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We’ve all heard the age-old argument of art vs. craft. Some believe that if an object has a function other than visual art, it’s simply craft. Some believe craft is an art, and contemporary art has no craftsmanship. Okay, forget the craft aspect-the real stigma for glass is the “eye candy” characteristic; the root of a lack of respect in the “sculpture” world. Much of the sculpture world considers glass to be a crutch that some artists rely on to make their work appealing.
While studying for my BFA in glass, I learned that I should ask myself a simple question: “If the work I am making was made in another material, would it still be noteworthy?” The truth is, not much glass art makes it into mainstream visual art; rather, it has created its own niche. Sculpture galleries don’t exhibit much glass, and glass galleries only exhibit glass.
When I was in graduate school for an MFA in glass, I learned to break down sculpture into two different categories: formal and conceptual. Formal work is based on things like aesthetics, how the design deals with contrast, texture, color and form. Essentially, how it all works together as a composition. Conceptual work is, of course, conceptual and bound to no material, aesthetics or craftsmanship. The only thing that matters is getting the idea across to the viewer. If successful, the viewer spends time with it and the artist’s work invokes a conclusion, or perhaps a question.
While in graduate school, I also spent a great deal of time thinking about using glass for something that only it was suited for. I created a body of work that used glass to represent the atmosphere of certain places that I felt had a presence that couldn’t be captured through illustration. I could not ask for a better person to critique my work from the sculpture community than Janet Koplos, senior editor of Art in America magazine (1990-2008). She was guest speaker at Southern Illinois University Carbondale while my thesis exhibition was up in 2003. I was fortunate enough to have a private critique with Janet, which concluded that I had used glass to convey a concept that it was best suited for. Janet had first explained the “eye candy” scenario to me (you don’t see any glass artists in Art in America). Although I was very proud of myself, I really didn’t have the sense of satisfaction I was looking for in the work.
I certainly believe that glass can be used as a crutch, but I believe there are many reasons one might choose to work with glass. And those reasons may be quite different from other sculptural mediums. For instance, many sculptors work in metal because it is a means to an end; it’s the perfect material for many structures because of strength, longevity, texture, etc. Many glass artists work with glass because they fell in love with the process of working with the material first, especially off-hand glassblowing. Then after gaining control of the material, they figure out what they want to make with it. The satisfaction I was missing was in not enjoying the process of making the work in my MFA thesis like the work I was making while I was still learning how to manipulate glass.
Today, I have a much different approach to making sculpture. My ideas begin as sketches, then modeling clay, mold making, and finally (my least favorite process) kiln casting glass followed by hours of grinding and polishing. Casting really makes any shape I sculpt in clay possible in glass. This is what makes the work come alive. Eye candy? Maybe. I think what is important is the impact it has on other people.