The Chinese zodiac may claim 2018 as the year of the dog, but for many in Western North Carolina, it’s all about the glass. In May, the Biltmore Estate debuted its latest exhibit, a series of glass sculptures by world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly. Aware of the attention the collection would garner, several makers, organizations and galleries throughout the region saw an opportunity to showcase the area’s overall contribution to the medium. The ongoing result, Summer of Glass, is a series of exhibits, dedications, workshops and studio tours that run through September.
On Sunday, July 1, Momentum Gallery will participate in the seasonal celebration with its exhibit, Reflections. The collection examines issues surrounding history and memory, as well as the opulence of the Vanderbilt family. The nine participating artists are nationally, regionally and locally based.
For gallery owner Jordan Ahlers, participation in the series is a matter of “trying to create greater awareness for Western North Carolina as a glass center.” Ahlers notes that the region is often overshadowed by the Pilchuck Glass School, which Chihuly co-founded in 1971 in his home state of Washington.
Yet, within the mountains of WNC, an equally rich legacy exists and continues to this day. In 1965, maker Bill Boysen built the Penland School of Crafts’ first glass studio. Three years later, the school brought in Mark Peiser as its inaugural glass resident. “He’s considered a top glass artist in the world,” Ahlers explains.
By the late 1970s, Harvey Littleton, considered the “Father of Studio Glass,” retired from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and relocated to Spruce Pine. According to Penland’s website, the late artist led summer courses at the school as a visiting scholar between 1976 and 1984. Littleton’s legacy is being celebrated in the 12-artist, contemporary sculpture exhibition Glass Catalyst, on view at Western Carolina University’s Fine Art Museum through Dec. 7.
“Historically, this area is a major area for studio glass,” Ahlers says.
Along with the region’s historical significance, Ahlers believes Reflections will further expose audiences to the possibilities of glass. “There are a lot of different techniques,” he explains. From lampworking (which employs a torch rather than a furnace) to the innovative use of mirrors, and from intricate ornamentation to blown glass, Ahlers says viewers can expect a wide range of expertise.
Among the show’s participating makers is husband-and-wife team Thor and Jennifer Bueno. The couple’s piece, “Gilded Azure,” is an 84-inch diameter wall-mounted composition, made up of more than 100 pieces of blown glass, resembling river stones. “It’s absolutely magnificent and creates an immersive experience for viewers,” says Ahlers, who notes the vein of gold that flows through the design’s varying shades of deep blue and aqua.
The Toe River, which is close to the Bueno home in Spruce Pine, proved the inspiration for “Gilded Azure.” Jennifer says the water flow and layout of the riverbed helped shape the piece’s design. “These rocks are a way to contemplate nature and reflect on your life — both what’s going on around you as well as your connection to the natural world,” she explains.
Thor, who studied under Chihuly in 1987 at Pilchuck, says the energy and enthusiasm around glasswork in WNC is palpable. “Everyone is celebrating glass this year,” he says. “Our involvement [in Reflections] was a no-brainer.”
For Jennifer, it’s also a chance to honor the influence of her husband’s former mentor as well as to contribute to the overall glass scene. “The wonderful thing about Chihuly is that he gives you this aspiration to attain,” she says. “You want to take it to the next level.”
Fellow maker Kit Paulson, a 2018 resident at Penland, is another of the show’s featured artists. “She has a completely unique voice,” says Thor, “and mind-blowingly original work that has very strong conceptual ideas behind it.”
Paulson describes her creations as delicate and ornamental. Many of her more recent designs, she adds, are inspired by Gothic architecture. She will have six pieces featured in Reflections, including “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.” Made of borosilicate glass, the headpiece depicts a deer skull with flowers running up the animal’s skeletal muzzle.
Paulson hopes Reflections will contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation for the medium. “The artists who are featured in the exhibit really push the boundaries of the material,” she says.
Thor agrees. “It’s like the chameleon,” he says, in describing glasswork. “It can take on so many different forms and shapes and look like so many different things, both of this world and not of this world.”
WHERE: Momentum Gallery, 24 N. Lexington Ave., momentumgallery.com
WHEN: Opening reception Sunday, July 1, 5-8 p.m. The exhibit will remain on view through Saturday, Aug. 25. Free