A Hot Exhibit From Molten Glass
American Glass Now, an exhibit on view at the Toledo Museum of Art through Dec. 3, is a dramatic and spectacular display, but the skill and ingenuity aren't fully apparent unless you go back 10 years to "American Glass Then," when the "movement" was launched in a makeshift workshop on the museum grounds.
With an improved fire-brick furnace, costing about $200, and the raw materials of lime, soda, and silica sand, 10 craftsmen assembled under the leadership of Harvey Littleton, a ceramist from the University of Wisconsin, to explore the potential of molten glass as a fine arts medium.
The results were a few heavy and lopsided vessels that bear about as much resemblance to the sophisticated objects now in the museum exhibition as the Wright brothers' airplane does to a 747 jumbo jet.
Nevertheless, the workshop proved its point: an individual craftsman could work with hot glass in a studio situation. From then on, luck speeded up the progress.
First, Mr. Littleton was a native of Corning, N.Y., and had worked in a glass factory and done some experimenting with glass. Years later, his interest was rekindled in Italy, where he spent over two months visiting glass factories in Naples and Murano. With the blowpipes and hand tools he bought in Venice, he tried to work with glass in his pottery studio. These early efforts convinced him that glass had potentials that were still unexplored.
Second, a chance visitor to that first glass workshop was Harvey Leafgreen, a retired glassblower from the Libbey Glass Co. He contributed the practical know-how, which the others lacked.
Third, Dominick Labino, then research vice-president for the Johns-Manville Fiber Glass Corp., contributed his extensive knowledge of the chemistry of glass and of industrial manufacture.
His enthusiasm, growing out of that first workshop, opened a new career to him. With more than 50 patents on glass formulas and equipment, he has also become a master glass craftsman, whose work is in more than 30 museum collections, and who has participated in more than 100 exhibitions, with many jury awards. He built his own glass studio in Grand Rapids, O., and willingly shared his knowledge with students and craftsmen from all over the country.
And finally, the Toledo location was fortuitous, with the museum's collection which documents almost 3,500 years of man's involvement with glass; and the presence of the glass industry in the city, with skilled technicians and a vast library of books and journals to draw upon.
Of the 10 persons who attended the original workshop, three are represented in the American Glass Now exhibition—Mr. Littleton, Mr. Labino, and Tom McGlauchlin, who came to Toledo as a glass instructor in the museum a year ago.
Six additional workshops have been held, and many of the 33 artist-craftsmen in the exhibition are either first or second-generation participants. Instruction is now offered in more than 50 universities and art schools, with other artists working independently in their studios.
The museum's present glass facilities point up another spectacular advance. In 1969, the $300,000 Glass Crafts Building was opened, the only structure of its kind anywhere built for this purpose. It was the gift of Owens-Corning Fiberglas Corp., Owens-Illinois Inc., and the Libbey-Owens-Ford Co.
To take surroundings of how the movement was going, the Toledo Glass National competition was held in 1966 and 1968. In 1970, the exhibition was invitational, and the Smithsonian Institution circulated it on a nation-wide tour. Individual craftsmen were also receiving recognition in one-man shows and the purchase of their work for public collections. Connections were established with European glass craftsmen, with international exchanges and visits.
Now that it was firmly established that a single craftsman could create and execute a piece of glass (as opposed to the team operation of artist, glass designer, and technician), it was time to expand the concepts.
This could hardly be done through competitions, because of the difficulties and expense of shipping fragile and experimental pieces. Hence, the invitational exhibition was launched, to encourage new thinking and recognize past competence.
American Glass Now shows the results of this encouragement, as the works go beyond the utilitarian origins into the use of glass as a medium comparable to painting and sculpture. Furthermore, new applications of old techniques show up, as in the work of Richard Marquis, of Berkeley, Calif., who employs the ancient mille-fiore technique with glass canes. Finally, glass is now being used with other materials, as in the work of Curtis Hoard, of Minneapolis, who combines blown glass with flocking-covered plastic, wires, and rubber hose.
Despite the freedom of ideas in the exhibition, the work is far more disciplined and structured than the early pieces, where happy accidents played an important role.
The old adage that "art springs from other art" most certainly applies to the American Glass Now exhibition, for these works could never have been realized without the stumbling step-by step efforts that began with those crude beginnings 10 years ago in Toledo.
©1972 The Toledo Blade
Photos by Tom O'Reilly, Blade Chief Photographer