Glass Blowout

A Global Menagerie Of Glass Artists Take Over Local Museums And Galleries.
By Margaret Regan

MAYOR GEORGE MILLER peered into a case at Philabaum gallery one balmy afternoon last week, the better to inspect Jeffrey Spencer's "Escape of the Pod People." The piece had tiny glass humans trapped inside four glass cylinders. The little people were straining at their glass confines, but one had broken free.

Leaping above the shards of his shattered glass cage, he reached out to his fellow glass man.

"This is exceptional work," raved the Mayor. "I'm enthusiastic about this place."

The Mayor, who himself owns a glass piece by gallery proprietor Tom Philabaum, is also enthusiastic about the glass extravaganza gripping the city this month, so much so that he's declared April Tucson Glass Month.

Some 1,000 devotees are expected to converge upon the city next week for Global Glass, the international Glass Art Society's 27th-annual conference, from April 10-13. Highlights will be an international glass art exhibition at the Tucson Convention Center, a major U.S. show at the Tucson Museum of Art, smaller shows throughout the city and a host of lectures and workshops. (Some events are open only to those who pay to register at the conference.) Though galleries as far-flung as Flagstaff and Tubac will be getting into the act long distance, the Old Pueblo is the heart of the festivities.

"This is a big thing for Tucson," opined the Mayor. "We like people to come here and spend their money."

It's also a big thing for the city's arts community. In an unprecedented moment of cooperation, nearly every museum and contemporary art gallery in town has mounted a glass show in conjunction with the conference. That makes about 21 galleries exhibiting glass in all its bewildering variety.

"To be honest, I'm amazed," confessed TMA curator Joanne Stuhr, taking a moment from the hard labor of installing a glass show that will occupy almost the entire museum. "There's been so much cooperation, so much support. I don't recall anything like this anytime before."

TMA's Calido!, curated by Stuhr and Philabaum, showcases some 79 artists working in the various warm-glass techniques (kiln-casting, fusing, slumping, lampworking), while Philabaum's exhibit specializes in just lampworking (tubes of glass shaped by a hot torch). Etherton Gallery, normally the refuge of painters and photographers, displays Italian masters of the massicio technique (hot masses of glass sculpted with tools).

Mixed-media photographic glass works will turn up at the University of Arizona Museum of Art, the Center for Creative Photography and Bero Gallery, neon at the UA Union Gallery. Tucson glassmaker Alfredo Rivera goes solo at Davis Dominguez. Tohono Chul zeroes in on functional glass by Arizona artists.

Some galleries have organized their shows around a region rather than a particular technique: Dinnerware is concentrating on Canada, Obsidian on New Mexico, the Tucson/Pima Arts Council on the U.S. and Mexico. The Convention Center's international show gathers work from 16 countries, including such exotics as Korea, the Czech Republic and South Africa.

There will be plenty of gorgeous, gleaming works, and not just the schmaltzy designer glassware that gives glass art a bad name. Truth to tell, the glass offerings around town add a sly new dimension to the usual art terms of "cutting-edge" and ''groundbreaking": Much of the avant-garde glass art, like the piece the Mayor admired, has literally been broken and splintered. "My Opinion Only--Technique Ain't Cheap," a piece by Tucsonan Michael Joplin already up at Pima Community College, is a sculptural assemblage composed of razor-sharp shards of broken teacups and saucers, and splashed pointedly with blood, presumably the artist's own.

How did it happen that Tucson got the nod for this glass lollapalooza? A committee of locals, chaired by artist Leah Wingfield and Philabaum, has been doing footwork on it for years. Nevertheless, Terry Etherton, last week busy opening huge foam-packed boxes containing heavy glass works shipped from Italy, said, "Tom Philabaum deserves all the credit in the world for this."

Philabaum, Tucson's own conscience of glass, said this year's conference really has its origins in a smaller Glass Art Society meeting here back in 1983. Also accompanied by a TMA show, that conference "is the most fondly remembered of all time," Philabaum declared. "People loosened up, people started sharing. It helped create an identity for Tucson."

Four years ago, by then on the Glass Art Society board of directors, Philabaum suggested his adopted city as the site for the '97 conference.

"I sold the city to the board," Philabaum said. "We're a convention city. A major museum was willing to do a great show. There's great community involvement. Now the entire state has gotten involved, from Flagstaff to Tubac."

If Tucson gets to strut its stuff for the Global Glass conferees (an opening night celebration will showcase Tucson performing artists) the glass conference will go a long way toward putting glass art in a more secure niche in Tucson. Etherton, for one, put money into buying sturdy shelves and pedestals to display the fragile wares, and having bought them, he said, he'll be inclined to show glass again. Too, the conference will help initiate Tucsonans into the mysteries of glass art.

"What I know about glass wouldn't take up three minutes of your time," admitted Peter Bermingham, director of the University of Arizona Museum of Art. But Bermingham, like Etherton and others, expects that to change as a result of the upcoming glass infusion. Still, though the shows may educate, they won't have to persuade people to appreciate glass.

"Most people love it anyway," Bermingham said. "It has an inherently luxurious, stylish look. It has a glow that's sometimes superficial, sometimes profound."

Global Glass, the international Glass Art Society's 27th-annual conference. To get into all the conference activities, April 10 through 13, mostly at the TCC, 260 S. Church Ave., you must pay the full conference fee of $250, students $135, payable at the door. To go for just one day, the fee is $90, students $40. For information on the conference or events, call 884-7404. For a free take on all the glass activity, try the UA Arts Oasis afternoon of glass demonstrations, a performance piece, talks and exhibitions from 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, April 13, at the arts plaza near the Center for Creative Photography. Call 621-3117 for more information.

The G.A.S. International Expo is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. April 11 through 13, at the TCC. Calido! opens Friday, April 11, at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave. For details on other glass exhibits, see the art listings in this issue. TW

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