“We’re just rubbish compared to nature.”
–Steve Royston Brown

The old guy in dripping-wet shorts looked me up and down, once, twice. “Honey,” he said, shaking his head sadly, “You gotta learn to get in out of the rain.”

Well, yeah, but the farmer’s market was over THERE and the nearest shelter was at least a box of raspberries, carton of fresh chevre and wood-fired bagel away.

It was Saturday at BeCON, and you’d better believe that a little rain wasn’t keeping me from breakfasting superbly while the glassists talked art.

The presence of Portland Farmers Market a few yards away might be reason enough to attend BeCon, Bullseye’s biannual glass conference, but there are others. I usually gain fresh insights, and the biggest one I picked up this year was a doozy, quite possibly not one intended by our hosts:

Glass isn’t a medium, it’s a crutch. We don’t need to cross over as much as we need to throw away the crutch.

(Honk if you think that’s scary)

I just spent the last three days listening to some pretty exalted artists discussing their approaches to art and the role played by glass. It got so I could fairly consistently identify who came from glass and who primarily worked in another medium, simply by listening to them describe their work.

The glassists invariably included glass as an important part of the creative discussion, almost as if the glass was a partner in the creation.

Non-glassists spoke of their art, their voice and their practice. Whatever medium they worked in was an also-ran in the discussion, there primarily to add context.

When they talked about glass, it was along the line of adding new weaponry to the arsenal, not in changing their identities in any way.

It was a bit eye-opening, and made me wonder if the medium of glass is so seductive, so strongly voiced on its own, and so complicated to learn that glassists lose sight of what’s really supposed to be happening: The expression of the artist’s voice. For these artists, that was never in doubt.

That mostly didn’t happen with the glass artists. I’m not suggesting that glass artists never have a voice, or that glass is simply too dangerous to an artist’s identity to be a viable medium. Clearly that isn’t the case for a lot of great artists working in glass.

But if I survey my top 50 favorite glass artists, the vast majority started out strongly in another medium and switched to glass, or took up a second medium later and thrived.

I’m becoming convinced that finding your voice as a glass artist means climbing out of that beautiful glass box for awhile and developing expertise (and your voice) in some other medium. Maybe you come back to glass only when you’re strong enough to stand up to it.


Actually, the last day of BeCon was full of burning revelations, some hotter than others:

(Sorry, couldn’t resist)

We started the last morning with a place discussion–many of the speakers at the conference participated in a residency at Northlands glass where they studied two fascinating old buildings and used the experience to inform their work.

Steve Klein and Richard Parrish have been leading these things every few months, and by all accounts they’re lovely, transformative experiences. This one included many of the artists speaking at the conference; I particularly enjoyed Karlyn Sutherland’s account.

She’s an architecture student and artist (and very charming). The rest of the group came to Northlands, perched on the northernmost coast of Scotland, to experience the life-changing magic that everyone raves about.

Karlyn, however, grew up there, couldn’t wait to find the world outside. She came back to Northlands to discover what the heck magic these guys were talking about…and she found it. Listening to how she wove that back into a body of work was fascinating.

Lynn Avadenka is a printmaker, or rather, she makes books as part of her art. I like her work which looks like Philadelphia. Do not ask why I said that, it just does.

In part I’m attracted to her work for professional reasons; I was a print magazine editor for many years and she clearly knows her way around a printing press.

She uses text in her books, and understands that it works on two levels: The actual content, and the landscape it creates. The shape of words, lines, paragraphs, the positioning of punctuation, the use of white space–that stuff can dramatically affect how the reader perceives the content, and Avadenka both gets that and uses it in her art.

She made an interesting observation in her presentation: She adds text to her work because it draws people in and makes the work more approachable. And (technical note) she makes her marks, text and otherwise, with ceramic underglaze pencils. Hmmmm.

(Another technical note) Avadenka was paired with Bullseye’s Nathan Sandberg, who detailed the steps they took to create her “books,” i.e., glass pages joined at precise, sharp 90-degree angles. Seemed simple enough but was anything but, requiring the creation of special stainless steel cradle slumpers, and added fiber paper, baffling, and a lot of diddling with firing schedules.

Alex Hirsch’s presentation was another of those dual-level things for me, since I loved her paintings before I ever knew that she worked in glass, and she’s also a buddy.

Her work is absorbing and beautiful, totally scalable into massive architectural installations.

“A lot of my work is about trying to take myself somewhere.”
–Alex Hirsch

It helps that she’s a lovely, insightful person, great fun to talk with–she quietly watches what’s going on, then slips in a series of dead-on ironic comments from left field, kinda like her art. Here, Alex discussed her transition from painting to glass, how her work changes with experience, and what glass brings to her table.

