Swept Away, glass, H16.
By Bonnie Gangelhoff
In the spring of 1997, Randi Wagner was browsing through the bookstore in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, CA, when an intriguing title caught her eye. She pulled a copy of The Artist’s Way [1992 Penguin Putnam Inc.] from the shelf and thumbed through it. The connection was immediate. “I was struggling with my art, and this book clicked with me,” Wagner says. “That seems like another lifetime ago. So much has happened since then. It’s incredible.”
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a popular book with established and aspiring artists. The slim volume offers a 12-week program to unleash creativity that’s blocked by fear, self-sabotage, and other inhibiting forces.
At the time of her L.A. visit two years ago, Wagner was living in Salt Lake City, UT. She worked in an 1,800-square-foot space, a dream studio she designed herself. Wagner was known then as an abstract colorist painter. Today the artist makes her home in Santa Fe, NM, and works in a cozy, 500-square-foot studio with a tile floor, kiva, and skylight. She is establish-
ing herself comfortably in a new medium, having transferred her talent from canvas to glass. Wagner has shown her paintings in galleries across the country, but this past summer she exhibited her glass designs for the first time in the United States at Contemporary Southwest Galleries in Santa Fe.
Wagner’s two-and-a-half-year journey from her first encounter with The Artist’s Way has propelled her thousands of miles around the globe and generated a creative rebirth. The major changes in her artistic (and personal) life did not come easily but were necessary, she says. “I had hit a wall as far as my career was concerned. The well had run dry,” Wagner says. “I had everything in Salt Lake major exhibitions, success, and a fabulous studio. But I began to grapple with questions like ‘What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’ and ‘Where do I want to live?’”
Giallo Bowl, glass, 24 Dia.
When she returned to Salt Lake City from California she began doing the simple exercises recommended in The Artist’s Way, including writing what the author calls morning pages. Every morning for three months, Wagner rose and diligently wrote three pages of whatever thoughts crossed her mind without internal censors. “I would take a cup of coffee out to my studio and write. The pages became a form of meditation and therapy for me,” Wagner says.
The daily writing gradually clarified her thoughts. She came face to face with two elements she considered important but absent from her life. After 20 years as an artist she was tired of working alone and longed for the collaborative experience. Wagner also realized she needed to take drastic measures to rejuvenate her creative spirit. She came to concur with the book’s theory that it’s difficult to complain about a situation morning after morning without being moved to constructive action.
The daily morning pages ultimately led to major changes. “It took a lot of work and soul searching until I was able to achieve ‘escape velocity,’” she says. “But I eventually left my entire life behind.” Wagner’s first drastic step included a cross-country trip with her companion and future husband, Yan Ross. The couple traveled the back roads of America from California to New York, stopping in small towns and meeting new people. “This trip helped refill a dry well,” Wagner says.
Sommerso, acrylic, 36 x 48.
In October 1997, the couple extended their travels to Europe, following Impressionist painter Claude Monet’s itinerary from his home and gardens at Giverny in France to Antibes and finally to Venice, Italy, where Monet occupied the Palazzo Barbaro on one of his last sojourns outside France. Wagner had dreamed of such a trip for years. “I always wanted to see Giverny because Monet has always inspired me as an artist and his passion, like mine, was his gardens,” Wagner says.
In Venice the couple visited Marco Polo Fornace, a glass studio and gallery on Murano Island. Wagner recalls Ross turning to her and saying, “You should be doing this. You love glass work.” Indeed, Wagner had always harbored a desire to create glass art. When Ross spoke to the owner and explained his wife was an artist, the owner coincidentally explained that he was looking for an American designer for his studio and invited Wagner to submit designs for possible production.
Sitting on her hotel room balcony that weekend in Venice, Wagner designed her first glass works using watercolors. Her creations for two vases and a free-standing sculpture piece featured contemporary shapes and bold colors. Upon reviewing the designs, the studio owner invited her to stay three months to study glass production.
In March 1998 she began her apprenticeship, working with an artisan known as a maestro. Her first glass piece, Vaso Rosso, was a traditional blown-glass vessel form featuring splashes of primary colors. Several more pieces followed including Giallo Bowl, a sunshine-yellow vessel with vibrant orange and blue lines, and Opalina, a sensuous red and blue glass bowl.
“I never thought I could get involved in glass because there was no way to learn the technical skills,” Wagner says. “But the tradition in Italy is that the artist is separate from the maestro, and it’s a collaborative effort. The artist designs, and the maestro executes.”
For Wagner the collaborative experience was enriching beyond her expectations. “I didn’t speak Italian, but once I got working with the maestros the language wasn’t a problem. It was just artist to artist, and it was thrilling,” she says.
After several weeks she moved on to work with another maestro, who transformed ad-ditional designs into free-
standing glass sculptures. A complex, time-consuming method creates layers of crystal glass that eventually encase colored glass. The glass is sculpted, not blown. “It’s like a captured painting,” Wagner says. She created two works, Swept Away and After Glow, in this fashion. Buried inside an elegant form, the glass paintings are tapestries of red, yellow, and blue glass.
When Wagner left Italy, she settled into her new studio in Santa Fe, a city she chose to live in because of its cultural diversity and emphasis on art. Her glass art at first inspired new paintings. For example, Swept Away inspired Sommerso, an acrylic painting. Lately, she says, the colors of her paintings have shifted to a Santa Fe pallete, reflecting the surrounding landscapes.
These days when she is blocked, she opens her studio door to a riot of flowers in her courtyard garden, which she views as her other art form. “In summer my garden becomes a living canvas for me,” Wagner says. She has not looked at her morning pages since she finished them. “I find that my art is my journal, and now that I am excited about my life and work, that is enough,” Wagner says.
In the future she plans to return to Murano to create more glass pieces and expand into other areas of artistic creation. “Most of all in the next five years I plan to let life unfold,” Wagner says. “I had to learn to have faith in synchronicity, that we change and the universe furthers and expands that change. I learned to overcome a fear of taking control of my own life, of following my heart. I learned about letting go of material things. As Joseph Campbell says, “Follow your bliss and doors will open where there were no doors before.’”
Featured in September 1999