Artistry on Fire
Some of America’s leading high tech, biotech and aerospace companies are based in and around Seattle, Washington. Yet hidden away in a dense forest of Douglas fir and cedar trees about 50 miles north of the city’s downtown is a tiny community whose simple life style is closer to that practiced in medieval Europe, centuries ago.
Dale Chihuly and William Morris / Credit:
Pilchuck Glass School
Click image to enlarge.
From early morning until late at night this is a world of glowing furnaces, hissing oxygen-acetylene torches spewing blue flames, long blow pipes tipped with globs of molten and red hot glass being poured by hand from ladles into molds.
Welcome to the Pilchuck Glass School. Here from late April through late September, master glass artists from places like Italy, the Czech Republic, Japan, Sweden and Australia as well as from the U.S. come as teachers, attracting student-artists from all over 70 countries.
In a series of six highly intensive 11-18 day sessions these established artists advance their skills in what is being hailed as the next stage of the development of glass as a medium of self-expression. There’s no question that along with artistic satisfaction, artists are increasingly incorporating glass into their work. Wealthy collectors, museums, corporate art programs and ordinary citizens who admire and appreciate works of glass art are fueling an unprecedented interest in the development of the medium from an enclave of the art world to an integral part of contemporary art.
Each October, for example, the Pilchuck School, a non-profit institution, holds an auction of glass art objects donated by some 150 glass artists to generate funds to help support it. Top pieces last year fetched as much as $60,000. In that one evening, last year’s event grossed $1.2 million. While impressive, that amount represented only about one third of the school’s annual operating budget.
Still, for their few days at Pilchuck, the students, each paying around $4,000 for just one 18-day class and their basic supplies, room and board, aren’t thinking about the commercial side of their work, says James Baker, executive director of the school, "It's about learning new skills, experimenting, expressing ideas. The most successful Pilchuck students with a head full of new ideas and hands full of models that later in their home studios will become finished pieces of art to be exhibited in galleries and museums." He does admit, though, that “there are probably more collectors of glass now than at any time in modern history and most importantly an increasing number of contemporary art collectors who see glass as a fine art medium.”
Pilchuck Glass School takes its name from the Chinook Indian trading jargon word believed to mean “red water.” It was co-founded in 1971 by a 30-year old glass artist named Dale Chihuly along with the patronage of John Hauberg and Anne Gould Hauberg. He had a $2,000 grant from the Union of Independent Colleges of Art, now called the Association of Independent College of Art and Design, to set up some sort of center where glass artists could work. Two friends backed the idea by acquiring and eventually donating some 54-acres in what was then – and still is -- a tree farm not far from the then tiny village of Stanwood, Washington.
Despite living under primitive conditions in the forest, by the end of that summer, Chihuly’s two teachers and 16 students had built glass furnaces and were blowing glass. The Pilchuck Glass School was born and Chihuly has gone on to become one of the most successful and professionally acclaimed artists in the world.
Today, the Pilchuck complex is a thriving school with a dynamic summer and fall program, as well as a series of residences. The summer session changes every year. “No session is ever the same,” says one staffer. Session have themes loosely centered around concepts such as “Identity,” “Materiality,” and “Exploration.” Classes offered this summer include such topics as Vitrecoustics and Beyond (glassblowing, flame working, sound and ‘tinkering’), Glitchcraft (glassblowing, mold blowing, 3-D printing, hot casting, computer modeling and design) and Glass Vestiges (kiln casting, mold making and pate de verre).
Instructors and Artists in Residence have been selected for their distinctive relationship to their session’s keyword, the school points out. “The themes act as a campus wide parameter, outlining the focus of each course and providing a collective springboard for thoughtful interpretation and the creation of pieces infused with content,” it says.
The concepts that rise from the exploration of course themes will be realized with hot and cold glass in areas such as glassblowing, hot-glass sculpting, sand and kiln-casting, fusing, neon, painting, flame working, printmaking, mixed media sculpture, engraving, 3D modeling, printing and electronics
Pilchuck’s Hotshop, Annex, Studio Building, Printshop, Flatshop, Woods and Metal Studio and Botlab are staffed by experienced coordinators to facilitate an almost limitless exploration of the material.
