Studio Glass

November 15th, 2010  |  Published in Digest, Features

A Look Back

Although Cincinnati can’t truly be considered a hot bed of glass art activity, another Ohio city—Toledo—played a seminal role in the development of what is known as the Studio Glass Movement.

Studio glass describes glasswork created by an artist working directly with the material, often alone, and with the intent of making art. Until 1962 only artisans worked with glass. They were guided by designers who, metaphorically, never touched the glass. And instead of personal expression, the goal was to produce a line of articles, utilitarian or decorative, that would appeal to the market. Although there might be an occasional one-off, in general, the designs were produced in quantity, sometimes quite small, but often in the thousands.

The Studio Glass Movement has a definite birthdate—March 23, 1962—and two fathers—Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino. The midwife was Otto Wittmann, director of the Toledo Museum of Art. Littleton met them when he taught ceramics at the Museum Art School from 1949 to 1951. Labino was taking evening courses at the time.

Littleton grew up in a glass family in Corning, New York; he was the son of the director of research at Corning Glass Works. But he and his father had very different ideas about how glass could be worked and the artist’s role. The elder Littleton, himself the son of a Corning scientist, was adamant that glassblowing could only be done in an industrial setting where thousands of pounds of glass were melted, and large teams assisted the head glassblower or gaffer The artist’s role could only be as designer.

Harvey was equally adamant about his belief, envisioning essentially a garage, a small furnace, and no assistants. Unable to pursue this dream, the younger Littleton first studied industrial design before turning to clay and becoming a production potter and university professor.

Labino was vice-president and director of research at Johns-Manville Fiber Glass Corporation, and a prolific inventor, holding some 157 patents. He devised the fiberglass used to insulate the Gemini and Apollo spacecraft against extreme temperatures.

In 1951 Littleton received his M.F.A. in ceramics from the Cranbrook Academy and accepted a teaching position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Over the course of the next decade, Littleton continued to pursue his goal. He traveled to Europe to study the education of glassworkers and experimented with glassblowing in the U.S. Despite his success as a potter, he never abandoned his hope of working directly with glass.

At the Fourth National Conference of the American Craftsmen’s Council in Seattle in 1961, a panel on glass challenged Littleton to prove that glassblowing could be a viable technique for an artist. Littleton accepted the challenge and immediately began looking for funding and a venue for a workshop.

Wittmann offered a gardening shed on the Toledo Museum’s grounds for the workshop, to take place from March 23 to April 1, 1962. Seven students signed up for a program of instruction in kiln construction, glass composition, glass melting, casting, flameworking1, and finishing techniques; historical lectures by museum staff; a tour of the Libbey Glass plant; and glassblowing sessions each afternoon.

In his own experiments, Littleton had made some painfully crude bubbles, using one of his stoneware bowls as a crucible in a converted ceramics kiln. He brought firebricks to be used for constructing a kiln, and Labino, called upon for his technical expertise, donated steel and a burner plus ingredients for the glass batch2. The first attempt resulted in a “goopy mess of golf balls,” as Littleton remembers, and the crucible broke. Labino, a master of creating glass formulas, suggested relining the tank instead of replacing the bowl and using some of his #475 fiberglass marbles. This attempt was successful. Together Littleton and Labino proved glass could be done on a small scale.

Shortly after the workshops (a second one followed in June), Cincinnati was introduced to studio glass by Barbara Miller. When she opened the Miller Gallery in 1960, she always combined fine craft with paintings. After reading about Labino in a newspaper report, she promptly drove up to his farm near Toledo, met and became friendly with him, and became his first dealer. She was also the first dealer in Ohio to show Dale Chihuly’s work.

A significant event occurred in 1970 when the Cincinnati Art Museum presented the landmark traveling exhibition Objects USA: Works by Artist-Craftsmen in Ceramic, Enamel, Glass, Metal, Plastic, Mosaic, Wood, and Fiber. It was a seminal exhibition for the craft world. Financed by S.C. Johnson & Son, a collection of 300 objects by 254 makers was assembled by Paul Smith, who would go on to become the director of what is now known as the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.

