#11 My Career Begins
The Process, Nick Labino, Toledo Museum, CMoG
Ravenna Grand Jury: Collection, Corning Museum of Glass
When I started to write this recollection of how I came to develop a technique for casting glass in 1971 I thought I would take the reader step by step through my process of developing the mold materials and how the molten glass bubbled in the mold or how I slowly figured out what caused all those failures or that I knew little to nothing of how to anneal very thick castings. I came to realize that this, is as I said in the first sentence, a recollection and not a tech talk. So I will try and relate to you my narrative of that time and simply recall a bit of my trial and errors.
1971: Kent State
I had taken a bronze casting class while a student at RISD and knew that the mold materials we used worked for casting bronze, why not for casting glass. I put together a process for casting glass using plaster, silica and fire clay as my mold material. And so it came to pass that after many failures I finally arrived at a base casting mold material that consisted of 1 part plaster of paris and 1 part silica. All the molds I created were molds of the clay sculptures I produced and were open faced molds, (See illustration below), into which I would ladle molten glass. After much trial and error I more or less solved the casting process but I had no idea how to properly anneal my castings so they didn’t crack. The annealing process for small blown pieces was easy to master but the annealing process for thick castings escaped me. It was now time to research how to anneal thick glass castings. I was not aware of any literature that existed that would help me to understand the process but I did know Dominick Labino and perhaps he could or would help me, maybe. (Wikipedia Dominick Labino)
I had on a few occasions met Dominick Labino. Nick as he was known lived a mere one and a half hours away from me in Grand Rapids, Ohio just outside Toledo. If anyone could help me to understand annealing Nick was the man. I had met Nick in Madison, WI when he came to visit with Harvey in 1968. I called him and reintroduced myself to him and asked if I could come visit him and would he help me to understand the annealing of thick glass castings or words to that effect. I still recall that telephone conversation in 1971 and how Nick questioned me as to whether I was serious about glass casting or was I just fooling around. Nick was not a warm fuzzy type of guy and he usually got to the heart of the matter very quickly. I explained what I was doing and how I was having problems with annealing my castings. He agreed to see me at his studio but I would have to bring one of my castings so he could evaluate whether I was serious or “just fooling around”. I drove to his studio the next week and Nick took me back to his studio and sat me down. I unwrapped my broken casting and he took a look, chewed on the stem of his pipe, and after a long pause said “not bad”. I guess “not bad” meant he thought I was not fooling around. I spent about 4 hours with Nick and he took me through the ins and outs of annealing. It was a lesson I’ll never forget. I ended up that day having dinner with him and his wife Libby. Over the years I visited with Nick on any number of occasions. I remember at one time when I was there two very distinguished gentlemen from NASA came to speak with him about a project he was working on for them. That project turned out to be the heat shield tiles that were to go onto the space shuttle. It was obvious that Nick wore many hats. But I digress. Nick was very helpful in helping us teachers and small studio artists to unravel some of the mysteries of glass. He also opened up his studio to us when we held our GAS conference in Toledo. Nick also attended a number of our GAS conferences and on more than one occasion delivered a technical lecture. Nick was very skeptical of what we were doing in the studio glass movement but as the years wen on he warmed up to us. What I learned from Nick about annealing eventually helped me solve my problems. I should also mention that what I learned about annealing and other technical aspects of glass were eventually passed onto my students. Those early years were filled with the excitement of discovery. Because of Harvey and Nick the art and craft of glass had now joined the other arts within the educational community.
Armed with my newfound knowledge of annealing and my success with the glass casting process I was ready to continue with my glass sculptures. I spent the better part of the year producing glass castings. Most of my castings were cast in an opal white glass that was manufactured by the Fenton Glass Co. and used extensively for production of their pressed glass. The Fenton white, as we called it, was a very soupy soft glass and I thought perfect for glass casting. The only drawback to my glass casting was that I had to spend many a sleepless night in the glass studio babysitting the annealer. The controls we used at that time were these very simple electric oven controls and they never maintained a constant temperature and I had to keep my eye on the pyrometer to make sure the temperature in the oven didn’t run away with itself and ruin all my hard work. Because of the thickness of my castings the annealing process took many hours. Some of my castings survived the analog era and some did not. Over time some of my castings found their way to museums, some to private collectors and one in particular found its way to the Corning Museum of Glass.
