Art made with blown glass is hotter than ever
Art made with blown glass is hotter than ever
By Sandra Barrera
March 27, 2017
In his Boyle Heights studio, Jaime Guerrero dips the tip of a long blowpipe into a 2,000-degree furnace and begins the process of inflating the glob of molten glass with little puffs of air.
“Everything starts with a bubble,” he says, shaping the liquefied glass into a hand-sculpted skull over the course of an hour.
Guerrero, 43, is in the vanguard of today’s studio glassblowers revitalizing this ancient craft. With sand, fire and a burst of energy, these master glassblowers turn glowing bubbles into fine art, including carefully sculpted figures, whimsical towers and large-scale architectural installations. This kind of work is unique from the decorative vases, bowls and other vessels being produced in the hot shop.
“This is a whole other way of working,” says Guerrero, adding that schools don’t teach it “because it takes years and years to get good at it. I was fortunate to study under the Italian master Pino Signoretto (who in turn learned from the late 20th century Murano master Alfredo Barbini). People who do this kind of work have either learned it from someone who has studied under Pino or from Pino himself.”
Glassblowing has its virtuosos
Perhaps the most recognizable of these artists is Dale Chihuly, the subject of a major exhibition at the Catalina Island Museum on the island just off the Southern California coast.
“Chihuly at Catalina Island Museum,” which opens today and runs through Dec. 11, is a museum-wide exhibition.
“One of the things that makes Catalina Island a perfect match for Dale Chihuly’s artwork is that Dale Chihuly is interested in how glass sculpture work interacts with environment and architecture,” says Julie Perlin Lee, the museum’s executive director.
Works are on view in and around the museum’s new 18,000-square-foot Ada Blanche Wrigley Schreiner Building with its soaring lobby, outdoor atrium and landscaped gardens with views of the island’s canyons and waters.
Since its founding in 1953, the museum had been located in the small basement of the iconic Casino building. But the new freestanding museum has been designed to make room for the scale of the artist’s nature-inspired work, which includes his sea urchin and shell-style Seaforms, Red Reeds and exotic flora-like Mille Fiori.
Show also features drawings
Still designing at 75 with his team at Chihuly Studio in Seattle, Chihuly is credited with elevating glasswork to new heights by taking hundreds of pieces and turning them into a large sculptures that he can hang, tower or float at museums and botanical gardens around the world. Among the standouts is a multi-piece work titled Blue Ridge Chandelier, made up of hundreds of undulating tentacle-like arms placed onto steel armature.
“It’s as if you’ve encountered something in the sea,” Lee says. “The way the light hits the different angles of the glass makes it mesmerizing. They’re not just static forms, but they have a life to them. And when you think back to glassmaking and how exciting that is, somehow all that energy is still trapped in there. You can feel it.”
Like Chihuly, Guerrero also assembles his sculptures by fusing together individual glass pieces.
His studio is full of sculpture inspired by Mexican-American culture and rituals, from a series of colorful Luchadora masks to a new series of stone-like Mesoamerican figurines to be featured in a solo exhibition as part of “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” at the Skidmore Contemporary Art Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, from Sept. 9 through Oct. 21.
In addition to his exhibition work, he has dedicated himself to mentoring young glassblowers like 19-year-old Watts resident Tyler Straight.
The African-American teen has been learning from Guerrero since age 12 and now works as his assistant, sells his own work and takes glassblowing classes at Santa Monica College. He’s also been tapped to take over the glassblowing studio partnership between Guerrero and the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, which offers free classes to at-risk youth.
“The glass world is not very diverse,” says Guerrero, who is one of a small number of Latinos with a career in glass.
Other pieces in his repertoire touch on the issues of immigration, including a clear migrant worker wearing Huaraches and a T-shirt emblazoned with a hand-painted United Farm Workers logo who is holding up his arms, written in Spanish on one “Not Here” and the other “Not There.” But his latest glass artwork is a seemingly playful series of blindfolded children.
“Figurative work is so rare,” says Emily Zaiden, director of Craft in America Center. “People have done figurative Venetian-style blown glass on a small scale, but to do what Jaime does on a large scale and not cast it but to blow it is so difficult. And then his facial expressions are so emotive, which is also quite rare. As a material, nobody has really brought that to glass like he has because so few people have worked figuratively in glass that it’s hard to get emotional quality like he does,”
The artist builds the work from New York’s famed Corning Museum of Glass for the PBS series “Craft in America” featuring American and Mexican artists living and working craft this fall over the course of two episodes titled “Borders and Neighbors.” There will be a screening of the documentary Oct. 22 at the L.A. Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium followed by a Q&A with three of the featured artists. Those in L.A. can then see the exhibit “Mano-Made: New Expression in Craft by Latino Artists” when it opens in conjunction with “Pacific Standard Time” at the Craft in America Center from Aug. 26 through Oct. 7.
“Politicians try to demonize immigrants and refugees as criminals, but the majority of these people trying to escape violence and persecution are kids,” Guerrero says, explaining that is what his latest glass-art series highlights. “They’re blindfolded because they don’t know what to expect on the perilous trip and the piñata represents their hopes and dreams. They just want to break it open and get their candy and toys.”
Of course the installment will be surrounded by glass bubbles.
“You can think of them as thought bubbles or whatever,” Guerrero says. “But to me, it reveals a little something about the process of glass blowing. You always blow a bubble before you make something.”