The way glass is made, in itself, seems like alchemy, or a seemingly miraculous process.Considered the oldest of manmade materials, glass is formed by a molten meeting of four natural elements: earth (sand, sodium and lime), fire, air and, often, water to cool.The outcome is a material that offers endless possibilities, from functional items such as drinking ware to sublime works such as stained-glass windows.
Though no one is sure where and by whom glass was first discovered, glassmaking dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, about 4,500 years ago, says Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. Over time, glass artisans developed many methods to shape glass heated to the consistency of chewing gum.
Glass blowing, while the most theatrical to watch, may not be the oldest one. Casting molten glass in premade blank molds, similar to pottery-making techniques, may be even older. (In ancient times, glassmakers burnt down entire forests heating their glass-melting furnaces. When out of fuel, they picked up and moved on to fresher fields, which is how glassmaking was disseminated worldwide.)
As old as glass is, contemporary artisans still are finding ways to create new expressions of beauty with it.
At the 11th Annual International Exposition of Sculpture, Objects & Functional Art, held Nov. 5-7 in Chicago, patrons saw what the imagination of contemporary artists has wrought in glass.
Though media of every kind - from furniture in rare woods to jewelry in precious metals - was represented there, SOFA still is considered the most important exhibition of art glass in the world.
Visitors saw shimmering blown glass by greats such as American Dale Chihuly and Venetian Lino Tagliapietra, but there was examples of various other techniques as well.
A key innovator in kiln-formed glass is German-born Klaus Moje, regarded by many as the most distinguished artist working with glass in Australia today. In his hands, the results of the kiln-formed mosaic techniques with which he has experimented for more than three decades has a fluidity that exceeds earlier traditions.
"My starting point is colored sheet glass that I cut with a glass cutter into strips and fuse them with heat into a solid piece," Moje explains. "Cooled down to room temperature, they are laid over a mold and heated up again to where the glass gets soft and sinks into the mold. Finally, it is the grinding of the surface that produces the sharp distinction between the different colors and raises the linear effect."
Early on, Moje was not comfortable with glass blowing, he says, "because the initial design can become fluid and lose its direction." In German glass schools, he came in contact with "masters in cutting, painting and engraving who planted a seed in me," he says. "The discipline was set - the love for a material, the wish to overcome limitations, to break through the resistance of this material."
When he moved to Australia to seek new horizons artistically, he came across aboriginal art with its repeated color patterns.
"For me aboriginal art was the most important discovery and definitely has been and is a major influence," Moje says. "It is not so much the imagery but the magic that is taking me into its spell."
Aesthetics over function
Czech artist Frantisek Vizner's great interest in the vessel form, says his daughter, Ida, was also influenced by his early apprenticeship and work experience in his native land.
After working for a factory with a hot glass master, he found the "cold" technique of cut glass "to be more interesting and challenging," adds Ida Vizner, who translated for her father. "He started thinking that it would be interesting to look at the vessel from the aesthetic point of view, rather than a functional one."
He creates his minimalist sculptures working alone with a grindstone, putting great emphasis on color in the glass, which he gets from a specialized glass factory in the Czech Republic, and experimenting with different shapes in different colors to capture the interaction between color, shape and light.
United Kingdom artist Tessa Clegg is also harnessing a traditional technique to bring something innovative to her art. Her newest work is done by the labor-intensive lost-wax technique, normally associated with casting metal. Making a series of molds of plaster, wood or clay is necessary to make colored lids or inserts to complete or punctuate a shape.
"I'm one of the few people who work with the vessel form, although abstracted," she says. "I love the way color comes through the transparent bubbles and veils.
"I set up a situation in the kiln, close the lid and the forces of gravity and heat form the glass. Sometimes it is such a good surprise. Sometimes it is a disaster."
While new takes on ancient techniques is one trend in art glass, there is something even more startling going on.
"There is more interest in mixed media, in adding new dimensions," Oldknow says. "Everything from dirt, fabric, living things, water, all kinds of materials are being mixed with glass." Experimentation with the material is adding different textures. It is all part of their wish to use glass as an artistic medium in sculpture."
One of the most arresting is that of Seattle artist Mary Van Cline, known internationally for her combination of glass and photography in large-scale assemblages and sculptures in which she addresses themes of time and space. Van Cline has developed a technique similar to the photographic processes at the turn of the 19th century that used glass treated with light-sensitive emulsions. Van Cline's process, however, is a glass positive with an emulsion on it.
As a pioneer for putting photographic images in glass, Van Cline sees even more new stylistic and technical approaches in glass ahead.
Mixing it up
Also going forward on the mixed-media track is KeKe Cribbs, who lives on an island in Puget Sound in Washington state. Cribbs is long known for her glass mosaic work, a technique with ancient Moorish and Byzantine roots, but "it is still changing. I'm always hungry for the next thing," she says.
Her latest work mixes glass and ceramics, a direction she has explored for the last three years after she burned out with other methods like sandblasting.
"Once I was started in clay, I was home free," she says. She uses a technique known as "slumping," a slow flow of soft glass into a mold, "to bond the glass into the clay." Her latest work, "Terrine Man," mixes glass with porcelain.
These are only a sampling of the many world-class glass artisans whose own spells wrought in glass was on display.
"Glass is really an equal-opportunity material," Oldknow says