HARTFORD — Sixty years ago the American studio glass movement began to revolutionize the creation of glass in the U.S. — taking it from familiar factory-made objects, like milk bottles, to new types of sculpture and objects that broke the boundaries of traditional techniques.
“As technique is mastered, what do you have the freedom to do? Be creative and create — you’re no longer bound by the furnace or the flame, although it’s still a very unpredictable, finicky, and quite difficult, but magical material,” said Brandy Culp, curator of “Fired Up: Glass Today,” which opens on Sept. 16 at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art.
The show features more than 150 pieces from 57 contemporary glass artists working in a range of old and new methods — glass-blowing, casting, coldwork, hot sculpting, and flamework also known as lampwork.
Glass artists like Harvey K. Littleton, Marvin Lipofsky, Fritz Dreisbach and Dale Chihuly started their own glass studios in the 1960s and 1970s and traveled abroad to learn traditional glass making methods, especially the centuries-old Italian techniques by Venetian masters. A kind of exchange began as American glass artists invited Italian maestros to the U.S. to teach at glass studios, said Culp.
“They’re taking this 100-year-old tradition and they’re bringing it to the United States — and that is sort of the birth and the beginning of the flourishing,” she said. Besides the 60th anniversary of the American glass movement, the show marks 2022 as the United Nations International Year of Glass.
Artists in the show use glass as a means of expression, Culp said, but also for its ability to make bold social statements that “question cultural assumptions about sexuality, relationships, racial equality, and the environment.”
For Dan Friday, a member of the indigenous Lummi Nation, glass is a contemporary means of telling the stories of his great grandfather and the tribes of the San Juan Islands in the Puget Sound region — stories that were carved in wood and passed down by oral traditions.
His installation of nine sculpted and blown glass fish, “Schaenexw (Salmon) Run,” reflects the annual salmon run that he said is part of the tradition and culture of the Northwest tribes.
“My family are fishermen and have been fishermen for millennia. And now I catch my fish made out of glass — it’s a little different, but it’s a great way for me to help tell their story,” he said. “Glass kind of speaks to the fragility of salmon – they’re super strong and resilient but also have a tenuous existence.”
He said his tribe and others have revered salmon as their source of food for centuries — and glass has given him a means to bring the traditional stories into a contemporary format.
“I’ve been able to kind of stand at that intersection of where glass was such an old history, and coast Salish culture, with its own history kind of intersect and I can tell the story,” he said.
David Colton, whose piece“Untitled, 2022,” was created for the exhibition, began working with glass when he was traveling around with the Grateful Dead and finding glass pipes in parking lots.
“I just fell in love with that art and ended up buying a kind of starter kit during college and set up a little shed and taught myself the basics of flameworking,” he said. “And after the first five years of kind of teaching myself, I went to the Corning Museum of Glass to take some proper classes from instructors there.”
Colton said his work is rooted in early graffiti influences, traditional Venetian glassware and improvisational music.
According to Culp, the American cannabis pipe movement in the 1990s “drove new advances in lampworking, using new materials and methods.” The movement was mostly underground but was quashed by Operation Pipe Dreams after 9/11.
But Colton said he continued to work, “doing small stuff, big stuff and everything in between for the last twenty plus years,” leading to his creation of the first cannabis pipe to enter an art museum’s collection in 2019.
For Hannah Gibson, an artist from the U.K., the path to glass began with her study of geology where she discovered mineralogy and the qualities of elements and compounds. She uses glass to talk about sustainability and the impact of human activity on the environment.
Gibson casts recycled glass into robot-like shapes that she says people, especially children, can identify with, and that helps open a dialogue about glass — “where it came from, how it was made, where it ultimately ended up.”
A green “robot” piece called “Without Pixels Behind” is made from television glass screens. Also on display is Gibson’s “Sweet Nothings” was made from recycled insulin vials and “A Shattered Past,” created from car windshields.
She pointed to “A Tangible Hope” that she created with recycled COVID-19 vaccine vials, and said the current figure of how many glass vaccine vials have been used is billions worldwide.
“And truth be told, they end up in landfill — and so these can be recycled,” she said.
Fired Up: Glass Today opens on Sept. 16 and will be on view through February 5, 2023.
The show will include scheduled “hot shop” demonstrations and a variety of activities. For the full lineup of related programs, visit thewadsworth.org/firedup