The Dayton Art Institute celebrates Ohio’s role in the studio glass movement.
Christopher Ries knows the importance of keeping a cool head, keen eye and steady hand with each piece he sets out to create. One slip of the saw, and there’s a good bet the Pennsylvania glass sculptor’s vision of what he wants his work to look like will shatter.
“The physicality and intense concentration of working with glass is very seductive,” Ries says. “You hold your breath with every cut. If you lose focus, six months’ worth of work can be destroyed in an instant.”
More often than not, Ries’ artistry prevails. His 1,100-pound sculpture, “Sunflower IV” is a focal point of “Dayton Celebrates Glass: Chihuly, Littleton, Labino and Beyond” at The Dayton Art Institute. The 50-work retrospective, which is on exhibit through Sept. 28, honors the pioneers of the studio glass movement in America — one that began in a garage on the Toledo Museum of Art grounds 52 years ago.
The exhibition also showcases pieces from contemporary artists dedicated to shaping the medium in new ways. Objects on display include a life-size glass kimono, a 6-foot-long glass boat, even a miniature glass diner filled with tiny glass utensils and food.
“When I arrived at the museum, I asked everyone I met, from people at the grocery store to bank tellers, what kind of exhibit they would like [us] to host,” recalls
Aimee Marcereau DeGalan, The Dayton Art Institute’s curator of collections and exhibitions. She spent three years as curator at Vermont’s Fleming Museum before accepting her current position in 2012. “The resounding response was ‘glass.’ It seems that everyone remembers the beauty of the Dale Chihuly show we had in 2001. They wanted to see more of that medium.”
Although the creation of glass dates back to ancient Mesopotamia more than 3,000 years ago, Toledo is credited with finding creative new uses for the fragile material. Home to a variety of glass manufacturers — including Libbey and Johns Manville — Toledo has embraced its nickname, The Glass City, since the 1880s. But the objects the city was known for a century or so ago were predominately mass-produced household items, ranging from windowpanes to goblets to light bulbs.
That emphasis shifted on a blustery March morning in 1962 when 10 artists gathered at the Toledo Museum of Art for a symposium conducted by ceramics teacher Harvey Littleton. Their goal was to figure out a way to create works from molten glass in a small studio. Success was predicated on the furnace developed by artist Dominick Labino, director of research at Johns Manville.
In Color Ignited: Glass 1962–2012, co-author Jutta-Annette Page, curator of glass and decorative arts at the Toledo Museum of Art, wrote about those initial efforts.
“This was like witnessing the birth of a renaissance for creative glass working in this country. … The secrets of glassmaking do not reveal themselves readily; one will find that it requires a great deal of time, thorough study of the material itself, hard work and persistence to create in the finished object the brilliant and exciting effects which can be achieved with color.”
A second class followed two months later, and a new form of artistic expression ignited.
“Their achievement is set against the backdrop of the ’60s, where there was experimentation — a lot of experimentation with many things,” says Marcereau DeGalan. “Those who began the studio glass art movement were committed to pushing the boundaries early on and figuring it out as they went along.”
Artists throughout the country became caught up with the new form of expression. One of the earliest disciples, Seattle-based glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, is known for his colorful orbs and towers that are focal points in Columbus’ Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Fourteen pieces of his work are showcased in the current Dayton exhibition.
Marcereau DeGalan, whose specialty is 18th-century British and French Old Master paintings, admits that researching contemporary glass was a bit of a stretch. But, she’s quick to add, it was time well spent.
“There’s something that’s so accessible for everyone about this medium,” the curator says. “It’s particularly fascinating for me coming at it from the perspective of painting. When you study painting techniques and specific artists, you learn they are trying to achieve a realistic effect of light and three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional form. Through painting shadows around objects to give the illusion of form, [they] establish perspective or
“Glass artists are concerned with the same thing, only they are working with actual light and determining how to manipulate glass in an attempt to reflect or refract it ... such as leaving some areas of glass rough so that it absorbs or traps light or by polishing other areas so that light is refracted.”
Ries, who earned his bachelor of fine arts degree from The Ohio State University in 1975, served as the institution’s first glass instructor before earning a master of fine arts degree at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He understands the art form’s allure and marvels at the medium’s potential.
For “Sunflower IV,” the artist cooled the glass for four months in his studio to minimize potential stress fractures before starting work on it. Then, Ries spent more than 1,800 hours slowly carving and etching the glass to translucence, before polishing, oil painting and gilding each flower petal with 24K gold leaf. His second offering for the exhibition, “Spring,” resembles a tulip replete with a vibrant, kaleidoscopic palette of pink hues.
“I hope visitors to the exhibition take away a sense of joy and respect for glass as a material,” Ries says. “Looking at the play of color and light is mentally stimulating and extremely emotional. The beauty is so intense that you can get lost in the moment.”
WHEN YOU GO:
The Dayton Art Institute
456 Belmonte Park N., Dayton 45405
Hours: Tues.–Fri. 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Sat. 10 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. noon–5 p.m.
Admission: Adults $12, students 18+ with ID $9, children 7–17 $6, museum members and children 6 and under free