Women Glass Artists | Heating It Up

Toots Zynsky, Rewarding Chaos and Flaming Chaos, blown glass, 51⁄2 x 9 x 7 (l)  glass, southwest art.
Toots Zynsky, Rewarding Chaos and Flaming Chaos, blown glass, 51⁄2 x 9 x 7 (l) and 11 x 161⁄2 x 11 (r).

By Margery Aronson

In 1971, a Rhode Island School of Design instructor named Dale Chihuly founded the Pilchuck Glass School north of Seattle, WA. Over the years, many leading glass artists have attended the school as students and teachers, making Pilchuck, and the Pacific Northwest, the focal point of the contemporary American glass movement. As former artist-in-residence Maya Lin writes in the foreword to Pilchuck: A Glass School [1996 University of Washington Press], “The energy at Pilchuck has helped countless artists from around the globe spark their ideas and ignite their creative processes.” From the start, a significant number of these artists have been women. This article profiles eight of the best.

Toots Zynsky was one of 16 “Pilchuck pioneers” at the school’s inaugural summer workshop. Today, her work is included in the White House Collection of American Craft as well as in major museums and public and private collections internationally.

Sonja Blomdahl, untitled, blown glass, 151⁄2 x 113⁄4. glass, southwest art.
Sonja Blomdahl, untitled, blown glass, 151⁄2 x 113⁄4.

After acquiring a stash of plate glass in 1972, Zynsky began to make sculpture using this found material. She progressed through a series of colorless handblown pieces to works combining fused glass threads with blown parts. Eventually tiring of having to work with studio assistants to pull the glass threads by hand, Zynsky, in collaboration with Mathijs Teunissen van Manen, developed a technique called filet de verre that allowed her to make the threads on her own. Van Manen invented a device that produced thin, uniform strands of glass in a panoply of colors.

Zynsky painstakingly layers these colored threads on a flat tile to make a unique composition and then fuses, slumps (heats to take the form of a mold), and shapes the threads into elegant, radiant vessels.

Sonja Blomdahl began working in glass in college in 1972 but made real progress after noted glass sculptor Dan Dailey came to teach at the Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, during her senior year. After graduation, Blomdahl and a friend set up a small blowing studio in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and made production glass to sell at craft fairs. Tiring of making the same thing over and over, she applied to Sweden’s Orrefors Glass School, where she studied for six months before embarking on a tour of Europe. When she returned to the United States, she was invited by Dailey to be his teaching assistant at Pilchuck. Blomdahl has commented that even in the late 1970s, women in the glass field were relegated to such peripheral roles as opening and closing the furnace doors, preparing color rods, and assisting the gaffers, who manage the activity on the hot-shop floor.

Ginny Ruffner, Concept, Narrative Series: The Burning Desire to Communicate, glass/mixed media, 191⁄2 x 15 x 15. glass, southwest art.
Ginny Ruffner, Concept, Narrative Series: The Burning Desire to Communicate, glass/mixed media, 191⁄2 x 15 x 15.

After her Pilchuck summer, Blomdahl moved to Seattle and began working at Glass Eye Studio while teaching glassblowing at Pratt Fine Arts Center in the evenings. She had her first gallery exhibition in 1981 and by 1983 had built her own studio near Seattle’s Lake Union, where she still works today.

Blomdahl’s work is concerned with symmetry and the seamless, pure union of form and color. Working in a dialogue with her materials, she lets color dictate form. From her first bowls and spheres to the more recent pear- and hourglass-shaped vessels, Blomdahl has used the “double-bubble” technique in which separate bubbles of glass are joined together while hot and then blown out to make resonant, luminous objects. She unifies colors in vessels that appear simple and complex at the same time.

Ginny Ruffner worked at engraving and glass-blowing companies in her native Georgia before moving to Seattle in the mid-1980s. She brought with her and to her students at Pilchuck in 1984—the use of borosilicate glass for flame-working, in which glass elements are joined by heat from a specially designed lamp. Using this glass, which is much harder than traditional soda-lime glass, Ruffner took flame-worked glass sculpture to sizes unheard of at the time.

