One Glass Artist's Evolving Style

One Glass Artist's Evolving Style

David Patchen's Resistenza work

Patchen's Resistenza work, based on Italian technique

This is a big year for glass in the United States. It’s the 50th anniversary of the start of the studio glass movement, which put the medium in the hands of individual artists; before 1962, glass artistry was confined to factory settings. To mark the milestone, more than 160 celebrations are planned for 2012.

This anniversary is also a time for reflection and debate in the field. In fact, we’ve seen more controversy generated in American Craft about a single column on the state of glass than anything else in the last year. Glass has long been known for its fabulous aesthetic impact, but a growing chorus of artists and critics has called for glass artists to focus less on technique and medium and more on ideas and narrative.

With that in mind, we thought it would be interesting to talk to a glass artist whose work shows a transition along those lines. David Patchen of San Francisco has been working with glass for 11 years. He began as an admirer and practitioner of traditional Italian detail and pattern, but his latest body of work is more restrained and conceptual. Patchen's Bloom series is on exhibition at Stewart Fine Art in Boca Raton, Florida, through May 30.

American Craft: Tell us how you got started as a glass artist.

DP: I'd always been fascinated and curious about glass as a kid and how color got into glass and what it was like to work with, in a molten state. In my first glassblowing class, I was immediately hooked and decided to dedicate myself to developing the skills to make what I wanted. 

Over the years I tried many different techniques and learned a lot on my own. After struggling with Italian techniques for a couple of years, I was invited to visit Afro Celotto in Murano [Italy] for a couple of weeks in 2004. I learned a lot.

AC: How has your style evolved with your training?

DP: In my experience, glass mastery has two main phases: The first is the technical challenge, where I was learning how to work with such a tricky material. It takes about a year to be able to make small shapes, two years to feel a command of the material. There is always a racheting-up; new possibilities open up at each level of technical mastery.

Then comes the second phase. After gaining some skills comes the creative challenge. I had to decide what I wanted to make. This second phase is just as difficult as the first, but radically different.

AC: What have you been focused on in each of those phases?

DP: I've always been excited by vibrant color and pattern and decided to focus my energy in this direction. I decided to limit my forms and considered them just different canvases so I could dedicate my energy to exploring color, transparency, detail, and pattern. I have perfectionist tendencies and high standards, so I've always focused on technical precision and wanted my work to be tight and detailed.

After spending a number of years working with murrine patterns I decided I was ready to begin exploring more through concept and form. As a long-time orchid keeper and scuba diver, the more curious natural forms appeal to me, and I referenced these in [my new series] Bloom, which still incorporates color and pattern, but in a different way.

AC: Your latest body of work downplays pattern. Why the change?

DP:  Early in my work I experimented with the idea of things hidden and revealed. While my recent series work is often bold, the detail in the patterns rewards those who look more closely. I wanted to pursue ideas of revealing something unexpected and precious and rewarding close examination, which led to Bloom. I also wanted the form to be something clearly natural and organic, but non-representational and hard to place. Since human brains are pattern-matching machines ("oh, that looks like x"), I wanted Bloom to feel oddly familiar but have no single point of reference, leaving it to the viewer to think about what it could be, how it came about, what inspired it, what it communicates, and what it could mean.

AC:  You've said you're now more focused on "making a sculpture versus a glass sculpture." That sounds as if glass has become a means to an end for you, not an end in itself. Is that true?

DP: That's exactly it for Bloom. Glass can be both limiting and inspirational. I wanted to make sure glass didn't drive my thinking in developing this series. 

Because the learning curve with glass is so long and steep, glassblowers often have ideas that are rooted in its properties and the process of making work. So creativity is a slave of, or restricted by, the material.  In other words, so much of a glassblower's time and energy is consumed by everything that goes into crafting an object that what we want to communicate often gets less creative energy. 

Being conscious of this inspired me to push glass out of the creative process from the start. With Bloom, I tried to first think creatively and artistically as unencumbered by the medium as possible. Once I decided on the concept I then felt comfortable figuring out how glass could serve the idea in the sculpture. 

AC: There is a lot of conversation now among glass artists and glass lovers who are embracing concept over technique and medium. As Jordan Ahlers of Blue Spiral 1 Gallery recently put it:

Artists have done fantastic and innovative things with glass over the past 50 years, while its potential as a sculptural medium continues to grow.... 21st century glass sculpture is becoming increasingly narrative and conceptual. The story may be poignant or provocative; the imagery haunting or humorous, but whether they lean toward edgy or whimsical, a growing number of artists using glass have something compelling to say. Moving forward, we have more to consider than just “how did they get that effect?”

Do you see yourself among those moving away from effect and toward narrative and concept? If so, what ideas are propelling your work?

DP: I do see my work incorporating more conceptual themes, but not at the total expense of aesthetics. I don't think they are mutually exclusive. I'm honestly too enamored with what can be done with color, pattern, detail, and dimension to abandon it purely for a pursuit of concept of narrative. I plan to pursue work that embodies a concept and uses the many interesting and distinctive attributes of glass to express it.

AC: So do you think the dichotomy of aesthetics vs. ideas is something of a false choice? Like saying you can be smart or good-looking but not both?

DP: Maybe so. Critics like to throw rocks at glass because in some ways it’s easy to make beautiful things [from it]. Glass has a kind of advantage. The aesthetics are so compelling that critics go overboard. It’s too bad that the medium gets in the way.

AC: What glass artists working today do you admire?

DP: For his work that shows the play between hidden and revealed, Ethan Stern. For his technical excellence, Dante Marioni, and I love his collaboration with Preston Singletary. Also, Giles Bettison, who is amazing with murrine.

Monica Moses is American Craft magazine's editor in chief.