As these class titles suggest, working with glass as an artistic media is a very exciting material and have many applications in the studio says Tina Aufiero, artistic director. “Glass blowing requires skill and discipline, taking years to master form,” she says.
Blowing glass is also very much a team effort, she points out. A primary glass blower who may or may not be the actual designer of a piece is referred to as a “gaffer.” That individual will have two or three assistants who work much like members of a hospital surgical team. When the gaffer sits on a bench with the blow pipe in hand, his team members without being directed hand him the various tools needed to shape the molten glass being formed. “Artist in Residence invited to the sessions have the opportunity to work with the gaffers,” says Ms Aufiero.
Fred Tschida in the Neon Studio / Credit:
Pilchuck Glass School
Click image to enlarge.
The legacy of the Artist in Residence Program dates back to the beginning of the school. Over the years, hundreds of notable artists from a wide range of artistic disciplines have come to Pilchuck to explore how glass can factor into their practice and visual vocabulary. Artists and collaborative groups are invited for each session and provided with their own artist assistant, who acts as a translator, giving technical guidance and assistance in the studio.
AIRs, Instructors, students and assistant work on the “pad,” the floor of glass blowing center or “hot shop” as it is known. Quietly ‘purring’ next to each other are two furnaces (one fueled by propane, the other by electricity), each holding up to hundreds of pounds of glass heated to 2,200 degrees F and coming out with the consistency of molten lava. Clear pellets of glass are shoveled into the furnace at the end of each day to supply the artists with their raw material.
Around the perimeter of the working area are smaller reheating ovens, called “glory holes,” Fueled by propane gas and reaching temperatures of 2,500 degrees F, these ovens are used to reheat over and over objects being formed by the glass blower. When a piece, be it a bowl, a platter, a vase, goblet or sculpture, is completed, another assistant dons a silver fire retardant coat and a huge face mask, the kind of protective gear used by fire fighters. So shielded from the heat of the finished piece of art work he or she carries it over to one of a bank of annealing ovens, informally referred to as “hot boxes.” There to prevent stress and breakage, the piece will gradually cool down at a rate of 24 hours per one inch of thickness.
“The hot shop is a confluence of traditional glass blowing techniques and examples of individual expression and artistic exploration,” says Ms Aufiero.
While the two hot shops are admittedly the school’s “glamor” center, there’s plenty of action in the other shops. At one, flat glass plates are the media for the production of prints called vitreographs. In the kiln studio, glass is cast while in another shop, a high intensity flame from a torch fixed to a work table is used to form intricate shapes, a process called “flame working.” Elsewhere glass is etched or subject to sand blasting. Says Baker, “Anything you would want to explore in another media you can explore in glass.”
Pilchuck received 750 applications for the Summer Program this year. Approximately 300 staff positions and class openings are available each year, a clear reflection of the school’s stature as perhaps the premiere institution of its kind.
Artists at Pilchuck may work long hours at their craft since there are no fixed class hours. Shops are open from as early as 6 a.m. and it’s not unusual for the hot shop to be busy with glass blowers at midnight. There is usually one day off during a session for students to rest. “Pilchuck provides an alternative learning environment to the weekly class structure,” Ms Aufiero says, “Students are immersed into an environment of making, they work independently and collaboratively realizing ideas.” Although Pilchuck does not give out college credit, the time in a session is equal to a traditional class of three credits. Those interested to gain credit for time spent in a Summer course may apply through Cornish College of the Arts.
While the School is located in a remote section of Snohomish County, living conditions are anything but Spartan. The campus provides dormitory living and cottages for students and individual housing for seasonal staff. Two professional chefs and their kitchen staff prepare tasty meals served buffet style. “For two and a half weeks we want these people to have absolute freedom and not worry about accommodations or food or commuting. Here they can step away from their regular lives and concentrate solely on their art,“ says Baker.
Norman Sklarewitz brings to travel a solid background in hard-news reporting.
This includes staff positions as a Far East Correspondent for The Wall Street
Journal based in Tokyo and L.A. Bureau Chief with U.S. News & World Report. As a
foreign correspondent, he reported on major international events throughout
Asia, including the Vietnam War.