The art of craft

    Glass art suffers in the presence of its better-known cousins, paint and metal. Brush some paint on a canvas in a convincing way, and there is little question about the identity of the creator as an artist. Mold some bronze into the shape of a small dancer, and the art world embraces you. But what happens to those who choose to melt and blow glass? Are they artists or artisans/craftspeople?

    This is the part of the art world where things can get a little ugly. What divides art and craft? What is the difference, and why is there a fine art department at PSU, but an Oregon College of Art and Craft just over the West Hills? We are about to enter the gray area of art, the in-between zone that has been hotly contested for many years.

    The quick and dirty explanation: craft can be functional, whereas art is meant solely for aesthetic and philosophical pleasure. This is, of course, overly simplistic since we’ve all (accidentally) sat on a sculpture, and no one would dream of actually putting their farmer’s market score in a $300,000 Dale Chihuly bowl. (At least none of my friends would, but we can barely afford the two pounds of apples to begin with.) There’s also the proliferation of craft fairs, “functional" art glass (that’s why your mother still thinks that your bong is “art"), and artists painting their work on doors, windows and walls at McMenamins. It’s all very confusing, so take a seat, have a Hammerhead, let’s work it out with glass.

    The Northwest is well known for glass art, and many would say that this is due to the aforementioned Dale Chihuly. We’re not going to get into a disagreement about Mr. Chihuly’s work right now, we’re simply going to use him as the archetype of glass artist. Chihuly graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a master’s of fine arts degree in the late ’60s, well before glass was thought of as a material for fine art sculpture. By 1971, he co-founded the Pilchuck Glass School 50 miles north of Seattle. Many of the well-known glass artists now established have been through the Pilchuck program.

    Glass is no longer just for mason jars at this point. Once relegated to the cupboard and sideboard, contemporary glass artists create works that have no apparent functional use other than their intrinsic beauty and those that can be incorporated into everyday life. Fireborne Gallery (515 S.W. Broadway) is a perfect place to see this distinction. Some works are meant as highly decorated vases, bowls or picture frames, while others are equally as beautiful, yet can have no useful function. Local artist Tim Chilina creates delicate blown glass orbs that he first anneals (stabilizes), then carefully cuts into biomorphic shapes and suspends from wire. The result is similar to looking at a carefully preserved dinosaur eggshell.

    Creating eggshells does mean that a few eggs are broken in the process. Getting attached to a work before completion is dangerous. Many things can go wrong in the kiln or during the blowing and annealing processes. Ian Gilula of Elements Glass (1315 N.W. Overton St.) in the Pearl doesn’t mind a few observers as he works. His studio and gallery are open Monday through Friday from 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.

    On a recent visit, the richly colored goblet on the end of the blowpipe was missing only the base when it fell to the floor. Gilula shrugged.

    Also in the Pearl District, the Bullseye Gallery (300 N.W. 13th Ave.) is currently showing artist Catharine Newell, who works in kiln-formed glass. Different from blown glass in method and appearance, kiln-formed works can be more solid and less ephemeral than many blown works (think plates versus glasses). Newell is not creating anything for the kitchen, though. Her works resemble crumpled sketches at first glance, delicate pieces of paper strewn about the Bullseye concrete and brick space. Glass responds more to light than perhaps any sculptural medium, and the dramatic lighting adds to the impressive illusory effect of Newell’s whisper-thin creations. Newell also took classes at Pilchuck.

    Finally, the mecca of Northwest glass art, the Museum of Glass (MOG) in Tacoma, Wash., holds three glass-filled galleries, not to mention a functional hot shop in which visiting artists work during museum hours. Their results are displayed in the museum. The MOG is connected to downtown Tacoma by the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot long pedestrian bridge that showcases many of Chihuly’s biomorphic forms. Exhibits change regularly, and the MOG is open Wednesday through Sunday.

    Admission is $8 for students, and the museum is a mere stone’s throw from the nearby highway.

So while the “art or craft" argument may continue indefinitely, glass art has progressed enough in the past 30 years to warrant its own museum and circuit of galleries, as well as several monthly publications, numerous conferences and an entire school. Those glass artists must be doing something right.