Glass Bash

The Toledo Museum of Art celebrates the 50th anniversary of the American Studio Glass Movement.

Ethan Stern focuses intently on the molten gather before him. Turning and twisting his glowing glob — which teeters on the end of a pipe — the artist is hard at work in the hot shop at the Toledo Museum of Art’s Glass Pavilion. The studio, which could be mistaken for a high-end kitchen in another galaxy, is where Stern will see his vase — a ruby-red and orange-striped wonder — take shape.

The glassblower is following in the footsteps of artisans who have left a world-renowned legacy: The vessel is a descendant of its simpler ancestors, born during two experimental workshops held 50 years ago at the museum. The classes ushered in the American Studio Glass Movement. This year, the museum is commemorating that milestone with a series of seminars, along with an exhibition that showcases works by artisans who are leaders in their medium.

The dawn of the glass movement in Toledo broke the mold when it came to using materials in new ways. Until 1962, glass was primarily relegated to the production of such utilitarian items as windowpanes, water goblets and lamps. Since the city was already home to a variety of glass manufacturers that included Libbey Glass, NSG Group and Owens Corning — all of which had added to Toledo’s long-standing moniker as The Glass City — finding artistic expression was a natural second step.

So on March 23, 1962, in a garage on TMA’s campus, 10 young artists gathered for a workshop spearheaded by ceramics teacher Harvey Littleton that explored making glass for beauty, not function. (A second class followed in June.)

“It was a learning experience,” recalls Edith Franklin, a potter who participated in that first workshop. “[The point was to determine if it] was possible to have your own furnace, make malleable glass and do it all by yourself in a studio setting.” Batches of fiberglass marbles and a small portable furnace, created during the first workshop by Johns-Manville director of research Dominick Labino to melt glass at low temperatures, made the idea a reality. Artists could now build their own furnaces patterned after Labino’s that allowed them to work independently and take their craft on the road.

A critical movement in art history followed. Some artists, like Littleton, returned to their colleges where they taught (in his case, the University of Wisconsin-Madison), and quickly built programs centered around glassblowing. Others struck out on their own, creating decorated hollow vessels, then arches, and eventually more elaborate pieces. As furnaces became bigger over time, so did the work artists produced.

The Toledo Museum of Art realized the fruits of those pursuits four years later in 1966, after conducting a call for works to be featured in the first Toledo Glass National, a biennial exhibition featuring designer glass that was held through 1972.

“They expected maybe a dozen or so people,” says Jutta Page, the museum’s curator of glass and decorative arts, about the first exhibition. “There were 124 submissions.”

Indeed, the newfound artistic freedom inspired many and launched the careers of notable glass masters including Marvin Lipofsky, Ginny Ruffner, Tom McLaughlin and Dale Chihuly. Colorful works made famous by these artists and their predecessors will be showcased June 14 through Sept. 4 during “Color Ignited: Glass 1962–2012.” The exhibit will feature more than 80 pieces of glass, and focus on the evolution of color and technology, both in the specialty and at the museum.

“Initially, the artists were using industrial glass, broken lampshades, and whatever they could get of recycled glass that would determine the coloration of their pieces,” Page says.

“[In 1962] you could only blow something as large as the opening of the furnace,” she adds. “[The museum] now has a full-fledged, state-of-the-art facility in which to blow glass.”

Clearly, studio glassmaking has come a long way.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum will host a series of public workshops in June, taught by noted national artists. Among them is Fritz Dreisbach, a “second generation” artist who studied with Littleton at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dreisbach, along with Glass Pavilion studio manager Jeff Mack, will teach “Adventures in Glassblowing,” a study of masterworks for artists of all skill levels, June 9­–11. Other workshops will focus on sculpture, glass painting, four-dimensional works and glass casting.

Appropriately, Toledo also will host this year’s International Glass Arts Society Conference, June 13–16. Held at the SeaGate Convention Centre, the Huntington Center and other venues throughout the city, the four-day symposium will include lectures, tours, demonstrations, exhibits and an astounding glass fashion show that will draw collectors and artists from around the country to pay homage to the ornate art form.

It’s a fitting tribute to a city built on glass.

“Because of this anniversary, [glass] artists represented in our galleries are going to come,” says Page, who is also the vice president of the International Glass Arts Society.

There is little evidence left from the original workshops, save for a dozen or so surviving experimental pieces. At first glance, they appear to be the work of amateurs. Yet, says Page, the artists' contributions can be seen in museums, galleries, collectors' homes and in the hands of yesterday's and today's talented artisans around the world.

“Anything is possible with glass,” she adds. “It can become cookware, windowpanes, television screens or, thanks to the original Toledo workshops, extraordinary works of art.”

Toledo Museum of Art
2445 Monroe St., Toledo 43697
Hours: Tues.–Thurs. 10 a.m.–4 p.m., Fri.–Sat. 10 a.m.–6 p.m., Sun. 12–6 p.m.
Admission: Free