One of the criteria was that every object had to have been made from start to finish by one artist or craftsman. The exhibition’s goal was “to focus public recognition on the hand-made object,” according to Lee Nordness who wrote the essay for the book accompanying the exhibition. The objects were “selected to reflect a representative cross section of the materials, techniques, and styles evident today…(and) to focus attention on the quality and originality that has taken the revival of handcrafts out of the realm of folk art and into the world of contemporary art as documented by museums.”

It is indicative of the youthfulness of studio glass—it was less than eight years after Littleton and Labino had demonstrated glass could be worked outside the factory—there were only 24 glass artists. However, that group included many who would go on to become glass art stars: Littleton and Labino, of course, but also Chihuly, Fritz Dreisbach, Marvin Lipofsky, Richard Marquis, Joel Philip Myers, and Mark Peiser.

Miller continued showing glass until 1984 when Sarah Squeri opened her gallery devoted to the medium. A jeweler and metal sculptor, Squeri, who was born in Cincinnati, had become aware of glass at the Rochester Institute of Technology where she had studied and taught. She recalls being attracted to glass because of the way light plays with color, much as gems do.

Owen Findsen, art critic for The Cincinnati Enquirer, wrote about one of her first shows, Glass: A Clear View. At the time Squeri referenced the active glass scene in the Detroit area and hoped for something similar in Cincinnati while admitting the city was years behind. Findsen went on to write:

There is no art more tempting or seductive than art in glass. Perhaps it is the transparency or the fragility. It may be a sense of the difficulty of working in glass, or it may be the fact that it is such a familiar material and one that we appreciate more and more as we are faced with ever more plastic imitation…

With painting we expect to look past the material to the suggested image. It is an imaginary reality, but glass is visibly and obviously tangible. Melted, blown, cast, etched, tinted, cut, or polished, glass offers infinite variation for artistic expression.

In the late 1980s, Squeri closed her Fourth Street gallery location, moved to a warehouse, and conducted most of her business by phone and mailing slides and 4″ x 5″ transparencies in the pre-digital age before closing entirely in 1989. Miller didn’t pick up the glass mantle. However, the following year, Marta Hewett, who had worked at the Malton Gallery, which had opened in 1974 and had always shown some studio glass, opened her eponymous gallery in Over-the-Rhine. Although Hewett’s inaugural show was devoted to glass artist Michael Aschenbrenner’s Damaged Bone Series: Chronicles, 1968, 1980-84, hot-worked bones bound with cloth with branches as splints, a commentary on the Vietnam war, she didn’t immediately focus on glass, showing photography, nonobjective painting, ceramics, but then “glass took over,” she recalls. “You didn’t see much of it at the time in Cincinnati.”

Hewett had become acquainted with Aschenbrenner’s work in the1985 exhibition Transparent Motives: Glass on a Large Scale3 at The Contemporary Arts Center. By then the Studio Glass Movement had matured. After a period of complete infatuation with glassblowing, artists were exploring other techniques, and the idea that “bigger is better” had emerged.

Eight artists were invited to create site-specific installations for The CAC’s galleries, then on Fifth Street. The work included Ohio State University professor Richard Harned’s wall pieces incorporating neon, Howard Ben Tré’s increasingly monumental cast-glass columns, and Therman Statom and Richard Marquis’s riotously painted plate-glass enclosure, which used three tons of glass that had been donated.

In 1992 the circus came to town: the Chihuly circus. The Seattle Art Museum had organized an exhibition to highlight Chihuly’s various series in site-specific installations. It was a blockbuster in Seattle, and Chihuly wanted to travel it. The CAC’s director, Cynthia Goodman, was approached and she consulted John Schiff, the businessman/philanthropist/artist/collector/ who has been an important force in studio glass in Cincinnati for more than 20 years. Should she do a video-art show or the Chihuly? Chihuly turned out to be a wise choice, beating attendance records.

Chihuly’s chandeliers made their debut in the Installations show. The elements looked like slightly deflated yellow balloons, much less elegant than what they would become. His 1996 Rio Delle Torreselle Chanderlier, purchased by the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2001 and hanging in the entrance hall, attests to that evolution.

