Arts » The Arts

Glass act

The art of teamwork at MAM



The Contemporary Glass exhibit on view at the Missoula Art Museum through the second week of January displays 30 artworks by 19 of the best-known glass artists working today. Viewing this wide range of works makes you consider that glass artists and Hanna-Barbera’s Wonder Twins have something in common: Both activate seeming superpowers to change a substance into an insect, or water beneath a bridge, or a cat. The artists in this show, assembled by the William Traver Gallery in Seattle, demonstrate how innovations in glasswork are being used to transform glass into, say, a giant French fry, or an equally oversized bumblebee behind.

The effect of the unexpected array is twofold:

One, you find yourself preoccupied with logistics: How much bubble-wrap was used to transport these works from Seattle? Will the museum let visitors drink wine on First Friday?

Two, you are tickled by the variety of imagination: Who knew glass could be so many things?

“What we pulled together here is a survey which really represents a range of both artists and approaches and techniques and styles in glass to give an idea of just how diverse and explosive the whole genre is,” museum director Laura Millin says.

“A lot of the work is pushing the limits,” says museum curator Stephen Glueckert. These glass artists, he says, “are stretching outside of the medium to be a painter or a sculptor or an assemblage artist.”

Indeed, even a glance at John Miller’s “Salt Shaker with Krinkles” (a shaker and seven supersized blown-glass fries) or Nancy Callan’s “Tuxedo Top and Tangerine Helix Top” (giant blown-glass children’s tops) suggests that glasswork isn’t just about vases anymore. Seattle artist Preston Singletary used molds, sandblasted glass and horsehair to create two “Old Man Masks,” the sharp features of which ripple and fold impossibly unlike glass.

There is also a lot of portraiture and embedded imagery in this show—two other features you might not expect to see in glass. Artists Walt Lieberman and Dick Weiss worked together to create several vessels and flat glass portraits that bear men’s and women’s faces. On the nameplates for one of their works, “Green Angel,” Lieberman and Weiss give credit to fellow artist Dante Marioni for blowing the glass for the piece.

Such recognition highlights perhaps the most interesting aspect of glass artistry: collaboration. Unlike painting or writing, Millin says, either of which tends to be intensely individual, even isolating, work, “glass is a collaborative art form almost exclusively, because especially with blown glass, you can’t do it by yourself. It’s a really physical, labor-intensive process.”

Traver Gallery manager Grace Meils explains the history and process behind a work like Marioni’s Venetian blown-glass “Mosaic Vase” on display at the museum. Marioni is known for his mastery of the Venetian glass-blowing technique, she says, which was first developed just after the Dark Ages and had a resurgence in the 1800s. At that time, the city’s finest glassblowers practiced their craft on nearby Murano island, where many still work today.

“Basically, the Venetian technique requires teamwork,” says Meils. “All the artists work together to help each other make their art.”

The “gaffer,” explains Meils, is the artist in charge of the artwork—it’s his art—and he sits at the workbench giving orders to one or more assistants. One assistant blows on the blow pipe, inflating a bubble in the hot glass, while the gaffer turns the pipe to shape the glass and keep it from drooping. Another assistant might stand by with wooden paddles to shield the gaffer from the heat of the molten glass (about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit); other assistants might be nearby to hand the gaffer tools, or to take a part of a work back to the “glory hole” (comparable to a kiln with an open front) to “flash” it with more heat.

“Everything has to happen quickly,” Meils says. “Glass has a memory, and once you mess it up, it’s hard to get it back to being perfectly on center.”

To create his narrow-necked “Mosaic Vase,” Marioni first made mosaic pieces called murrini, pieces of glass that has been stretched and infused with color. After the glass is cut into murrini, says Meils, “the pieces are all fused together, shaped back into a bubble [on the blow pipe] and blown from there.”

As Glueckert says, these artists are “techno-nuts.” Talking about the tricky process of cooling hot glass in the annealer (a kiln kept steady at 800 to 900 F until a project is complete), he says, “They’re total technicians as far as what has to happen and what makes glass hard and durable and what makes it brittle.” Glueckert and Millin recall watching Swedish artist Bertil Vallien (also represented in the show) create a piece with the help of a 10-plus person team at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash., last year. On that team were not mere students, but rather “two or three of the biggest names in glass in Seattle.”

“They’ve all worked for each other,” she says, scanning the exhibit. “There’s this incredible kind of cross-pollination that goes on.”

Contemporary Glass is on view at the Missoula Art Museum in the historic Florence Building (111 N. Higgins), Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., through Jan. 8. Admission is free. For more information, call 728-0447.

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