Glass Garden

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This semester, facing a dwindling array of options for how I might be able to engage and teach students sculpture, I decided to do something radically different.  Instead of letting institutional issues get in the way of providing a stimulating creative experience, I chose to go beyond limits and open the door of my studio to my students and to the world of hot glass.  The result was nothing short of amazing.

I was lucky to have attended two very different schools during my college career.  One, Berea College, was a small liberal arts college that charged no tuition and instead required students all to work to help offset their term bills and other costs.  In terms of a college community, Berea is in a class by itself.  There are very few schools that can do what Berea does so well.  The other, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, was a larger state school that had a very good arts program at both the undergraduate as well as graduate level.  While at Carbondale I observed first hand how both the glass and foundry program were run. In foundry, my professor had a visiting artist program that brought in luminaries in the art field like Ernest Trova, Linda Benglis, Rubien Nakien,  Daly, Richard Pert, Red Grooms, and many more.  They all came to make sculpture.  The students were there as assistants to the artist, and their access was total.  No faculty member was allowed to be onsite while the artist was at work with the students.  At the end of the day the students who had worked with the artist on that day all got together with the artist at one of the apartments of the students to have a potluck where stories were told and students had an opportunity to spend valuable social time with the visiting artist.  There was one evening set aside where faculty gathered to have their own social time with the artist, but for the most part, the students were given the lions share.  In the glass program, the glass club, Southern Glass Works served an important role in supporting the glass program.  When I was there the sales we held on campus during the holiday season garnered the club over six thousand dollars, which was enough to buy materials, supplies, tools, and enough material to build a 600 lb capacity cast zircon tank furnace.  The mobile unit that Bill Boysen had built back in the early 70’s affectionately named Aunt Gladys had been used to do demos of glassblowing all over the country.  When I was in attendance, we took the mobile unit out to Tucson Arizona to the Glass Art Society conference where she was used to demo the work of students all across the nation who wanted to try their hand at our delightful contraption that folded up like a fruit stand (actually the studio was built on the chassis of an old fruit stand on wheels). I was involved in doing the last rebuild on her furnace before she was replaced with a larger sleeker model just prior to Bill’s retirement.

I was able to see how business and education could not only mesh, but work together in a powerfully synergistic fashion, all for the benefit of the students.  When I hear educators in the arts bemoan the use of student labor in an art program (say for helping them make their work for example) I think how unfortunate that outlook is.  It exists perhaps because some have misused it in the past.  However, my experience has been that this has been one important route to getting to know the people your teacher knows, the galleries, as well as learning how they work in their own studio practice.  These kinds of experiences were invaluable to me and it is my sense that it is one way that students learn. By doing.  And in truth, the student is at a school involved in an exchange; paying money in order to learn.  But what about more expansive opportunities that would bring students right into the studio operations where they can see up close how things are made, how they are sold, and to simply become exposed to the real world of art?  it is kind of funny sometimes how we educate our students in colleges and universities. They spend all this time alone in the studio and then they go out into the world of work and there just aren’t any jobs that pay them to sit and make art.  There are no art factories or studios that will let them do what they did in school.  To do that, you have to begin your own business.  And you have to be savvy enough to do well so you can keep doing art instead of working a nine to five job in some other kind of work.

Needless to say, I have been anxious to find ways to incorporate these same aspects into my teaching.  Make it less abstract and more tangible and real world. This semester my students and I embarked on a rather courageous enterprise; take twenty kids who had never blown glass before and get them working on a project that would involve installing sculptural glass in a given location on the university campus.

The location had to be found first because glass couldn’t be displayed in just any location.  We needed good security and we needed a place that wanted us there.  We found it in the education department which was very interested in what we would come up with.  it turned out that there had been a lot of talk about what they could do with the garden in the way of art or similar kinds of things to help improve the space.  When we came along, it was like a feite accompli.

It turns out that I have an old friend and colleague who managed the space that we were interested in.  Dr. Ann Roberts had taken on the courtyard garden as her own pet project, weeding and planting flowers over the years she has been teaching at Radford University in Radford Virginia.  It was as if the tumblers all fell into place in perfect combination.  My students and I went to look at the space and we were welcomed with open arms.

We photographed the space, measured it, and then went back to consider the possibilities.  Within minutes of being in the space, students were already suggesting ideas. I stood back and let them ponder, imagine and create.  When an idea was too far afield for what was possible with glass or our collective skill set, I nudged the boat closer in to port.  After our initial meeting we had several main concepts that we wanted to try.  One was a series of staves, tall tendril like pieces that would become canvasses for a range of different color effects.  I had no idea they would expand into so many different combinations.  I had some glass color I hadn’t used in years that I felt like I could let go of and once they got a hold of it, magic began to bubble to the surface.  the way we worked was as a group.  I might suggest something, but I had to ask the group who was working at the time what they thought.  They did the same. “What do you think if we used green over the blue this time and added this colored frit on the surface?”  Sometimes decisions were made entirely in the moment with surprising results.  We considered making a fountain and a large bush-like piece that would have over 80 different glass elements attached to it. Could we get all of this done in three to four weeks, which was the time allotted for the project?  Could twenty students with no prior experience come up with something that would achieve our stated goals?  IMG_3466

Video was shot throughout the project and this is currently being edited for publishing on youtube.  Once that is done a link will be provided. Students learned how to heat up color bits, to gather at the furnace, to blow and shape the glass.  Students were eased into the process with a three hour intensive work period with their teacher, yours truly, in order to get them up to speed enough to be of assistance in the making of pieces.  As soon as that was done and several basic moves were mastered, off we went into the world of hot glass.  It was truly a learn as you go experience. Twenty students had to be trained in this way, and while there was some standing around at first, once students had the basics, we could begin building on those basics.

The ideas expanded to clear crystal flowers, several mushrooms, some pieces that looked like sea urchins, and larger flower forms.  In the end we have over a hundred different elements that went into the garden.

Once we were finished and the work was installed I asked the students what they thought.  They responded that they felt that the space needed MORE glass!  We had some students who hadn’t come out as many times as they should have so we were short some pieces, about twenty in all.  Students continued to come out to the studio additional times in order to make up the difference.  How is that for dedication?  Some how, somewhere, what was as simple straightforward class project had become something much more.  And that is as it should be.  When learning like this goes beyond the bounds of the classroom it enters into the realm of the real world, and when the university studio meshes with the professional production studio, very interesting things happen.

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Students got food and set up the reception.  A poster was designed and printed.  The word was put out.  The result was that the venue has garnered a lot of attention and has already spun off a commission as a result of the display.  Once the materials are paid for, the students will each get an equal share in whatever is sold out of the space.

I chose to donate the studio time to this enterprise just to get it going.  In exchange I got a huge influx of creative energy and ideas moving through the studio.  That is a win-win in my book.  Long after the show is down there will be new ideas floating around and bearing fruit.  it is this sort of collaborative effort that seems to offer the most amount of fulfillment for all involved.  yes, it cost money, but it was worth it to me.  It was a swift kick in the creative pants for me and it has helped me in ways I am sure I can only begin to imagine. As for my students, they have started something that was only a dream a month ago….

The images in this blog entry are all works taken from the installation at Radford University entitled Glass Garden.  It is the beginning of something new and interesting.

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