Therman Statom takes his creative process into the world, donating his time and talents to cultivate others’ well-being.
When Therman Statom was growing up in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian Institution was one of his favorite places to be, a kind of haven. The art he saw there affected him deeply, giving him not only a creative calling but also a means of coping with life’s challenges – in particular, the sometimes confusing circumstance of being from an upwardly mobile African American family, transplanted from the South to a cosmopolitan, mostly Jewish neighborhood in the nation’s capital. Art showed him a path, and he followed it.
Today Statom is a major figure in the studio glass field, with work in the Smithsonian and museums all over the world. From his earliest experiments with glass as a student at Pilchuck Glass School in the 1970s, he went on to pioneer innovative uses of the material. His dreamlike, enigmatic sculptures combine sheet glass with blown elements, found objects, and painted imagery, often in the forms of houses, ladders and chairs, his signature structures. (He also makes traditional vessels, such as vases – “things you put water in,” he says.) And he creates large-scale public art installations that turn whole rooms into conceptual environments.
But for him, art is about much more than the physical objects. “I’m interested in how beauty functions as an advocate for change,” says Statom, who works out of an 18,000- square-foot studio in a former window factory in downtown Omaha, Nebraska, his home since 2006. Having experienced firsthand the transformative power of art, he pays it forward by taking his creative process out into the world, donating his time and talents to hospitals, schools, and communities to empower people and help them heal – especially children coping with illness or economic challenges. He’s volunteered as an art therapist in pediatric wards, painted murals with youths in Africa, led workshops in Denmark with refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. When he does a museum show or public art project, he often gets staff and local residents in on the concept and creation, so that the work becomes an invigorating journey of collective discovery.
“How can I put it?” Statom says, trying to explain this aspect of his work, which he thinks of as activism or advocacy. “I can say that in a conscious way, I found the studio process to be very narcissistic. I wanted to do something that wasn’t so about me.” This began in earnest in the early 1980s, when he spent several seasons as a counselor at a camp for children with cancer, run by a woman who collected his work. “It became clear to me that I was given the opportunity to do something that could affect other people.”
Warm, at times irreverent, and a self-described “outside-the-box guy,” Statom takes a fluid approach to these endeavors. “I don’t really have any set goals. Sometimes it’s just to help one kid. A lot of it has to do with different ways of thinking about – just well-being, I guess,” he says. He’s long had an interest in holistic medicine, the idea that treatment of illness can include spiritual and homeopathic components along with conventional techniques such as surgery. His parents were at opposite ends of that spectrum; his father was a doctor, while his mother, an elementary school teacher, approached healing from a spiritual perspective. People who were sick would come to her occasionally, says Statom, and she’d help them.
His own way blends the practical with the magical. “In all of the projects, there’s a discovery process – what you can do, what you can’t, what you should expect.” At a hospital, for example, he’ll first get to know the institution’s unique culture, to determine how he can best assist that particular group of doctors, nurses, and therapists. “Being a craftsperson, working with materials, you get involved with process. Sometimes the process is as valuable to me as the given product. So the process of working with a hospital be-comes really intriguing to me – you get involved with culture, regional history, architecture.”
For the lobby of the Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters in Norfolk, Virginia, he oversaw the making of a suspended sea of colorful glass fish, designed – and in some cases even blown – by young patients, who were given access to the hot glass studio at the nearby Chrysler Museum. The goal was to make both the experience and the outcome meaningful, with lasting impact. “A lot of the art in children’s hospitals has become generic, and the basic attitude is to make it fun for the kids to go there. Well, how do you make a hospital fun? Most architects don’t actually engage kids in that. In Norfolk, the kids were given that voice, that opportunity,” Statom says. During the installation, he adds, there were a few “miracles,” as kids forgot about their illnesses for a while, absorbed in creativity. “After, there’s a miracle every day, which is that kids who come into the hospital get lost looking at the artwork and want to be a part of it.”
“Therman’s enormous creative and physical energy with his work has always inspired everyone around him and probably pushed us all to do more and better,” says glass artist Toots Zynsky, a friend since both were students at Rhode Island School of Design. “He has a remarkable talent connecting with kids,” she says. “It’s very special.”
“He’s an artist who is always interested in what he can do next, and a person who is always thinking about how he can make a difference in someone’s life,” says Hansen Mulford, curator at the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida. In 2009 Statom did a show there, “Stories of the New World,” that explored the mystique of Ponce de León’s search for the Fountain of Youth. The spectacular 5,600-square-foot environment, including video and mirrors, “was probably a lot like walking through Therman’s head,” Mulford says, adding that the artist’s impressive multitasking and people skills were evident throughout the month it took to install the piece. “There was a lot of impromptu invention on the spot. As that happened, Therman was always running out for a morning or afternoon to give workshops with various groups of kids all over town. He seemed to never say no to people whom he felt he could help. At those workshops, he was a master at connecting and empowering both the harried teachers and their students. Occasionally he’d also pop out to play a round of golf with one of our board members.”
“Therman has always been an artist, since the day he was born. He just comes that way. It’s how he communicates with the world, individuals, and himself. He uses the medium of art to help others find their own personal way in life,” says another longtime friend, Ree Kaneko, arts administrator and wife of the ceramic sculptor Jun Kaneko. A few years ago Statom partnered with the couple’s Omaha-based arts organization (called simply Kaneko) in a project to provide art workshops to some 1,100 Native American students in the city’s public school system. Making art with those kids, he says, “we addressed everything from their mental health to food, urban as opposed to reservation Indians, how they felt about their culture.” Since then he’s done more cultural programming for tribes, both elsewhere and in the region, such as helping design and build a playground at a Native American preschool. “A lot of that is, how does it function culturally and socially? You also have to have ingredients that are accessible,” he notes. “I find the act of engaging these solutions to be creative in a way, you know?”
At times, the advocacy influences Statom’s art. He recently made some pieces about Lincoln’s legacy in the Native American community. Inspired by the activism of some Jewish collectors of his work, he’s done a series of vessels about the relationship between Judaism and the civil rights movement. Lately he’s redoubled his focus on his studio work, having cut back on travel to spend more time with family. He’s been experimenting with a high-tech glass – the kind used for computer screens – that can potentially put video imagery on the surface of a piece, a direction he’s “pretty darn excited about.” It’s yet another facet of his multidimensional approach to art.
“As a craftsperson, you have an interest in the tangible – what people touch and feel and see and experience in the work,” Statom reflects. “What is the art, really? It’s what the objects do to people.”
Joyce Lovelace is contributing editor for American Craft.