Living in a place where Dale Chihuly has become a household name synonymous with high-quality glass blowing and expansive installations of brilliant, colorful glass baubles, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that not every city is blessed with as many artists — especially glass artists — as Providence.
This presence was reinforced last year when the Rhode Island School of Design not only featured “Chihuly at RISD” in its inaugural exhibition at the Chace Center, the addition to the Museum of Art designed by Pritzker Prize-wining architect Rafael Moneo, but simultaneously showcased the work of nine groundbreaking artists in “Studio Glass in Rhode Island”.
Toots Zynsky, an award winning glass artist known for her iridescent glass vessels made from layered and fused glass threads says “living here, we are able to take a vital, creative and intellectual community for granted. For a relatively small city, Providence offers great opportunities - it is easy to be involved and have a voice here.”
When Zynsky came to Providence to attend RISD, the school did not have a glass department (Chihuly started the department in 1969). At the end of her freshman year, she caught a glimpse of a group of guys, dressed in drag, blowing glass and making a movie. It was Chihuly’s gang.
Zynsky remembers, “it looked like a beautiful choreography, seeing them moving around the hot glass.” She returned the following year to study glass blowing, “because the material is so alive, you are forced to work in the moment.”
Glass blowing is also hard and dirty work, requiring a glass studio (called a hot shop) and usually a team of up to six to make those gorgeous, large, hand-blown objects. After moving to Europe she found herself without access to a hot shop and working alone, “which forced me to approach my work in a different way and led to developing ideas in a more contemplative manner.”
Having received an Emerging Artist grant from the NEA in 1983, Zynsky was able to travel to Murano, Italy, where she discovered the colored glass cane that to this day provides the raw material for her luminous vessels. The glass cane is extruded and pulled to a very thin thread, which is then layered - “just like painting, except it is inside out and upside down” - before it is fused together in the kiln and, while still hot and flexible, gets shaped with help of spun stainless steel bowls and Zynsky’s (heavily gloved) hands.
The result of this process is nothing short of breathtaking. The fused glass threads retain their string-like shape and reflect and refract the light in a million different directions. The process of layering gives the large bowls and vessels a painterly quality and, depending on the intensity and angle of the light, the colors continue to change. They seem to glow from within. “It’s all about the ephemeral quality of the light,” Zynsky explains.
Standing in front of “Welkin”, a large four-panel glass installation at the Wheeler School that is part of the school’s public art initiative, Nicole Chesney, another Providence glass artist who has developed her work by moving away from blowing glass, echoes that sentiment: “no other material behaves like glass, nothing manipulates light the way glass does.”
“Welkin” features deep shades of blue and a brilliant turquoise pushing against a horizon line set against a fluffy white, cloudy mass in front of a light blue sky. No photograph will ever reproduce the reflective quality of the light radiating from the panels, looking as if the whole wall is backlit, reminiscent of a well-lit swimming pool at night.
For Chesney, who became internationally know for her luminous paintings on mirrored, etched glass, the installation represents a career milestone because it gave her the opportunity to experiment with an architectural glazing process used to laminate several printed layers of plastic between two sheets of glass to generate the image she designed to complement Wheeler’s modern addition.
Chesney, who chose Providence for its social and cultural amenities, cites the unusual level of interest and personal investment from the local companies involved in the project as a crucial component of its success. The willingness to provide access to technology and skilled people made it obvious “that local fabricators and vendors here are used to working with artists and designers. They tend to be open-minded and flexible, and took a personal interest in the project, became invested in its success.”