Ruffner creates recognizable, often narrative imagery using stretched and formed sandblasted glass tubes that she subtly colors with oils, pastels, acrylics, and colored pencils. She re-mains an innovator in the field because of the complex ideas she addresses and her skill in creating works that are at once translucent and opaque, original and witty, and occasionally subversive.

Joey Kirkpatrick & Flora Mace, Still Life, handblown glass and wood, 31 x 57. glass, southwest art.
Joey Kirkpatrick & Flora Mace, Still Life, handblown glass and wood, 31 x 57.

Flora Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick met at Pil-chuck in 1979 and the following year became the first women to teach hot, or furnace-melted, glass at the school. They collaborated to make sculpture of blown glass and alderwood culled from the forests on the Pil-chuck campus. As they continued to develop their sculptural imagery, they began to include realistic-looking fruit, which ultimately led to the creation of still-life assemblages of glass fruit and vegetables on lacquered alderwood platters. Today, Mace and Kirkpatrick are known for producing these glass fruits on a grandiose scale, with pears and apples as large as chairs.

Cappy Thompson is also an innovator who has applied her training in drawing and painting to glass art. At the core of her work is an interest in medieval imagery influenced by illuminated manuscripts and woodblock prints, folk art from many cultures, and world mythologies.

Thompson began her career in 1975 at a production stained-glass studio in Olympia, WA. In 1984 she was invited to become an artist-in-residence at Pilchuck, where she has continued to teach. The hot-shop gaffers at Pilchuck offered her blanks—vessels blown in opalescent white glass—to work with, and she became intrigued by the possibilities of using these vessels to present images in the round rather than on a flat surface. She paints inside the forms, firing many layers of applied pigments as she brings her fables and tales of past civilizations to life.

Cappy Thompson, The Shaman s Robe: I dreamed of a Shamaness Who Fashioned Me a Coat of Ears so I Could Hear my Soul s Desire, fired enamels on blown glass, 243⁄4 x 11 x 11. glass, southwest art.
Cappy Thompson, The Shaman’s Robe: I dreamed of a Shamaness Who Fashioned Me a Coat of Ears so I Could Hear my Soul’s Desire, fired enamels on blown glass, 243⁄4 x 11 x 11.

What drives Thompson’s work is a profound interest in the visual narratives inherent in the myths of antiquity and a dedication to the primacy of drawing. Her skills as a painter complement her desire to express through storytelling her belief in the strength of the earth.

Although Flo Perkins has been working with glass since the 1970s, over the last few years she has been combining color-filled glass elements with sinuous metal components that she casts at a foundry and fabricates in her studio. Perkins forms cacti and bouquets of flowers from sumptuously colored glass and metal, deriving her imagery from the beautiful high country of northern New Mexico where she works.

Over the years, Perkins has studied and taught at Pilchuck and has exhibited her work throughout the United States and abroad. Her glass sculptures are included in the collections of the Boston Athenaeum Library, MA, and the Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, NY.

First trained as a painter at the Rhode Island School of Design, Mary Shaffer went on to develop her own glass-slumping technique in 1972. She was an artist-in-residence at Pilchuck in 1980 and subsequently became director of the craft department at New York University.

Shaffer is currently an internationally known sculptor who has progressed from making works on canvas de-picting light to utilizing actual light as it streams through glass. She goes with the flow of the glass material as it responds to heat and gravity in a kiln, combining the fluid forms she creates with metal elements. Shaffer also pairs cast- and slumped glass components with found metal objects and tools, imbuing these combinations with an homage to the artifacts of the past while investing them with a thoroughly contemporary sense of the present. The wall pieces she fabricates from these components are a dialogue between the fluidity inherent in glass and the rigidity of the metal elements. Shaffer’s sculptures are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Craft Museum, New York, and the Corning Museum of Glass.

Mary Shaffer, Tool Wall Variations, glass and metal, dimensions variable.
Mary Shaffer, Tool Wall Variations, glass and metal, dimensions variable.

Despite differing backgrounds and experiences, all of these women have shared what Maya Lin de-fines in her essay as the spirit of Pilchuck: “You get comfortable with what you can do, and then you start to push yourself. You experiment with new materials, new processes, new ways of thinking. You start collaborating with others from wildly diverse backgrounds to add new dimension to your art and to expand your horizons. You keep on pushing, refining your technique, getting better and better.”

Featured in November 1997