The museum has had a longstanding interest in glass. In 1982, it opened a gallery devoted to American and European art glass of the 19th and 20th centuries. Throughout the last four decades, the museum has presented numerous shows including The Art of Dominick Labino, 1976; Venini Glass, the venerable Venetian glasshouse, 1983; Illusions in Glass: The Art of Christopher Ries, 1988; Designed for Delight: Alternative Aspects of Twentieth-Century Decorative Arts, from the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1998; A Touch of Glass, featuring contemporary masters primarily from the collection, 2001; and, in 2009, Outside the Ordinary: Contemporary Glass, Wood, and Ceramics from the Wolf Collection, a remarkable collection given to the Museum by Cincinnatians David and Nancy Wolf.

Schiff has played a significant role in the story of studio glass in Cincinnati through his advocacy for the medium. He dates his interest to the fourth grade when he learned copper enameling. At Ohio State University, he studied glass and business. After graduating in 1987, he came back to Cincinnati to work in the family insurance business, and continued to work in glass. In 1988 he became a trustee of Golden Glass Studio and School on the west side. His next endeavor was to co-found River City Glass in Over-the-Rhine in 1992. In 1996 he gave the studio to the Art Academy, and, due to lack of funding, it closed last July.

His current venture is Neusole Glassworks, which opened in 2004. The nonprofit facility is a one-stop shop for glass with equipment for glassblowing, fusing4, flameworking, and architectural glass, such as stained glass. Neusole offers classes and is now the only accredited glass program in the Cincinnati area. It is also a public-access studio where artists can rent time to use the equipment. A vibrant artist residency program brings glass and non-glass artists to the city, and Neusole has garnered the reputation of being a place where artists can retreat or “run and hide,” as Schiff explains. It offers workshops (including corporate team-building exercises), tours, and community programs. It also has a completely self-contained mobile glassblowing studio, which it takes on the road to entertain and educate.

In November 2010, Neusole is set to open a gallery for what might be described as “emerging emerging” artists. It is not intended to compete with Hewett who focuses on new—emerging—talent. Until her move to the Pendleton Art Center Annex in February 2010, she occupied space at Neusole, beginning in 2006 when she returned to Cincinnati after operating her gallery in Louisville for seven years.

Next year Neusole moves into the Windsor Elementary School and, in addition to its glass programs, it will also offer other mediums such as welding and woodworking to complement the glass activities.

The newest public-access studio in Cincinnati is Brazee Street Studios, which opened in December 2009. It is the brainchild of Sandy Gross who had been teaching flameworking and fusing in her basement. The 21,000-square-foot building in Oakley houses areas for fusing and flameworking. Like Neusole, Brazee hosts visiting artists. There are also 21 studios of various sizes, rented to artists in all mediums on a first-come, first-served basis.

In interviewing artists, collectors, museum curators, and gallery owners for this article, it became clear that there is no coherent glass community in Cincinnati. However, there was also a universal desire for one. As part of the effort to fulfill that desire, the nonprofit Ohio River Glass Group (ORGG5) has been formed. Open to anyone with an interest in glass, hopefully it will inform the next chapter of the Studio Glass Movement in Cincinnati.

– Karen S. Chambers

1Also known as lampworking or scientific glassblowing, flameworking is a technique, dating to the first century BC in Syria. Glass rods or tubes are heated and manipulated over a flame, today a propane torch, to make a desired form. The results can range from a kitschy ballerina made at a carnival to a custom beaker for the laboratory.
2Glass batch is the mixture of raw materials—silica, soda, potash, and lime—melted to make glass.
3I organized Transparent Motives: Glass on a Large Scale as an independent curator. At the time, I was directing the gallery at the New York Experimental Workshop, now called UrbanGlass. Also I was the editor of New Work, which became Glass Quarterly.
4A design is laid out in flat glass, rather like making a collage, and then the composition is heated until the glass shapes fuse together.
5For information about the Ohio River Glass Group (ORGG), please contact Marta Hewett at info@hewettgallery.com or by phone 513-281-2780.

The research for this article was conducted as part of the preparation for a lecture of the same name given on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Marta Hewett Gallery.

 

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