(Friends, I'm trying something a bit different in this post, the photos illustrate the story, but each is its own 'journey' so, for ease of reading, the blog might be read through first, then one might wish to go back and study the photos and their links)
I have Mrs. Rachel Wright to thank for more than the title of this blog post. Her amazingly rich, beautifully detailed needlework was also part of the inspiration for its content. To see more of her pieces please click on her photo "Nanook King of the Ice" above. To learn more about "delighting the eye" continue on....
Growing up in Southeast Alaska, a physical environment rich in inspiration, we spent countless hours playing on beaches where tide pools became worlds in which ‘bullheads’ ruled over hermit crabs, seaweed was nature’s bubble wrap (and made for a musical, if slippery, walk down the strand) and the search for sea anemones was a never ending Easter egg hunt.
Woods and salmonberry thickets provided forts and ‘provisions’ to be gathered-in “before the storms came” (a favorite game). When the creeks filled with salmon in the fall, we splashed and slid over rocks trying to catch the slippery critters bare handed. In this world there was not enough daylight (even in an Alaskan summer) to do all there was to do.
If you look carefully you can see that the areas of 'black water' are actually thousands of salmon waiting below the waterfall for the tide to come in far enough that they can get above the falls and into the fish ladder leading to the Burnett Inlet salmon hatchery. My first few summers out of high school were spent cooking for and, later, working on the "egg take crew". I figure I helped 'birth' hundreds of thousands of pink, dog, and coho salmon in those four years.
We had no internet, and very little contact (compared to present day) with the ‘outside world’ and, as such, were limited in our exposure to arts and crafts. Local artists - Tlingit bead workers and carvers who, at the time, were struggling to keep their arts alive - and the few library books and television shows (sent to the village by videotape and broadcast from the school to the community two weeks behind the rest of the country) were our richest sources of artistic examples.
This lamp was made by my father who, though not Tlingit, had great pride in his Athapascan (a more northerly Alaskan native tribe) roots. He loved being able to combine techniques and materials (the piece of wood held by the beaver was found near a beaver pond and had actual beaver teeth marks in it). He passed away shortly before kiln formed glass became the rage, but I often think he would have made spectacular 3-D creations combining fused and stained glass. I love that I can carry on his passion for glass - I just wish he'd shared his drawing and painting abilities as well!
Now, decades later, I can spend an eternity following one rabbit trail after another online and never see a fraction of the information, inspiration, and sheer genius that exists in the human family.
Ceramics and kiln glass have many commonalities, and yet are quite different. Ceramic artists have a much more pliable medium to work with but ceramic and glass artists both cry when things blow up in the kiln. Above is the marvelous work of Jennifer McCurdy who has pushed the limits of the porcelain she's come to know so well. For more of her airy, gravity-defying pieces please click on the photo above to visit her website.
Which leads me to an argument I’ve been having with myself, the answer to which was neatly summed up in a TED talk I stumbled across recently. The question of “at what point can one be considered an artist?” has been one I’ve struggled with for a lifetime. What many consider to be art – oil paintings, sculpture, and symphonic music come to mind – tends to leave out a gargantuan population of ‘craftsmen’ who’s creations are birthed from a place that demands no less discipline, joy, frustration, and compulsion as those more ‘formal’ arts.
This hot mess was created at the intersection of compulsion and inspiration - which resulted in no little amount of frustration. Sometimes a great idea (trying to capture "bubbles" in glass in a new way) turns into a not-so-lovely piece of scrap....though I do have an idea....(and so another experiment is born).
So, at what point does a hobbyist become a craftsman and a craftsman an artist? Jamie “Mr X” Chalmers summed it up nicely in his TED talk: “Why X Stitch is Important” (have a listen – it’s funny AND inspirational – and gave me even further insight into how my husband has the patience to cross stitch his way across YARDS of aida). In a nutshell Mr. X says a hobbyist buys the kit, the craftsman begins to tweak it to his own liking (and may perfect the mechanics of the medium as well), but the artist develops a new pattern – one that tells HIS (or her) own story and presents their view of the world. I was thrilled to realize that, in time, I could get to the ‘art’ end of the spectrum – even without writing an opera or sculpting another “David”!
Another, more important, piece of Mr. Chalmers’ talk was this idea that art (in his case, needlework) can make real, substantial changes in how the artist sees the world and their place in it (really, please, go listen to the talk!).
In poking around the MrXStitch website further I came across some really luscious, delightful needlework by Rachel Wright (remember Nanook - the polar bear - at the top of the page?) who I then followed over to her website. She’s summed up beautifully the “why” that I’ve been struggling to describe about my own work with glass…"to delight the eye”. How perfect is that?
Rachel Wright's beautiful needlework is the product of patience and determination. Her account of creating this marvelous view of the 'streets' of Venice can be found by clicking on the photo above. Venice is, of course, a dangerous place for a Magpie to visit - so many sparkling colors and rich textures - which Mrs. Wright has captured here so perfectly!
It may come from growing up in a more innocent age, in a place where life was fairly simple and at times achingly beautiful - but after all is said and done the greatest source of joy when presenting my work to others is to see their face light up, to know that I have ‘delighted the eye’ of the viewer, and perhaps brought a little lift to their heart as well.
