With approximately 1,200 registered attendees, an increase of approximately 200 over the 2011 conference, the annual gathering of the glass tribe officially got underway on Thursday, June 14th with a full schedule of opening ceremonies, lifetime achievement awards, and opportunities to socialize, held in the Toledo Museum of Art‘s epic peristyle theater. The setting for the 43rd annual Glass Art Society conference is Toledo, Ohio, birthplace of the Studio Glass movement exactly 50 years ago, when a workshop at the museum here proved that glass could be blown by an individual working out of a small-scale furnace through two seminars led by Harvey Littleton. As of Friday, the conference is well underway, with the usual mix of demonstrations, lectures, and technical display attended by artists from around the world who are ferried by shuttle bus between the conference center, Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Art, and Jack Schmidt Studios, a local hotshop.
After a morning of demonstrations and panels, Thursday, the first official conference day, was devoted to a roster of official speeches, from Ohio State Representative Teresa Fedor, who brought official recognition and commendations from the state house of the 50th anniversary of Studio Glass, to Brian Kennedy, the director of the Toledo Museum of Art who delivered an extensive and exhilarating exhortation for artists to seek innovation, one of the themes of this year’s conference. Museum of Glass director Brian Kennedy delivered a lengthy and ambitious keynote address synthesizing business theory on innovation with art criticism and history, analyzing the founding of the Studio Glass Movement in relation to groundbreaking ideas in manufacturing. He ended with the instructive example of Jules Olitski, who has a major exhibition at the museum and whose explorations of the medium of paint were not unlike some of the material investigation of the early glass artists. Kennedy ended by paraphrasing the great painter’s words, applying them to glass: “What is important in glassmaking is glass, what glass does, and what glass can do. I’d like to congratulate the Glass Art Society, the artists, the dealers, the scholars , the writers, the art lovers present. Thank you for your attention. Here’s to you, contemporary glass, and to whoever wants to play with it.”
Jeremy Lepisto, GAS president, was the composed master of ceremonies undercutting the gravitas of the Toledo Museum of Art’s monumental Greek-style theater with his understated humor (cue heartfelt applause), and he doled out time at the microphone to this year’s award winners, starting with gifts of his own artwork to this year’s co-chairs Jack Shmidt, Margy Trumbull, and Herb Babcock. John Steinert was called to the stage next to accept a Lifetime Membership Award, which he graciously accepted with warm wishes for his family and the assembled glass world.
The 2012 Lifetime Achievement Award was shared by Joel Philip Myers and Bertil Vallien, each of whom offered thoughtful and moving presentations recounting formative events in their careers and lives. “I regard the esteem of my colleagues the highest compliment I could hope to achieve in my profession,” said Myers. “I thank the board of GAS and I thank professor Harvey Littleton without whose efforts and foresight I would not have had an almost-50-year career in glass.” Breaking up his career into ten-year periods, with interludes of slides in between, he methodically described each chapter, from early years as a designer to his life-changing studies in Denmark, where he met his wife and decided to pursue a career in ceramics. While still a masters student at Alfred, the first glass graduate student at the institution, he was hired as design director of Blenko Glass in West Virginia, where he would spend seven years perfecting his skills as a glass artist on his lunch hours. He would go on to an academic career, founding the glass department at Illinois State University.
“How lucky to be born in the 1950s and have the opportunities, to be a young designer working in NYC,” said Myers. “How lucky to go to Denmark to study and find love. How lucky to be standing here today having taken part in a new history and having helped shape that history from the beginning. I know about luck, luck has taught me to be grateful and approach challenges with light and humor.”
Bertil Vallien followed Myers with a more free form presentation, touching on themes and experiences that have formed his career and appreciation for the unique expressive qualities of glass. He vividly described his experience as a young soldier riding in the Swedish calvary and the bitter cold when the horses were scared away by a shooting exercise. He remembers carrying snow in bread pans, his first experience with mold making. And the cold and ice transformed by fire, images that melted into one another as deftly as any spoken-word performer.
“Glass is never as beautiful as when it’s hot,” said Vallien “when it’s glowing. Transformation from heat to ice, that notion gave an idea.” The artist was unsparing when describing technical driven work that has no content within it. “Work must have content!”
Vallien said that it was not so much the transparency of glass that is its power, but its ability to partially obscure. “An area of fascination for me is what is hidden,” he said. That is what attracted me to the material, how glass can be a prison, capture something inside, not that it is clean.”
The conference continues through Saturday, June 16th, with a follow-up Day of Glass in nearby Detroit on Sunday the 17th.