All That Glitters

Fritz Dreisbach helps set the gold standard of glass art.

The glittering Dale Chihuly show at the Phoenix Art Museum last summer settled an old argument about glass. His work--abstract, sleek, sinuous--proved once and for all that at long last glass is art.

Chihuly's gigantic installations were light years beyond the lumpen vases and tacky lampshades hippie glass artists were making back in the '70s. The world's premiere glassmaker, Chihuly filled the museum's concrete spaces with sophisticated and impossibly complicated pieces, all of them in the startling colors only glass is capable of: ravishing reds, iridescent blues, sunburst yellows, vivid greens, pinks, purples. His huge glass chandeliers, carefully put together at the museum by his assistants, tube by tube, occupied the floor like fantastic Christmas trees, overpowering and fragile at the same time. Most breathtaking of all was a sea installation. Visitors walked through a narrow passageway and looked up at a dazzling glass ceiling, teeming with abstracted starfish, anemones and coral.

Seattle, where Chihuly lives and works, may be the epicenter of glass art (Chihuly recently finished an outdoor glass bridge for pedestrians) but Tucson has had a window seat on glass's long slow evolution from plebeian to prestigious, thanks to Tom Philabaum, the city's premiere glass artist, and a gallery owner and teacher. Philabaum has long labored to educate Tucsonans about the burgeoning glass art movement. Over the years, he's given glass-blowing demos at the "glory hole" furnace in his downtown studio, exhibited the work of leading artists and a few years back masterminded a big glass conference in the city. His glass school, Sonoran Glass Institute, will soon open in a renovated building on 18th Street.

Now Philabaum has taken another step up, into a new gallery worthy of his wares. After years of trying to find a gallery site downtown more spacious than his cramped old Tastee-Freeze on South Sixth, Philabaum at length decamped to St. Philip's Plaza, hard by the Foothills' wealthy patrons. The departure of the gallery is a significant loss for downtown, but it's hard to argue against the new space. Large, white and gleaming, it occupies the pristine digs recently vacated by longtime gallerist Eleanor Jeck. Even on cloudy days, its walls of windows allow enough light in to let every piece of glass art glisten.

"It's wonderful," says Dabney Philabaum, gallery manager and the artist's wife. "It's nice to be up here and to be accessible. We have more customers. It's easier for them to find us."

Appropriately, the current gallery exhibition celebrates the work of a pioneer of the contemporary glass movement. Inspirations 37 Years showcases some 25 shimmering glass pieces by Fritz Dreisbach. A contemporary of Chihuly's, Dreisbach was born in 1941, and like both Chihuly and Philabaum, he studied at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, under the early glass artist Harvey Littleton. His art--and his glass proselytizing--have subsequently won him every award in the glass world.

"He's been an ambassador and crusader for glass for years," Philabaum says. "He traveled all over America on a motorcycle with glass and pipes on his back. He spread the gospel of glass all over America."

Dreisbach's works are handsomely displayed on mirrored pedestals that double the pleasure of the swooping colored sculptures. They're made of gorgeous swathes of glass so loose and sensuous they could almost still be liquid. Most of the pieces are what Dreisbach calls "mongo" vessels, objets d'art that bear a distant, very distant, relation to the pots and vases crammed in the back shelves of every kitchen. But if these humble relatives stumbled on Dreisbach's sleek creations, they wouldn't recognize each other.

"Passionate Pink Swirling Compote Mongo," for instance, is an undulating bowl that's like a luscious--and enormous--pink seashell, lined with sensuous veins in amber and maroon. Dreisbach's title evokes glass art's origins in functional art, but at 20 inches across and several thousand dollars in price, "Passionate Pink" is hardly a compote for applesauce.

Dreisbach favors by turns translucent glass in lovely purples and roses, and iridescent rainbow glass in blue-greens and ambers. In some works, like "Lark's Loose Rainbow Colored Optic Mongo Bowl," the colors are left alone to shine in simple beauty. He makes others more complex by embedding them with colored glass "filigree" patterns. These checkerboards and stripes start out as rods of glass, Philabaum explains. Dreisbach heats them up and pulls them into long flexible strings, then "rolls them up and makes them into a vessel." Then he wraps clear molten glass around them, and forms lips, bases, and the occasional fantastic shape, as in "Deep Oceanic Opaline Green Mongo with Filigree, Twining Ferns and Wet Foot."

The artist occasionally makes animal pieces that allude ironically to the kind of glass art you might find in a seedy boardwalk shop. His witty glass menagerie includes a pink flamingo whose spindly legs form the stem of a goblet, and an emerald green alligator that's climbing into a glass vase. Dreisbach even allows glass a voice in art debates: One piece offers up "A Special Tribute to Jackson Pollock." It's a clear glass vase, jazzed up, natch, with Pollockian spatters in pink, white, navy, maroon and amber.

The gallery also includes a standing collection of works by other artists. There are a few Philabaums on view, and the artist is hoping that the new setup will allow him more time to make his own work and to teach. He's retained the old space as a studio, and stopped doing the public demos at regularly scheduled hours. This way, he says, with gallery issues out of mind at least some of the time, he can get back into the sizzling glory hole.

Still, this weekend, during the annual holiday sale, he's scheduled two days' worth of viewing time for Tucsonans to watch him shove slabs of glass into the fire and then shape them into art. Interest in glass art, whether by Chihuly or Dreisbach or Philabaum himself, is too strong to ignore. "Glass," as Philabaum says, "is hot."

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