"Borrowing" from ancient artists, I make a clay cast of a local petroglyph. The clay was bisque fired and coated with a release. I added subtle 'embossed' details including cedar, dogwood and seaweed to a sheet of iridescent glass, then the whole piece was fired over the clay form resulting in this glass version of the petroglyph.
In a sometimes heavy world, isn’t it nice to know that we can all be artists in our own right and bring a little beauty, inspiration and delight to those around us (and those – thanks to the webs – half a world away!)?
I recently received a really fun email which began...
"Let the happy dancing commence!! ... we're excited to include you in our artist lineup for the Slumpy's 2017 catalog! "
Squeal and happy dance!
As a 'new-ish' glass artist, I'm still collecting things like slumping forms and tools and have become a fan (and ardent supporter) of a number of glass art supply companies (none of whom are providing compensation to me or to Magpie & Squid for mention here, but some of whom I'll add to the growing list of "Favorite Resources and Inspirations" found beside this blog*). Slumpy's has become a go-to favorite for forms so I was excited when I stumbled across their call for submissions of glass art for their new catalog.
As a self-proclaimed ambassador for Southeast Alaska and our lovely rainforest, I've enjoyed capturing the lacy frothyness of yellow cedar, the fat, round harvest of blueberry branches, spears of deer fern punching through the rich carpet of moss - and translating them into pieces which forever memorialize our lush flora using the fossil vitra technique. Naturally, when it came time to chose pictures for submission to Slumpy's, I couldn't resist doing a little 'advertising' of my own and sent them a number of fossil vitra pieces featuring Alaskan flora.
"Fossil Vitra" has been around for a few years - the first mention of the technique, that I have found, was in a tutorial by Paul Tarlow on FusedGlass.org (which is also an outstanding resource for fused glass artists) and was one of the first that I began playing with after getting the kiln up and running. It requires the sacrifice of whichever frond or leaf one is using in the piece, as part of the process 'burns out' the organic matter, leaving just a faint imprint of a stem and the 'ghost' of the leaf as defined by the glass powder.
The process of creating a 'glass fossil' begins with the harvest which, for some reason, nearly always happens in the pouring rain - at the end of the summer when I realize that my supply is low and I'll not get through the winter if I don't rush out RIGHT NOW and gather in the leaves. It's also important to note that all of the harvest takes place on our personal property - there are laws to be followed when harvesting items for sale from the Tongass (our nation's largest National Forest at 17 million acres) so, even though we can see the Tongass from our house, the plants we use are our own.
After the harvest, the leaves, fronds and branches are layered between paper towels and pressed. Making glass fossils is easier with dry, stiff organics - which not only hold their shape better, but are less likely to dump their load of glass powder on the kiln shelf before they're properly arranged. Dry material also burns more quickly and cleanly in the kiln.
The Slumpy's catalog pieces begin with arranging fronds and branches on the kiln shelf after they've been coated with glass powders. When layering (as in the upper corners), the pieces closest to the kiln shelf will be the ones in the fore-front of the finished sheet of glass.
White and icy blues are the theme today. Don't the white branches look like they've been visited by Jack Frost?
One can just see the fronds beneath the cobalt blue sheet glass. With the layers in place, it's time to get this load cooking.
The finished sheet after being scrubbed free of remaining ash from the leaves. Note the white cedar branches are now 'in front' of the fronds which had been layered on top of them in the kiln setup.
From this angle one can see the imprint of the deer fern and the 'ghost' of the glass powder behind the imprint. Depending upon the final product and subsequent firings the actual imprint may be lost but the glass powder will remain forever, a fossilized" snapshot of Alaska's mighty rainforest.
After the initial sheet has been cut to fit a mold, capped with a piece of clear sheet glass and re-fired, the images of the leaves and branches seem to 'float', captured within the glass. These 'blanks' will return to the kiln a final time to be 'slumped' into their final shape - in this case a trio of serving pieces that will be featured in a Slumpy's catalog! Stay tuned for those pictures sometime in the spring.
One final shot of the blue glass - still in the kiln - with a reflection of a cedar tree growing just outside the studio on it's surface, and the early - winter snow, which was the inspiration for the color scheme, in the background.
As winter sets in and the holiday rush becomes a distant memory it's a comfort to know that I've a pile of leaves to play with - the memory of summer's bounty to use in creating pieces which will bring the beauty of our Tongass to homes across the country, perhaps even around the world!
What are YOU looking forward to doing in the new year?
* The fine folks at Slumpy's DID send me three slumping molds as part of the process for making pieces for their upcoming catalog - but it was in no way a payment for mention in this article (worked out well for them, though, didn't it?).
I'm Kris Reed, the Magpie, a lifelong Alaskan, lover of all things sparkly and giddy about glass,
Favorite Resources & Inspirations
WHERE TO FIND SUPPLIES
Slumpy's (forms, tools)
Bullseye (glass, fusing supplies)
D&L Art Glass (ALL the glass stuff)
Mulberry Paper (YES, paper!)
Goulet Pens (It's not glass, but it IS glass pens - and ink)
INSPIRE ME! colors, textures
Judy Clement Wall - Art
Evgeny Hontor Figurines
Hitomo Hosono Ceramics
Jennifer McCurdy Ceramics
MrXStitch ALL Needlecrafts
Rachel Wright Needlework