Friday, 27 December 2019 09:00

Gallery of Glass: GRAM’s winter exhibition shows off the beauty of a versatile material

Written by  Megan Sarnacki
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Norwood Viviano's "Recasting Detroit." Norwood Viviano's "Recasting Detroit." Courtesy of Tim Thayer and Robert Hensleigh

While glass is often described as a delicate property, its metamorphic nature allows artists to explore not only fragility and transparency through their work, but also resiliency and strength. Examining the innovative ways glass can be styled is A New State of Matter: Contemporary Glass, Grand Rapids Art Museum’s latest exhibition. 

Organized by the Boise Art Museum, the exhibition features 19 artists and is running through April 26 alongside Looking (at•into•through) Glass, a selection of glass art from GRAM’s permanent collection.

Jennifer Wcisel, assistant curator for GRAM, notes with its transformative quality, glass is a unique matter that can be designed through a wide assortment of techniques, including glass blowing, kiln casting and flame working. 

“Glass is a material that we’re all familiar with in our daily lives, but we don’t really think of it as a material for art that people can make something out of like paint or clay,” Wcisel said. “The scientific qualities of glass make it such an interesting medium for artists to explore and work with because it can be a liquid, it can be a solid, and it can actually even be a gas.” 

As glass can be translucent, transparent and opaque, it empowers artists to showcase their metaphorical themes through inventive measures


(Left to Right) Steffen Dam's Specimen Cabinet, Courtesy Photo. Jeffrey Stenbom's To Those Who Have, Courtesy of Bullseye Projects. Amber Cowan's Rosette in Milk and Ivory, Courtesy of Heller Gallery.

“A lot of people will be surprised by their expectations of what glass art is,” Wcisel said. “There’s artists that are tackling issues related to veterans and PTSD all through the medium of glass. It’s not just looking at beautiful objects and seeing how light works within the art, but it’s really delving into some deeper metaphors and ideas.”

Upon returning from the military, Midwesterner Jeffrey Stenbom found glass artistry after signing up at a local community college. One of his featured GRAM exhibit pieces includes a kiln casting of frosty, yet transparent military identification tags suspended from the ceiling. 

“If you get close to the military ID tags, you’ll see that there’s actually nothing on them — no personal identifying information,” Wcisel said. “Since his piece represents a universal experience that veterans in war go through, Stenbom created those tags as sort of a memorial to every veteran. There’s no name, because they could belong to anyone.”

The exhibition includes work by Grand Rapids artist Norwood Viviano, who has been working with glass for more than 25 years. 

“Glass is one of the most humbling materials to work with because you can be certain that it’s going to work, but then it doesn’t,” Viviano told Revue

And because working with glass presents challenging obstacles, factoring in time and working on self-improvement are important steps for Viviano. Within the kiln casting process, glass needs time to cool slowly and, depending on how thick the glass is, that can take anywhere from three to 12 weeks. 

But outside factors can play a big role. 

“Sometimes there’s a power outage and you’ve got a nine-week cycle in the kiln, so you have to start all over,” said Viviano. “You have to build enough time in and learn from your mistakes because often, I have to make something twice. No matter how much knowledge you have in the material, you still have to trust that you are making a series of choices that are going to work.”

Focusing on the relationship between past and present local industries, two of Viviano’s exhibition pieces will center on the cities of Grand Rapids and Detroit. “It’s a lot about the juxtaposition of looking at the current landscape and thinking about the things that influence the landscape.”

Through the lens of a camera, this exhibit offers viewers an inside look at the process of how each piece was crafted. By providing videos of the artists in their studios, GRAM hopes attendees can understand how much problem-solving goes into glass artistry. To help you learn even more about these artists’ creative techniques, GRAM is including interactive components, giving attendees hands-on experience with glass objects.

As a local artist, Viviano feels honored to be recognized by his community and is eager to learn from the imaginative minds of internationally and nationally recognized artists. 

“There’s a lot of different ways of solving problems with the material, but it also gives you opportunities to think about how the artist is approaching ideas,” said Viviano. “As an artist, I get really excited about being in the show because not only am I learning about how other artists are approaching material and technical information, but I’m also seeing how artists are thinking about the possibilities of the material and how their ideas play out through the material.”

Whether you come by yourself for some “me time” or bring the whole family along, Viviano hopes this exhibition sparks questions and initiates conversations about the meaning behind the work, and shows people that no matter what you want to do in life, the hardest part is just taking that first step.

“Experiencing art can challenge you to think in new ways,” Viviano said. “I couldn’t tell you how many people tell me that they could never do this type of art or don’t know how to do it. The thing is, though, most of the artists in this show didn’t know how to do it before they started, but they just started anyway. 

“It’s an important connection for people to make because this idea crosses over in so many other parts of their lives.” 

A New State of Matter: Contemporary Glass
Grand Rapids Art Museum
101 Monroe Center St. NW, Grand Rapids
Jan. 25-Apr. 26

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