Artists stretch themselves and forge new ideas at Pittsburgh Glass Center


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Ideas have been heating up for the past six months at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, where seven local artists collaborated with five glass masters to create works for the 2014 Pittsburgh Biennial. It is the first time the center is participating as a biennial venue. 

The exhibition is the product of an expanded rendition of the Idea Furnace, a monthly experimental workshop program established in 2012 by Jason Forck, a glass artist and coordinator of youth education at the center.

“I wanted to bridge a gap I perceived between the regional art community and the glass artists,” he says.

The program pairs a staff member with an artist who does not typically work with glass. Aside from inspiring creative exploration, it generates awareness for a medium that has remained relatively exclusive due to its high cost and the serious equipment it necessitates. 

In preparation for the biennial, the Idea Furnace grew into a six-month residency. Heather McElwee, executive director of the center and curator of the exhibition, says she sought artists whose work she admired. Her hope was to prompt an artistic dialogue within each pairing. 

The program’s temporary expansion has offered the artists more time to simply experiment with the material and challenge its limits, Mr. Forck says. Due to the extensive training required to actually work with the medium, the residency artists have been limited in their hands-on work. They have turned to the glass artists for help.

“The more classes you take, the more you realize how difficult it is and how much you don’t know,” says painter Juliet Pusateri, who has taken classes at the center. One of her installations for the exhibition includes the glass pearl, pea and egg sculptures she created during a 2012 Idea Furnace session.  

Watercolor artist Kara Skylling, who is exhibiting six wall sculptures that exist individually and function collectively, says she embraced the opportunity’s uncertainty.

“I kind of had a specific idea in my head, but since I wasn’t familiar with the medium, I wasn’t really sure how that would work.”

Working with glass artist and outreach assistant Margaret Spacapan, Ms. Skylling was pleased that her aesthetic came through in the new medium.

Ms. Spacapan says the resident artists’ unfamiliarity with the medium challenged their collaborators to push its limits. “We, as glass artists, have this preconception of what glass can do.”

Mr. Forck agrees. “It’s always fun to have a fresh pair of eyes and ideas to come in. Glass, in general, is a pretty collaborative material.”

After this residency, Ms. Pusateri says she would consider incorporating glass into her art in the future.

“I think that it’s definitely something that will kind of come to mind more so now that I’ve had this experience,” she says.

Cherishing the relationships she has developed, she says she would like to turn to the center staff for their critiques on work that may not necessarily incorporate glass. 

Adapting to a new medium has not been the only transition for public installation artist Will Schlough, who is accustomed to presenting his work on street corners and brick facades.

“It’s important for me to have my work where people can openly experience it.”

Approaching the gallery setting as he would any other environment, he sought ways in which his work depicting familiar objects could interact with its environment. His installation includes a collection of colorful stalactites and a lawn mower overflowing with seemingly iridescent glass bubbles.

The other resident artists were Bob Beckman, Jeremy Boyle, Toby Fraley and Vanessa German. The other glass artists were Melissa Fitzgerald, Ashley McFarland and Travis Rohrbaugh.

These works and more will be on display in the center’s Hodge Gallery until Oct. 26. Admission is free. In November, an abbreviated version of the exhibition will be featured at the SOFA Art and Design Fair in Chicago, where a pair of participating artists will also present a lecture on the Idea Furnace collaboration. Information: www.pittsburghglasscenter.org or www.pittsburghbiennial.org.


Mary Hornak: mhornak@post-gazette.com.

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