe, laughs when I tell him about it.

“It gives me the most pleasure when [my work] causes people to wonder,” he reveals. “I like to pique people’s interest, to cause them to imagine how it was done.”

In Stephan’s case, it was done with the application of high-tech optical-filter coatings, or dichroics, to the surfaces and/or interiors of his blown, carved and laminated glass sculptures. The coatings produce dramatic color shifts; the process is done with the same equipment used to make high-tech optical components for computer chips, special lenses and color-separation filters.

Glass is familiar in so many everyday forms, from drinking vessels to windowpanes, that we tend to ignore its deeply wondrous nature until we experience an exhibit of this kind. From high-tech styles like Stephan’s to more-organic natural forms, this show covers the gamut of what’s being done these days in the way of art glass. No fewer than 26 maestros of the medium, all from the Southeast, are represented in the show; at least a dozen are artists working in our immediate area.

While Stephan’s pieces give the viewer’s eyes and imagination a good workout, Junichiro Baba’s milky-white glass sculptures beg to be touched (which is probably why his pieces are posted with polite warnings not to). Baba’s artist’s statement — which proclaims “Glass implies the spirit of nature, both fragile and powerful” — imbues his work; these pieces exude an ethereal, organic presence.

“On a winter evening, I am reminded of the powerful spirits of nature … found in mundane, frozen bubbles,” says Baba. The artist’s strong connection to the miracle of nature — as realized in an ordinary, nondramatic way — is transmitted to the viewer through his simple, commonly shaped sculptural forms.

The nature of man, or at least Susan Gott’s ideas on that subject, can be viewed in her sand-cast representational bodies. Her use of subdued, iridescent colors invites the eye to draw closer for a more careful inspection: An open crevice in “Green Man” reveals a face within the bubbly glass membrane. Glass stars, moon and leaves are pressed into the outside figure, adding to the mystical, spiritual quality of her work.

“A blend of Late Venetian and Early Neurotic” is how Robert Levin describes his vessels. Utilizing opaque colors, his goblets combine elegance with whimsy, expressed in the vegetable-shaped base of each cup.

From this artist’s fey and lovely works, the viewer can turn and behold the powerfully serene sculptures of Sally Rogers. Set on pedestals, these pieces’ sheer size — three feet high and more than four feet wide — overcomes the viewer on first glance. Her mixed-media combinations of steel and molten glass inhabit forceful curvilinear forms, which she says are abstractions of the human figure. Her intent with the sculpture, she continues, “is to reach people on a more visceral, emotional level.”

Asked about his work, Ken Carder replies merely, “They’re vessels.” This glass man is reticent about attaching any deep, hidden meanings to his etched pots — or the faces that decorate them. For Carder, the mystery lies in the magical properties of the glass itself:

“It can be transformed like no other material,” he observes.

Carving a niche

A number of the glass artists exhibiting in Blue Spiral I’s Southeastern Glass Invitational are represented by Vitrum Gallerie owner David Ross. Vitrum, on Lodge Street in Biltmore Village, shows glass artists exclusively.

Why would Ross choose to represent only artists in one medium? The answer may surprise you: “Because the glass movement is so large here in Western North Carolina.

“It’s one of the top areas in the world for contemporary glass. There are two areas in this country noted for glass — Seattle and Penland,” he explains.

For those not in the know, Penland — a little town about an hour northeast of Asheville near Burnsville — is home to Penland School of Crafts, which established one of the first “studio glass” or “hot glass” programs in the country, back in 1965. And Penland’s continuing commitment to glass is what keeps drawing glass artists to the Carolina mountains. Another is the presence of Harvey Littleton, the acknowledged “father of the American studio-glass movement,” who retired here in 1976. Tucked hither and yon among the Blue Ridge hills are nationally and internationally famous glass artists working in studios near their homes, raising families, participating in their communities and shipping their creations to galleries and museums across the United States and abroad.

All of this contributed to Ross’ vision of a glass-only gallery. “We’re the number-one glass gallery in North Carolina as far as having the amount of works by regional glass artists,” he maintains.

“People can come here and see more work glass work representing the different techniques and methods — like flameworking, casting, fusing, etching, engraving, etc. — than if they visited 10 different galleries. … This is rare to find all in one place,” he notes.

And while Vitrum Gallerie is smaller and more self-contained than the multi-level Blue Spiral I), Ross sees his more intimate space as an advantage: “We can give personal attention,” he says. “We like to educate the visitor. So if we see that they are particularly interested in a piece, we can go over and offer information.”

Suppose, for instance, someone likes a piece but doesn’t know exactly why. Ross explains that when viewers come to realize what actually went into the process of making a particular piece, their appreciation deepens. In fact, educating the viewer is a solid part of the gallery’s mission.

Compared to other art forms, such as painting, Ross says glass art is really in its infancy stage when c. While there’s certainly nothing new about glass itself — the oldest glass beads date back to about 3000 B.C. — the American studio-glass movement is only about 30 years old. This movement took glass out of the factory — where most pieces were nearly indistinguishable from one another — and into the artist’s studio, to be molded in ever-more-ingenious fashions.

“Glass art of North Carolina is a very important part of the art that is happening within this country and within the movement. Contemporary glass is one of the newest art forms. Right now it’s expanding, growing; the methods are changing, different equipment and machinery are being experimented with and utilized,” Ross explains.

The number of artists entering this field is also growing, as the Seattle-based Glass Arts Society’s lengthening membership list can attest. Ross says the society was originally conceived on Mark Peiser’s front porch in Penland by Peiser (Penland’s first glass artist-in-residence) and fellow glass artists Billy Bernstein and Fritz Dreisbach.

He reveals that a number of the artists exhibiting in Vitrum and at the Blue Spiral show also have their works in museums.

“And they’re living!” he exclaims.

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