The third annual Sarasota Contemporary Glass Weekend highlights an art form unlike any other.
It’s no secret that Sarasota is home to a wealth of arts and culture. Visitors are often surprised to find world-class performing arts, including ballet, opera and theater companies — not to mention a long history of top-tier visual artists in our sleepy little beach town.
Over the past few years, Sarasota has begun to carve out another niche for itself in the visual art world — as a destination for contemporary studio glass.
This weekend, the third annual Contemporary Glass Weekend, a collaboration between the Longboat Key Center for the Arts and Michigan-based Habatat Galleries, will draw hundreds of enthusiasts, collectors and artists from around the world to celebrate the art form with exhibits, lectures, tours and demonstrations.
For the uninitiated, studio glass can be a foreign world. Beginning in the 1950s and ’60s, glass artists began to earn recognition beyond just craftsmen. Their work was no longer limited to only functional bowls and vessels, as they moved out of factories and into studios, taking advantage of innovative techniques to create true art, including sculpture and figurative pieces.
And the art world took notice.
At first glance, of course, the art is visually stunning. But dive below the aesthetics, and the medium boasts a vibrant scene all its own, with a tight-knit group of collectors and artists, each with their own set of ever-evolving, intricate techniques.
As its enthusiasts will tell you, there’s nothing quite like it. And once it piques your interest — it’s addictive.
Jane Buckman, director of the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, spent 14 years of her career working in Seattle — a hotbed of studio glass artists and collectors. Surrounded by the art form, she says she was aware of it, but it was never something she got involved in.
She jokes it took moving across the country to Sarasota before she became immersed in the unique art form.
It started three years ago. Buckman says she wanted to host an exhibit at Longboat Key Center for the Arts to complement the renowned Basch collection at Ringling College. She reached out to well-known Clearwater-based glass artist Marlene Rose and hosted an exhibit featuring her works.
“That was big for us,” says Buckman. “It brought in people from around the country who follow her work. She was represented by Habatat Galleries, so their founder, Ferdinand Hampson, came to the show. When he saw the space, he immediately wanted to collaborate. We came up with the idea of the glass weekend.”
The goal was to highlight artists and collections in Sarasota and Southwest Florida, as well as expose guests to artists from around the world. Buckman says she found herself becoming more and more enamored with the art.
“People in the glass world, they’re just full of that light,” she says. “They’re all so happy. It’s not like anything I’ve seen before. The collectors are such a tight-knit group — they travel together; they really know their history. The more you learn about it, it’s so engrossing.”
This year’s Contemporary Glass Weekend kicks off Thursday, Jan. 26, with a reception at Alfstad& Contemporary, featuring the works of Kathleen Mulcahy and her late husband, Ron Desmett.
Mulcahy is known for her meditations on cool water, imagery she evokes in her luminous glass. Desmett brought a modern approach to the centuries-old practice of casting glass in wood by blowing glass into hollow trunks of rotting walnut trees to create intentionally crude, irregular black vessels. The exhibition, which runs through Feb. 24, will include his final works.
Friday includes a bus tour to St. Petersburg for a hot-shop demonstration and to view the Chihuly Collection — works of glass-art icon Dale Chihuly, known for helping push the blown-glass medium into larger scale. Other weekend highlights include an auction, preceded by a short history of the pieces by Ferdinand Hampson; a tour of the Basch Gallery and hardhat tour of The Ringling’s forthcoming Kotler/Coville Glass Pavillion, as well as exhibits featuring works by artists from the Czech Republic and 10 other countries from around the world.
Buckman says the weekend is a unique opportunity, both for longtime collectors and newcomers eager to learn about glass art.
“First of all, it’s just beautiful,” she says. “The work will blow you away. It’s hard not to be attracted to it. But once you learn more about it, and you know the history and how much work goes into the different techniques, your appreciation grows that much richer and deeper. I’m still learning, myself. I’ll find myself seeing something new and thinking, ‘How did they do that?’ It’s just an incredible art form.”
GLASS GLASS EVOLUTION
Glass art has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time, and artists are constantly innovating new techniques. We spoke with Ferd Hampson, founder of Habatat Galleries in Michigan, about the history of the art form.
“WHEN PEOPLE FIRST PICKED UP GLASS, generally, they came from ceramic backgrounds, and functionality was a natural part of what was happening. They were creating vessels and goblets. But people got their skills down to the point where they could go beyond that and into creating art. That’s when things really started flourishing.
“THING EVOLVED in so many different ways. Take scale; it used to be that people made very small pieces. Harvey Littleton, who is known as the Father of Studio Glass, had the idea that it should just be one person in a studio. As time went on, pieces became much larger, and you would have two or three people working at a time.
“IF YOU WALKED INTO A GLASS EXHIBIT in the 1970s, every single piece would’ve been blown glass. Now, you see cast glass, made with a mold; fused glass, using lower temperatures; or lamp work, which is done over a torch; and of course, some blown glass. Even the surface treatments have become much more elaborate.
“IT'S AN ART FORM where you look and wonder, ‘How did they make that?’ And the answer, usually, is that it’s even more difficult than you imagined.
“AT THIS EVENT, you can see some of the greatest artists from 12 different countries. The Czech exhibit is fantastic. It’s an opportunity to see what the whole world is doing, which is wonderful. For me, as art becomes more homogeneous, and ideas are shared over the world, you can lose the cultural and social aspects that are an important part of art.”
LOOKING WITH PURPOSE
Everyone has to start somewhere — even Barbara Basch. She and her husband, Richard, have one of the most extensive, celebrated collections of studio glass in Sarasota, which is displayed annually at Ringling College. We spoke with Barbara for a few tips for beginners.
“WE STARTED BY COLLECTING CERAMICS. Someone suggested we go see this museum show in Tampa. It was Dale Chihuly, and at the time, we didn’t even know who he was. We were just blown away. After that, we were off and running.
“WHAT WE'RE TRYING TO DO in Sarasota is make it a glass Mecca — and we’re on our way to doing that. We’re personally so happy to be a part of it and share it with people. Glass brings people together.”