Glass art masters Preston Singletary and Dante Marioni collaborate on an extraordinary body of work
By Gussie Fauntleroy, Photos by Russell Johnson
Dante Marioni and Preston Singletary both started off in the glass art world the way all glass blowers do: first learning the demanding craft as members of glassblowing teams in various studios, then honing their skills with their own creations, blowing bubbles of colorful molten glass into simple vessel forms.
As teenagers in Seattle, the two worked together at a production glass factory making ornaments and paperweights, and in the following years their paths crossed many times. They both studied—and later both taught—at the Pilchuck Glass School; they trained with several of the same Venetian and American glass art masters, and for a time Singletary served as an assistant to Marioni as the latter was gaining proficiency in classical Venetian glassblowing techniques.
After years of establishing their respective careers, the two friends came together earlier this year to merge their talents in a collaborative body of work. The almost two dozen pieces they produced will be presented by Blue Rain Gallery at the 18th annual SOFA (Sculpture Objects & Functional Art) show in Chicago on the weekend of November 4-6. The works combine elements of each artist’s distinctive aesthetic approach and highly developed set of technical skills. Among these: Marioni’s elegant vessel forms; rich, clear colors; and delicate reticello patterning; and Singletary’s signature designs and sculpted glass animals inspired by his Native Tlingit heritage from the southeastern Alaska coast.
Marioni grew up immersed in the glassblowing world and discovered his passion for the craft as a young teen. His father, Paul Marioni, was a pioneer in the American glass art movement in the 1960s and ’70s. When Dante was in his midteens, the family moved from San Francisco to Seattle, where he was exposed to such glassblowing masters as Lino Tagliapietra, Benjamin Moore, and Richard Marquis. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he reflects, noting that he entered the Seattle glass scene just as it was experiencing an extraordinary burst of creative energy.
Initially his obsession was simply blowing glass, enjoying the camaraderie of the fluidly choreographed teamwork in hot glass studios, and perfecting his skills. Deeply influenced by centuries of tradition in Venetian glass, he gradually moved in his own direction: elongating forms, exploring color, and experimenting with intricate patterning methods, including reticello. This technique involves blowing a vessel containing cane work—rods of colored glass that produce fine parallel lines. One such vessel may be placed precisely inside another and fused together with the lines moving in opposite directions. When done well, a tiny air bubble is formed inside each small diamond or square.
Now 47, Marioni is among the most accomplished American glass artists working in reticello and other demanding Venetian-style techniques. His internationally collected vases, goblets, and other vessels are at the Smithsonian, the White House Collection of American Crafts, Corning Museum of Glass, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and museums in Japan, Sweden, Australia, and elsewhere. Both he and Singletary frequently teach in the United States and abroad.
It was during high school in Seattle that Singletary and Marioni became friends. At the time, Singletary’s driving interest was music. He played guitar and wrote funk, jazz, and world music songs for the Seattle-based bands he was in, while working at the production glass factory where Marioni helped him get a job. Singletary’s early blown-glass works were decorative and functional Art Deco-inspired vessels. In the mid-1980s he began reflecting deeply on his heritage and exploring ways to bring to his art a more personal, culturally relevant voice.
He remembered stories told by his Tlingit great-grandmother, who grew up in Sitka, AK, and lived to be over 100. He traveled to Sitka to learn more about his ancestors’ matrilineal culture, visited museums, and read books, absorbing the legends, cosmology, and symbology of his people’s present and past. He studied ancient designs originally produced in natural materials, such as cedar, animal bone, and shell, and took particular note of images related to the totem of his ancestral family and clan.
Then he began to translate those stories and the Tlingit worldview into visually compelling forms and imagery in glass. Among the innovations Singletary developed is a method of sand-carving that allows him to recreate the strong graphic element of Northwest Coast formline designs. Once cooled, a blown glass surface is covered with rubber or vinyl tape, onto which the artist draws his design and then incises its crisp lines with a sharp knife. Using a hand-held nozzle inside a protective box, he directs a precise blast of aluminum oxide at the design to wear away the exposed glass, carving through layers of glass or producing a frosty look.
Because there is no pottery tradition in Pacific Northwest Coast culture, Singletary turned to basketry and cedar boxes for many of the forms he creates in glass. He also began carving in hot glass to shape animal figures, such as ravens, wolves, and frogs, which play central roles in centuries-old stories interweaving the worlds of animals, spirits, humans, and earth.
As he brought this ancient cultural perspective into the modern medium of glass, Singletary gained national and international renown. In the mid-1990s, he married, put music on the back burner, and “fell back on his art career,” as he jokes, turning to glass full time. Today, at 48, he has works in the permanent collections of such institutions as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Corning Museum of Glass, the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Handelsbanken in Sweden.
Singletary and Marioni’s collaborative venture—the first they’ve done together—began as a suggestion by Leroy Garcia, owner of Blue Rain Gallery in Santa Fe, NM, and Scottsdale, AZ, which represents both artists’ work. The two were excited about joining forces, not only for the creative challenge but also just to reconnect after a decade or so of seeing little of each other as they pursued demanding careers. Both still live in Seattle and both are fathers now, so their time together also meant catching up on news of family and friends.
“It was a real joy to work together,” Singletary relates. “It was kind of liberating to get back together with the purpose of creating a body of work. Aesthetically we were really able to bring our two strengths together and create something different and new.” In many ways, Marioni adds, the rhythm of blowing glass together was as familiar as if they had been doing it all along. “To be in a glassblowing studio with Preston feels totally normal. The only difference is he doesn’t make the kinds of things I do anymore,” he says. “It was fun to just hang out with him because I never see him anymore.”
The collaboration began in January 2011 and continued into June, when hot glass studios typically shut down due to the summer heat. The two artists met in each other’s studios, deciding how to combine their distinctive approaches in each piece. For some, the vessel’s overall shape was based on basketry of the Northwest Coast, while others reflect a more classical Italian vessel form. LIGHTNING SNAKE, for example, resembles a vertical basket in an earth-toned golden-tan. Marioni created a wavy-patterned reticello on the top and bottom, while Singletary carved a traditional shaman’s hat pattern in the center band.
In several pieces, patterned glass and carved designs suggest lightning and rain, and some have handles formed by animals Singletary sculpted in glass. The artists each produced certain components in their own studios and brought them when they came together for the glassblowing portion of each piece. For more involved works they used Benjamin Moore’s studio, which is large enough to accommodate a team of five or more assistants.
“We did a lot of improvising as we went, which is sort of the nature of blowing glass anyway—you can overplan with glass,” Marioni explains. Especially toward the end of the project, however, the artists combined elements in an even more spontaneous way. “There was one we did that was more random,” Marioni remembers. “I said, I’m going to make a tall, flattened shape, like a fish standing on its tail, and Preston had a frog and we decided to put it on the shoulder of the piece. It was more collaborative on the fly. It was totally fun.”
The one area where compromise was sometimes required was color; Marioni favors bright, transparent hues, while Singletary’s work often echoes natural colors from the materials of his culture’s past, including stone or wood. Some of the pair’s collaborative pieces combine the two approaches—for example, with black reticello patterns and a lip wrap of brilliant red.
While both artists stay busy with various projects involving their own art—Marioni describes himself as “all over the place” in his exploration of techniques and design, and Singletary is working on, among other things, an eight-foot-tall cast-glass totem pole—the two hope to collaborate again. “I’m looking forward to doing it more,” Marioni affirms. “I think we just got started.”
Featured in November 2011.