Glass Art Society Journal Biographical Statement, 2014
Illustrating With a Glass Pallette
Despite the existential implications, I am very happy to have this acknowledgement of lifetime achievement from the Glass Art Society. The professional recognition comes without being sought, and there are many deserving candidates, so this feels like a lucky turn. The respect and sincerity of congratulation from all of you on this occasion is heartfelt.
My lecture of March 20, 2014 in Chicago at the Glass Art Society conference was extemporaneous, a narration of images with explanation of motives for the creation of each work. I described working processes and my working relationships with colleagues, factories, machine shops, foundries, and electroplating companies. A transcript of the lecture without the images would lack an essential component.
Therefore for this journal I have described my work as an artist with an emphasis on the subject matter addressed and the methods of production adopted to achieve various goals when taking ideas from images in mind to drawings to 3D forms. Looking back over 47 years of making art is somehow confining to me, because my normal perspective is looking forward, toward tomorrow, and the next work ahead. In any case, I hope you will find these words informative and engaging.
Even though glass has been the dominant medium for my expression there is nothing about glass itself that leads to a work of art, no matter how well made something may be. It is the genuine expression of ideas and feelings that make a work of art.
Like many American art students of the 1960’s, I went to art college with the broad idea of becoming a professional artist. I could have become a painter or a filmmaker, graphic designer, or illustrator. But the Craft Department was most compelling to me at the Philadelphia College of Art. Programs in clay, jewelry, metalworking and woodworking were very exciting compared to the many other offerings of major concentration. My main courses of study were in ceramics and jewelry, and I took the major classes in filmmaking and illustration for two years. Because of the rigorous training we received in 3D, and the demands put on us to perform at our highest level of commitment and skill, I began to expect a lot from myself in answer to the assignments and also in creating works that were self-assigned.
We had classes from 8AM to 6:30PM five days per week. Considerable homework was assigned, which took hours and days to complete. The quality of our work was thoroughly examined, no matter what medium we were using because the faculty wanted us to understand the demands of a professional life as an artist. For example, Richard Reinhardt, my jewelry and metalworking professor, picked up a small brass sculpture my friend John Meade had brought to our weekly critique. Reinhardt looked it all over, examining the bottom of the piece and every detail of the construction then asked, “Meade, if you died tonight, would you want your mother to receive this as the last thing you ever made?” Many of the faculty, like Reinhardt, went to art college on the GI bill after WWII, and had seen lives disappearing in a flash. They had fought for our country and were determined to make meaningful contributions to society. They were serious about our pursuit of a professional degree and their role as our educators.
When I was a sophomore in 1967, a ceramics teacher, Roland Jahn, asked me to help him build a glassblowing studio at the college. PCA had been given a grant by the Fostoria Glass Company, and we built the studio during the summer. In the fall, when we began to work with hot glass for the first time, it was an amazing addition to my accumulating palette of materials and processes for making art. There was no formal instruction in glassblowing; it was experimental for the students and the faculty. I call this the slop and slump period of American glass, and it is easy to find examples of brutally worked objects from the 1960’s. But we began to explore form and develop our own techniques for working with hot glass. This lack of skill saved us from becoming experts in the European traditions, and we therefore developed methods and styles that were new to the history of glass.
Many of us in similar situations as art students in the 1960’s decided to work in craft mediums instead of the currently accepted fine arts mediums. We were attracted to the materials of the traditional crafts, and adopted the working processes and even the forms (vases, chairs, necklaces, etc.) as formats for our artistic expression. As we developed skills and experience with these materials we became connected by the interchange of technical information and techniques with numerous colleagues all over America. The Materialist movement grew as we formed organizations like the Glass Art Society, SNAG, and NCECA, and many students followed the lead of relatively few artists who had made the initial move into these mediums and working traditions, while looking for ways to make art that was distinctly our own.
The Materialist movement has never had a common conceptual philosophy similar to other art movements of the 20th century, such as Surrealism or Pop Art, where artists adhered to a stylistic trend and adopted the intellectual attitude of certain group thinking. The mastery of specific traditional craft materials placed in service of individual artists’ concepts has defined Materialism as an art movement. The artists are materialists in the sense that they understand and employ specific materials, which identifies their art in some way.
This differs from other definitions of materialism. In the philosophical sense, materialism describes matter and its motions constituting the universe and all phenomena, including thought. Therefore material is everything and everything is material. According to MIT professor Morris Cohen, is a humanistic and cultural term: a description based on our genetic heritage, the human material. A popular current understanding of the word materialism is the gathering of possessions to the exclusion of spiritual or more meaningful pursuits. I define materialism as the artist’s thorough devotion and accumulated knowledge and expertise based on the material they have chosen to make their art. It is therefore a philosophy of material mastery that characterizes their work and unifies them in a movement.
The craft mediums bring with them a heavy legacy of traditional forms and working methods. This causes many people who learn the processes for making traditional objects to repeat history. Some people decided that they are artists because they learned to craft something with great skill. Other people, who would have been an artist no matter what medium they chose, happened to become interested in a craft medium and their desire to communicate through their creations dictates the forms they create. The acquisition of skills and learning of processes enables them to articulate their thoughts in the medium of their choice, and their pursuit of artistic notions supersedes their need to make a product. Many artists focused on a material do not feel connected to the craft scene; they just use the materials and processes as a vehicle for expression. They are different from the potter making vases for a craft fair or the furniture maker who makes a beautiful handmade chair of his own design. Artists who have adopted these working methods and materials create works with varying degrees of adherence to traditional forms, so there are often references to historical precedents in the forms and formats they choose for their work. This quirk of the artist’s thinking has blurred the line between art and craft for decades.