In 1966, 1968, and 1970 The Toledo Museum produced exhibitions called the “Toledo Glass National”. These exhibitions consisted of studio glass being produced at that time. Many of the works are, to say the least, crude by today’s standards but they were iconoclastic in their endeavors. One can readily see in those pieces the paradigm shift taking place in American studio glass. It was a mere 5 years from Harvey Littleton’s introduction of off-hand glass blowing to the small studio for a major museum to recognize the paradigm shift taking place. To underscore this I quote Otto Wittman, director of the Toldedo Museum, from the catalog for the 1966 catalog: “Now a new movement is developing in which the designer and craftsman are one and the same. Glass for the first time has become primarily a form of art expressive of the ideas of its creators”. If you wish to read Mr. Wittman’s prescient words I suggest you download The catalog from that exhibition as well as the other three exhibitions. To view and download the catalogs click on the following link. (Toledo Glass National Catalogs)
It should be noted that up to this time, 1972, the Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG) had not recognized the importance of the American contemporary glass movement. It was the Toledo Museum that led the way in recognizing what was transpiring in studio glass. So it was in 1972 that the Toledo Museum renamed its bi-annual exhibition from the “Toledo Glass National” to “American Glass Now”. It would take the “American Glass Now” exhibition at the Toledo Museum in 1972 to finally move the CMoG into the mainstream of collecting contemporary American glass. The reason I bring this up is that the CMoG’s move from being a museum of historical glass to the world’s leading museum of contemporary glass had a profound effect on my career as an artist.
American Glass Now
The Toledo Museum announced that it was collecting works for an exhibition to be titled, “American Glass Now” to open in November of 1972 and that show would then travel to 6 other museums and venue’s around the country. I entered the competition with slides of my recent work which included some blown pieces and a casting I had completed from my May 4th series. Three of my pieces were accepted for the show, two being blown pieces and one of which was my casting “Ravenna Grand Jury” but retitled “Masked Bandit” when I entered it into the exhibition. The acceptance of my work to that exhibition was a turning point in my career as an artist. I gave up my time teaching pottery as well as being a potter and devoted all my energy into teaching glass on both the undergraduate and graduate level and also supporting a career as an artist. My workload consisted of 3 glass blowing sections and 1 graduate section. I also put most of my free time energy into building a career as an artist.
Soon after the American Glass Now exhibition opened I received a letter from the CMoG telling me that they wanted to purchase my casting for their collection and was it available? The CMoG asking to purchase my work was a very exciting event in my newfound career as an artist working with glass. I quickly negotiated a price for the work, $400. My works traveled to the venues advertised by the Toledo Museum and at the conclusion of the exhibition I delivered my casting to the CMoG. It was thrilling to see my work exhibited among all the great historical glass objects exhibited at this prestigious museum and still to this day I feel a bit of excitement to see it on permanent display. That one seminal work of mine has been reproduced in many of the CMoG catalogs and journals. I found out later on that it was only the second piece of contemporary glass other than Harvey Littleton’s figure castings that the CMoG had purchased for their permanent collection. A few short years later other museums acquired my castings, including The Detroit Institute of Art and the National Gallery of Australia. I was on fire.
La Vida Loca
The early 70’s was when I came into my own and realized that my dream of being an artist and educator was being realized. My wife Sandy was instrumental in my being able to realize my dream. She was, as they say, the wind in my sails. It is now 55 years later and we’re still living the dream. Éramos jóvenes y llevábamos una vida loca. Vivíamos de noche y dormíamos de día.
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Open Face Mold - Ravenna Grand Jury Series, l to r Fiberglass, Bronze, Glass - American Glass Now Catalog Cover - Corning Purchase Order for May 4th Masked Bandit (Ravenna Grand Jury) - November 1972 feature in the Miami Herald about the "American Glass Now" exhibition - Dominick Labino with his ever present pipe blowing glass in his studio (photo by Sylvia Vigiletti)- Sandy on the day we were married