MANCHESTER >> "Modern Alchemy: The Art of Glass" opens on May 21, 2016, at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester, Vermont. Works by members of the Vermont Glass Guild will be on display until July 10 in the spacious galleries of the Wilson Museum, a soaring exhibition space designed by American architect Hugh Newell Jacobsen in 2000.
Established in 2010, the goal of the Vermont Glass Guild is to bring together Vermont artists working in glass for the purpose of mutual support and professional enrichment. The variety of techniques used to produce works of art in glass is well represented in the show, including the hot technique (blown glass), warm (kiln-formed), lamp (torch worked) and cold (stained glass).
Glass is made by melting together silica, soda ash, and lime in a furnace at temperatures of 2,300 degrees F. Other materials can be added to produce a variety of colors. Glassmakers have traditionally depended on local raw materials for their glass, allowing for many differences to appear over the centuries and across cultures. Glass making usually was centered on an area where there was a ready supply of wood to heat the furnaces, later replaced by coal and now propane and electricity, and occasionally solar.
The production of small glass objects can be traced to pre-Roman times in what is now the Middle East. The ancient Greeks developed the "slumping" technique, pouring warm liquid glass over molds, to create larger pieces, chiefly for tableware. During the first century BC the glass blowing technique revolutionized the industry and within a hundred years glass was widely available throughout the Roman Empire.
In the Middle Ages glass was a treasured commodity reserved for the churches and homes of the very wealthy, and it remained a luxury material until the 19th century when important technological improvements allowed for its mass production. At the same time a growing interest in the art of the individual craftsman led to the interest in glass production as a modern art form.
At the Paris Exhibition in 1878 French glass artist Emile Galle introduced the Art Nouveau style, whose graceful, naturalistic lines lent itself exceptionally well to the fluidity of glass. Louis Comfort Tiffany fell in love with Galle's work and began to design glass for his New York clients, though he did not blow the pieces himself. Both artists were leaders in the Arts and Crafts movement and early practitioners in the studio glass movement that would grow over the next century.
In America by the 1960s the artistic experimentation taking place in glass reflected the influence of the studio glass movement. Rather than being defined by a philosophy or style, the studio glass movement is defined by the glass itself and how it works. In addition to the traditional blown glass, studio artists make use of several techniques including kiln-forming and stained glass.
The studio glass movement is now international in reach and, with its emphasis on the artist and designer, has changed the way we view works of art made from glass. Glassblowers share ideas and technical information and work in ways that are different from the past. Sometimes the solitary glassblower is responsible for a small range of objects, and other times it takes a whole team of people to make a piece, as with the current work of Dale Chihuly, who continues as a gifted designer though he is no longer a glassblower.
For many people visiting Vermont, the Simon Pearce complex in Quechee is their first experience with hand-blown glass and glass-blowing in Vermont. An impressive variety of glass artists can now be seen throughout the state. The Vermont Glass Guild membership encompasses all the techniques available to glass artists today and there are now dozens of members who share a strong sense of integrity and community.
Artist, sculptor and designer Robert DuGrenier left New York City in the late 1990s to set up his studio and business in Townshend. His works range from original glass chandeliers and displays for large commercial and private spaces to small delicate pieces that create novel interactions with the natural world of plants and animals. "The process of making glass allows me to communicate with and through the material during the creation of my work," says DuGrenier. "My understanding of how the material moves, forms, and cools is a culmination of years experimenting with glass. Often the pieces result in a frozen moment of time that show the fluidity, clarity and beauty of the material without really showing the hand of the maker."
In their studio the hills of southern Vermont just outside Brattleboro, Josh and Marta Bernbaum produce richly colored glassware using the molten glass technique. Josh describes working with molten glass as unforgiving and challenging, requiring hard-won skill and patience. He is especially interested in various ways to apply colors to create contemporary pieces. Marta's love of glass began with furnace work while a college student and she expanded her skills to working at the torch. She gives classes at their studio, aiming she says to "have something in my repertoire that could suit any student's style or fancy."
Chris Sherwin began his life's work as a glass maker in 1993 as an apprentice with Simon Pearce, where he became a journeyman glassblower and team leader. A move to California led to his working at Orient & Flume Art Glass, an internationally renowned glass studio known for its iridescent vases, intricate paperweights, and torchwork designs where he learned from some of the "masters of the trade, experimenting with new colors and techniques, developing and refining my own skills, and specializing in iridescent and torchwork design." The torchwork process is intensive, he explains. "All of my work is done 'on the pipe' and once started, a piece demands concentration and attention to detail and form through to the end." The pieces vary in length of time to create, from ten minutes to almost three hours. Since 2005 he has been making his own works of art in his studio in Bellows Falls.
Karen Deets moved to Fair Haven to pursue her love of glass after thirty years as a craft gallery owner. Her fascination with glass she says is a response to "its qualities of intense color, affected by light, and its ability to create a spiritual feeling of total focus." She is proficient in both the ancient technique of fired glass painting, with the rich shading and detail seen in traditional church windows, and modern kiln fusing, which allows color without heavy outlines, and she sometimes use both techniques together to produce stained glass works of both naturalistic and abstract design.
The Vermont Glass Guild is open to any artist working in glass in Vermont. Their website www.vermontglassguild.com includes a helpful studio/gallery map and biographies of many of the Vermont Glass Guild artists.