Given the profusion of sparkling glass baubles that beckon buyers at every summer art fair, it seems that glass must always have been part of the contemporary art scene. Surprisingly, that assumption is wrong.
As aficionados will tell you at the drop of a question, the American studio glass movement was started in 1962. In Toledo, Ohio. By a Wisconsin guy named Harvey Littleton.
Out of Littleton's experiment grew a phenomenon that has inspired artists and collectors, changed colleges and museums, boosted Washington state tourism and most recently sparked two exhibitions.
"Historic Heat: 50 Years of Fantastic Glass From the Heartland," featuring sculpture by 28 prominent Midwestern talents, runs through Jan. 5 at the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, Wis. Simultaneously the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is showing through June 29 more than a dozen impressive examples of international art glass, part of a 32-piece collection given to the museum earlier this year by collectors Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser.
The Phipps show points to "the vitality of this region" as a center of studio glass production, said Stephan Cox, who organized the exhibit with fellow glass artists Andrew Shea and Craig Campbell. "Behind Seattle it is one of the most active areas in the country."
The exhibit demonstrates that vitality in vases and etched bowls, crystalline sculpture, stained-glass panels and fused-glass landscapes. There are intricate paperweight-styled sculptures by Winona-based Cathy Richardson, who encases glass bouquets in etched-crystal apples, and freestanding, 6-foot-tall panels in autumnal hues by Peter Zelle of Minneapolis.
Several artists illustrate changing styles and personal development by pairing examples of early work with their current production. At the start of his career, Cox made small balloon-shaped bowls. Now he specializes in tall cones of glass that sprout from tripod bases and display their spiky crowns like graceful undersea creatures.
Twenty years ago Campbell was making mysterious, sandblasted sculptures that suggest fragments of exploded spacecraft; now he's doing etched, moccasin-like pods. Shea's early work includes a whimsical Pop-style black-and-cream race car and a milky-white goblet clutched by a cartoonish fish. His recent sculptures are abstract — big hollow teardrops of clear glass with etched surfaces and portholes; a faceted crystal cylinder with a perfume-bottle top.
"You can date some of these pieces by the colors," Shea said. "In the early days we all mixed and melted colors on our own in a cement mixer at the University of Minnesota. We knew the chemical formulas. Now people just buy color over the phone and everything is clear glass with color added."
Littleton's art movement
In the early 1960s, glass was primarily an industrial material turned out in huge factories.
Harvey Littleton was then teaching ceramics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Having seen Italian glass shops doing small-scale production, he figured the material had potential as an art form. So he persuaded the Toledo Museum of Art to let him stage a glass-blowing workshop and invited a friend, Dominick Labino, director of research at a glass factory in suburban Toledo, to help demonstrate.
Their first workshop was rocky, but sparked huge enthusiasm.
"The first glass they made was dense, tough and very hard to work with," Cox said. By experimenting with the chemical formula — adding more lead, for example — artisans created a "softer," more crystalline glass that could be carved, etched and cut.
Littleton returned to Madison and started the country's first university glass program; Labino helped solve some of the chemical and furnace-design problems of making studio glass.
The University of Minnesota soon added a glass program, as did UW-River Falls. Littleton's students spread across the country, the most famous being Dale Chihuly, whose talent and chutzpah garnered international attention. After Chihuly set up shop in the Puget Sound area, Washington became a pilgrimage point for glass tourism. Chihuly's legacy also runs through River Falls, where one of his students, Jim Engebretson, ran the glass program for more than 30 years before his recent retirement.
That mentoring spirit lives on here. Examining the work of Tony Michaud-Scorza, a young artisan whose work ranged from a playful octopus sculpture to a Chihuly-style flared platter, Campbell said that several local artists had chipped in recently to help Michaud-Scorza pay for a pricey summer workshop at Pilchuck, Chihuly's famous training program outside Seattle.
"Here there's less a competitive environment than a supportive one, which is not the same as in other parts of the country," Campbell said. "I've always been quite proud of that."