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Glass' Big Bang

Glass' Big Bang

Glass' Big Bang

February/March 2012 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Glass
Ruby Conical Intersection with Amber Sphere

Harvey K. Littleton; Ruby Conical Intersection with Amber Sphere, 1984
10.75 x 7.6 x 3.75 in.

Fifty years ago, the American studio glass movement was sparked. The world has never been the same.

The ingredients they used were as ancient as the Earth: silica, ash, and limestone. The way they melded them was nothing new: heating them in a 2,350-degree furnace for six to eight hours, until the solids turned liquid. Then they shaped the molten glass with tools – paddles, tongs, long metal blowpipes – like those used by artisans around the globe for three millennia.

But a half-century ago, the founders of the American studio glass movement added a new element – something that would release glass from the constraints of function and factory, bring it into the studios of artists, transform it into a material for self-expression. And change the landscape of art worldwide.

What was that distinctly American ingredient?

“The one-word answer is ‘freedom,’ ” says glass sculptor Fritz Dreisbach, 70. He and other artists felt free to experiment, he recalls, to make mistakes and push the boundaries of glass and themselves. Unlike their European counterparts, they didn’t feel bound by centuries of tradition and technique. And the cultural upheavals of the 1960s only amplified their yearning to experiment.

As a material, glass perfectly suited the free-spirited time. It’s been categorized as a “super-cooled liquid” (subject to some debate) or an “amorphous solid,” because even when formed, its molecules remain in a state of dynamic unrest. For artists such as Dreisbach, it was the ideal medium for self-expression.

Glass is not an easy material to master, of course, but progress was possible because knowledge, especially in those early days, was communal. “It was this pioneering spirit,” Dreisbach says. “Like the pioneers in those wagon trains, we banded together. That doesn’t happen with artists in many of the other media, who tend to isolate themselves and guard their secrets. We were tickled pink if other artists wanted to watch us do our tricks.”

Openness and boldness, generosity and showmanship – those were also hallmarks of Dreisbach’s seminal teacher, Harvey K. Littleton, the movement’s prime mover, practitioner, proselytizer, and pied piper.

Other artists explored ways to work directly with hot glass, but it is Littleton who is credited with launching American studio glass. The 50th anniversary will be commemorated this year by more than 150 exhibitions and events nationwide.

Evidence of the movement’s pervasive power can be seen today in the proliferation of glassmaking programs and in the deluge of handmade glass objects that fill the shelves of galleries, museums, and private homes, and are displayed in theaters, convention centers, and other public spaces.

Dale Chihuly’s aquatic-inspired installations may be the most visible examples of the rise of American studio glass. But the demise last year of Steuben Glass Works is more evidence: Collectors and even casual buyers have come to prefer one-of-a-kind pieces to anonymous production works of glass.

The Crucible and the Crusader
“There are very few movements where you can pinpoint a birth date,” says Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass at the Corning Museum of Glass. “Here, you can: It started in March and June 1962.”

That’s when two glass workshops were held in a storage shed on the grounds of the Toledo Museum of Art, thanks to the support of director Otto Witt­mann. Only 10 people showed up on March 23 for the first 10-day workshop. But they represented the realms of glass and clay, art and science, academia and industry, modern technology and old-world technique, Corning, New York, and Toledo, Ohio – disparate elements that were manifest in Littleton too.

The son of the Corning Glass Works physicist who developed Pyrex, Littleton became in­trigued with glass as a child while visiting and working in the factory. He also came to admire the beauty of the Steuben glass produced under the direction of his elderly neighbor, Frederick Carder. But those pricey pieces were designed by white-collar men and executed by blue-collar workers.

Longing to do it all himself, Littleton spent years exploring glass studios in Europe (most of which were attached to factories) and experimenting with small furnaces. Discouraged by those who said making hot glass outside a factory was impossible, Littleton took up clay, which had already pushed past factory-made pottery into artworks fired in backyard kilns.

By 1951, armed with a degree in industrial design from the Uni­versity of Michigan, an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and experience teaching ceramics at the Toledo Museum of Art, Littleton joined the art faculty of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He and his wife, Bess, and their children moved to an 80-acre farm in nearby Verona.

There Littleton continued to experiment with hot glass, building a squat brick furnace and equipping it with a large ceramic crucible he’d made. The experimental glass forms he created began to spark the interest and support of the arts community – including that of Wittman and Dominick Labino, friends Littleton had made while teaching in Toledo.

Vice president and director of research for Johns-Manville Fiber Glass in Toledo, Labino also had an experimental glass furnace in his backyard. He would play an essential role in that first workshop.

So did Littleton’s graduate assistant. Clayton Bailey, now 72 and professor emeritus at California State University, Hayward, recalls dismantling Littleton’s furnace, transporting it to Toledo, reassembling it – then working around the clock to keep it burning to provide hot glass for the workshop.

“The first batch was so stiff, you couldn’t get a bubble,” recalls Edith Franklin, 88, a Toledo clay artist and teacher who was one of the seven “mud-­ball slingers” there. “Then Nick Labino went out and brought back a couple of bags of glass marbles.” Those clear balls, known as #475, were made of glass invented by Labino for the manufacture of fiberglass. Their low melting point made them ideal for glassblowing.

