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Commentary: Women are under-recognized in the field of glass arts

Nancy Kranzberg

A year or so ago, I was inspired by the magnificent Ostergaard Glass Galleries in the Palm Springs Art Museum in Palm Springs, California. I went on to talk about the wonderful glass pieces and a marvelous video documentary titled "Pilchuck: A Dance With Fire" which was playing just outside the glass galleries. The video told of how Pilchuck, the famous glassmaking center outside Seattle, was founded by the iconic Dale Chihuly and a few art friends in the counterculture days of the early 70s.

In my commentary, I went on to say how Seattle now rivals Venice, Italy as the glass capital of the world. I also touted St. Louis and its environs as having been a major force in the founding of the studio glass movement in the 1960s.Our own nationally famous glass artist, Sam Stang, says, "The American Studio Glass movement introduced the concept of artists using small scale furnaces to make glass themselves as opposed to the tradition of glass being made in factories where the glassmaker had no part in the design. The movement first appeared in the Midwest initially through universities, most notably SIU Carbondale with Bill Boyson.

The first commercial or private glass studio in St. Louis was founded by Sam Stang, David Levi and Dimitri Michaelides in 1985 and ran until 1992. Ibex was heavily influenced by contemporary European design and mid-century Venetian glass as well as the work of the early American studio glass pioneers.

I went on to mention the many now famous glass artists who went on to become nationally and internationally known names. Not a single woman glass artist was mentioned. It took another trip to the Palm Springs to open my eyes. A couple of months ago I saw another beautiful glass exhibition entitled "No Glass Ceiling! Women Working in Glass, Part 1"

The wall text says, "Women have always played an integral part in the American studio glass movement and they continue to expand the medium's possibilities through today's global communication and collaboration opportunities. Part 1 of this exhibition portrays the diverse working styles and intriguing range of concepts that women have expressed through the fluid medium of glass. Whether reaching back to cultural or historical perspectives and past innovations or, sharing technical and aesthetic content, these vital artists are creating versatile new approaches to the art form. By holding, emitting or reflecting light, the glass creations on view reveal extraordinary range and beauty."

St. Louis' Duane Reed of the Duane Reed Gallery says that contemporary glass has always been dominated by men, but about 25 years ago women entered the picture and began experimenting with more sculptural methods of making glass which opened many doors. Some of the Seattle girls such as Ginny Ruffner, Flora Mace and Sonja Blomdahl were at the forefront. We don't expect women to be involved in this somewhat dangerous and daring art medium.

The curators of the Palm Springs exhibition say, "Today the pioneering women in glass are receiving more recognition for their contributions and contemporary women glass artists are acknowledged as being equally original and productive as their male counterparts. Women have played a significant role in the chronicle of glassmaking."

The various methods of glassmaking amazed me. Christina Bothwell says, "After the glass firing, I cold-work the glass to remove the roughness and sharp edges and then I am ready to attach the fired ceramic parts to the polished glass portion of the piece. This is also the time I add any found objects that hold personal meaning to the piece, when I combine glass and clay, I use a lot of adhesives. I wear a huge respirator and avoid inhaling or touching any of the glues."

And Joey Kirkpatrick and Flora Mace say, "The process we use when making the glass fruit and vegetable forms is unique. Our approach evolved out of our experience using the two  dimensional painting tradition As in painting, we have learned to build layers of color by sifting colored crushed glass powders onto hot glass during the blowing process. It was exciting to find a method of "painting" onto three dimentional blown glass."

Karen LaMonte says, "The lost wax technique I have developed renders details as fine as the stitches of clothing, the warp and weft of the material, visible in the glass. I believe this level of detail invites an intimate relationship between the viewer and the sculpture. The double-walled castings suggest these two skins by intermittently making visible either the body or the clothing, depending on the play of light".

And probably the most well-known woman glass artist, Ginny Ruffner is known for her pioneering use of the flame-working or lamp-work technique in which glass is heated over a flame and then shaped with tools. In 1985 she began applying oil paint to her glass pieces which began her signature style. Ruffner has also expanded her work to include the use of metal and multi-media projects.

Doug Auer, co-founder of St. Louis's Third Degree Glass Factory on Delmar Blvd. says that the space was founded simply to create glass, but over 15 years, it has evolved into a growing community of glass artists sharing their passion for the craft. Jessica Kopitske, an artist at the center, says she had many female glass artist role models such as Sylvia Blomdahl. When I questioned her about women making glass she said, "Sometimes the role of being a female glass artist can feel quite challenging, both physically and mentally. The Italian tradition in which glassmakers are almost always male can make women glass artists feel like they are breaking into a boys club. Working with fire, getting sweaty, grungy and dirty don't necessarily equate with typical feminine characteristics.

Let's hear it for the girls, not only in making glass art but making all kinds of art and doing great things all over the planet.

Nancy Kranzberg has been involved in the arts community for more than thirty years on numerous arts related boards.

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