Thursday, March 25, 2010

Homage to Robert Leatherbarrow

I'm a glass artist, but I don't like glass... well, of course I love glass but from a purely personal aesthetic glass for me is like the dumb blond stereotype - very alluring but with little substance. Some of your hard core fine art critiques see it this way too. It is too easy to make something beautiful when glass is the medium. It actually takes very little skill to produce a nice trinket, bowl, or simple craft item. Another part of the problem with glass achieving a fine art status is its deep roots in the crafts and its focus on functionality over expression. Glass is just too darn utilitarian and beautiful for its own good to be taken seriously in the classical fine art sense. The innate beauty of glass can easily detract from an overall composition if not controlled in some manner.

This might sound aloof or somewhat snooty, but when you spend a lot of time doing something and spend a lot of money on it along the way, I feel you should be critical with what you are doing on your journey. It is all to easy to be misguided and off target with your work. These next two posts explore motivations and directions along the way of my creative travels.

I started my glass journey over fifteen years ago doing stained glass, but very quickly became disinterested in the cut and paste and puzzle piecing process of leading together the interlocking positive and negative shapes.When I started fusing the cut and paste mentality was used more often than not by most practitioners and still is today. So the journey for me was to explore what else could be done beyond cut and paste. Don't get me wrong, cut and paste processes are an endless journey in their own right if that's your path. Just take the work of Klaus Moje for example who some call the grandfather of kiln forming.

I was looking for a more organic or naturalistic look, something along the lines of polished stone agates. My attempts where all failures in early years, and realized that achieving anything close to my goals via kilnforming was going to be a very difficult journey. In the end I achieved the most success through torchwrork and casting, and very limited success in the kiln. Back in the early days of the Warm Glass forum I found discussion of the work of Mr.Leatherbarrow intriguing and spent many hours trying to figure out how he accomplished his free flowing fractured looked, but never did figure it out (see image above). It was a very guarded secret back then. He now teaches the effect, and I believe his students are part of a secret society of Leatherbarrowers. Just kidding of course, but the technique still is a bit of a secret I believe.

Some of the naturalistic effects I did achieve via kilnforming centered around the use of copper, mica, and the use of iridescent glass (images left and right).

Time marches on and paths change. I'm now preparing to start a new series of glass powder painting and have put aside my attempts to duplicate the wondrous detail found is polished stone. Quite by accident however, and partly because of a studio partner's influence, I came across a method to duplicate Mr Leatherbarrow's fracture effect (see below). Far too late for my Circular Obsession sculpture series, but satisfying nonetheless since I don't like failing in the brain teasing exercise of backward engineering what others have accomplished.

 I will be teaching my approach to the technique in future classes. It is amazingly simple. I found that I could obtain fine grain control over the size of the cracks and the overall amount of fracturing. The fractured area can change in color and in thickness,enabling endless design opportunities. Since it is so easy to do I will have no problem teaching the effect, and then the rest of the class will be exploring different ways to employ it and the many other off shots of powder and wafer techniques.

My glass art journey has been mostly about how to create a balance or contrapuntal composition between the beauty of glass and the overall form within which it is was presented. For my Circular Obsessions sculpture series the overall form had to have interesting textural elements, a sense of visual and physical weight, and interesting surface detailing in order to achieve an integral whole with the all too showy glass components of the design.

Having completed many years of kilnforming explorations I'm finding the use of powders the most promising and the least cut and paste like glass process. I now have control over color, gradation, texture, and a free-form physicality of actually applying painterly strokes with a brush at times. I'm finding that it can be a very painterly-like process if you don't mind wearing a dust mask. Allowing the arm to sway, the hand to arc and the fingers to control the flow of powders is essential in experiencing a sense of color in motion as you build the image layer by layer. I hope to achieve something of a fine art quality in my glass powder painting series, and I believe that might be possible, in part, because the paintings will not look like glass.

My series of glass powder paintings will be done on large glass slabs with naturalistic stone-like edging. The boarding edges will be clear glass, and the painting will gradually build in opacity towards the center of the slab. As in the sculpture series I am back to balancing the overall presenting form (the glass slab in this case) with the glass within it (the powder painting). This time however the powder painting is totally unrecognizable as glass. In a very odd way my tendency to control the showiness of glass has resulted in camouflaging its innate glassiness altogether while at the same time, I feel, liberating the artist to use the medium without the typical constraints that glass imposes as a medium

The cut and paste heritage of glass is totally gone, and a satisfying victory on my journey; the multitude of complications of hot working glass are eliminated; and most importantly I can mix any color to any desired hue and gradation without concern of chemical interactions between the colors (when heated), resulting in turning my blended colors to brown.

This Spring I will be taking a journey down the Mississippi to the bluff country of southeast Minnesota. Very early in the spring just as the leaves are budding each tree has a subtly different favor of green forming a blanket of soft pastel tints of spring green. This with the azure of water and sky will form the basis of my next series..