“Eventually, everybody tried to blow glass,” says Norm Schul­man, 87, a clay artist and teacher. “And we all managed to get a bubble out – little ones, like chewing gum.”

After watching those feeble attempts on one of the workshop’s last days, a passerby picked up a blowpipe, dipped it into the furnace and gathered a gob of molten glass. “He blew the bubble, then showed us how to spin it and swing it” to create a shallow bowl, Bailey recalls.“It’s the first time we’d ever seen it done,” he says. “When you saw him do it, you saw the magic.”

The magician was Harvey Leafgreen, a Swedish glassblower who’d retired from a Toledo glass factory. Littleton promptly recruited him to help teach the workshop in June.

Littleton’s own efforts, meanwhile, expanded like blown glass. That summer, he consulted with the 99-year-old Carder in Corning; met with artists in Europe, notably glass sculptor Erwin Eisch; and campaigned for a glass program at the University of Wisconsin. “I think he got a foothold and didn’t want to let it go,” says Littleton’s younger son, John, 54, who makes glass sculpture with his wife, Kate Vogel. “He felt the material deserved a place in art.”

By the fall, Littleton was recruiting his pottery students at Madison to take an independent study in glass at his farm. “I walked into the clay class,” recalls Marvin Lipofsky, 73, “and this little short guy said, ‘Do you want to blow glass?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ ” But after visiting Littleton’s farm/studio with a friend, the reluctant Lipofsky was hooked.

“Harvey would demonstrate to the students by blowing glass and say, ‘OK, guys. It’s yours,’ and hand them the blowpipe,” Lipofsky says.

“It was a very American, very pioneering kind of thing,” he says. “In Europe, artists had all these restrictions. But America had these wide-open spaces – backyards and garages behind houses – and plenty of fuel to keep the furnace going.”

Another early recruit was Joan Falconer Byrd, 72, professor of ceramics at Western Carolina University and author of a new biography, Harvey K. Littleton: A Life in Glass. “He gave us glass to work with, but then he had to keep us going,” she says.

He urged them to try everything they could with glass and not get bogged down in technique, she says. “It was that whole American approach: Here, anything is possible.”

For Littleton, those possibilities swiftly became realities.

By 1963, the 41-year-old Littleton had given 35 lectures on glass in universities around the country, had solo shows of his glass at the Art Institute of Chicago and five other venues, and persuaded the University of Wisconsin to add a glass program to its curriculum.

In 1964, Littleton’s glass crusade conquered Manhattan. He demonstrated and advocated for glassblowing at the first World Congress of Craftsmen, to great acclaim. And New York’s Museum of Contemp-
orary Crafts presented a solo exhibition of his glass, including “broken open” vessels that, no longer functional, announced themselves as sculpture, which the Museum of Modern Art soon affirmed by acquiring one.

That same year, another participant in those first workshops, Tom McGlauchlin, began teaching glassblowing at the University of Iowa. (McGlauchlin died last year, at 76.) Lipofsky carried the crusade to the West Coast, introducing studio glass at the University of California, Berkeley; three years later, he established a glass program at California College of Arts and Crafts.

In 1965, Schulman established a glass program at Rhode Island School of Design, where he was soon assisted by Littleton’s graduate student, Dale Chihuly – who would, in turn, establish the Pilchuck Glass School outside Seattle. Labino retired from industry and devoted his time to creating glass sculpture in his backyard studio.

Fast-forward 50 years, and American studio glass seems to be evolving more than exploding, as it re-melts and reshapes itself to reflect such 21st-century issues as sustainability and globalism.

About 100 miles north of Littleton’s hometown, one of his early students creates sleek glass sculptures in his extensive home studio outside Rochester, New York. Michael Taylor, 68, fondly recalls the early 1970s, when he worked with Littleton and lived with his family on their Verona farm, sharing meals and chores. “Harvey cut my hair for my sister’s wedding,” he says.

Inspired not only by Littleton’s holistic home life but also by his outreach, Taylor has helped establish nine glass programs in various schools – most recently at Portugal’s New University of Lisbon. As a visiting professor, Taylor worked with physicist António Pires de Matos to launch its first graduate program in the art and science of glass in 2009. “I’ve never forgotten the whole idea that you go out and do what disciples do – proselytize,” says Taylor.

Key to what he preaches – and practices – is freedom of expression. Like Littleton and Dreisbach, his other mentor, Taylor urges students not to become enslaved by glassblowing and other technique, nor by the seductive “shock and awe” beauty of glass itself.

“It’s really important to combine glass with a diversity of materials,” says Taylor, whose recent sculptures incorporate wood, rope, and metal. “Today, we’re trying to be not glass artists, but artists.”


For a virtual tour of American studio glass celebrations, read "From Sea to Glassy Sea."

Sebby Wilson Jacobson is a freelance writer and editor, and visiting professor of journalism at Rochester Institute of Technology. Born and raised in Corning, New York, and the daughter of a Corning Glass Works physicist, Jacobson grew up across the street from Frederick Carder and four doors down from Harvey K. Littleton’s childhood home.