In the afternoon, things got more technical, and I rejoiced. Discussions of artistic voice and artistic collaboration and the meaning of form or shape or color or whatever are all very well, but also available in any top university art department. Bullseye’s technical expertise is unique and much-valued, and if I spend 3 days at a BE glass conference I want a healthy dose of glasstech.

I got it in the afternoon. For example, artist and academician Vanessa Cutler is hung up on waterjet cutters, exploring them as a principal tool in making art for herself and others. She’s pushing to the edges of the waterjet/glass combination, piercing the glass partway through, cutting didoes almost to the very edge of the sheet, adding cut and shaped stainless steel for slumping forms, etc.

She shared what she’s up to, the fact that when you’re designing a piece for waterjet cutting, 6-9mm thickness is better than single layer (3mm), that fired glass cuts better than unfired, and that cutting success can even vary by color. Did you know that the Hubble telescope was waterjet cut?

Cutler showing a boatload of waterjet-cut bunny rabbits

Wow–I use the local waterjet cutters (and am trying to cut a deal with my cousins, who just happen to have a couple in their factory)…but I’m thinking I gotta get myself one of these things.

I’ve also gotta get cracking on 3D printing; I’ve been redesigning the Mendel RepRap printer, an open-source version that is designed to replicate itself endlessly. I’m thinking that with a few changes I could have it printing glass easily.

BeCON did what it’s very much supposed to do here: Fire my imagination. They offered up Steve Royston Brown, a UK artist with a PhD and garden-shed-turned-glass lab, and (gasp) Peter Weijmarhausen, the CEO of Shapeways, one of my most-watched startups, to discuss 3D printing with glass.

Brown’s approach is about as low-tech as you can get: He literally silkscreens glass powder onto a kilnshelf, building it up in layers until he’s extruded a 3D form. It’s very much akin to the way modern 3D printing works, except he uses a high-fire porcelain clay powder (like EPK) to fill in the gaps between the laid-down glasspiles and act as a support during firing.

Brown comes from ceramics, which is perhaps a more comfortable fit for the crossover into glass. Like glass artists, ceramic artists employ anything that works.

Brown’s “low-tech 3D printing” technique uses mosquito netting from Ikea in place of silkscreen mesh, he applies the powders with tea strainers, and his post-firing cleanup tool is a vacuum cleaner.

“When ceramicists first see glass they say ‘we can have red, hooray!'”
–Steve Royston Brown

The result is a layered, lacy mass, detailed and interleaved to the point that it resembles a fractal. “Print becomes object,” he said, “It’s no longer flat, it’s dimensional.” My friend and houseguest Brenda took Brown’s pre-conference class and–despite a firing schedule screwup that destroyed about 10 hours of careful screening–thinks she’s found her calling. Brown’s is an amazingly seductive process with lots of room for exploration and growth.

Peter Weijmarhausen, on the other hand, is taking the high-tech approach to glass printing.

He’s a geek, which means that he talked 180-degrees to all the high-falutin’ conceptual art abstraction stuff we’d been (enthusiastically) discussing…and I just ate it up.

Shapeways lets designers upload a 3D printing file of…something…and have it printed, i.e., manufactured, on Shapeways equipment.

They print plastics, steel, silver, bronze…and glass. Successful designs can be sold to others from the Shapeways catalog, and so far the model has been so successful that the company is running out of design storage space.

The process is not that different from inkjet printing–the printer runs across a layer of glass powder with binders, creating a line, and layer after layer are placed on top to extrude the form. The assembly is baked to set the binder, then the residual glass powder is vacuumed out. The piece is buried in fine refractory powder and fired at 750c (about 1382F), to sinter the glass. The whole process takes about two weeks:

It is, as he said, a manifesto for customization on a massive scale, and turns the whole mass production idea on its head. Instead of buying one of a gazillion identical widgets in the store, you choose a design, customize it to your requirements, and get exactly what you want.

There were lots of oooohs in the audience–the Shapeways glass printing (In the image above the video I’m holding a Shapeways-printed black shell) most closely resembles a mid-fired pate de verre. This is indeed a way to shortcut the production of pate de verre objects without all that silly sculpting, mold-making, coldworking, etc.

I winced as Weijmarhausen described it, wondering how many in the audience would realize that the problem of competition with China is nothing compared to the problem of competing with your own customer.

If Shapeways offered a bowl design in multiple colors with a number of optional 3D attachments–flowers, animals, letters, etc.–then customers could make their own custom pate de verre simply by clicking some radio buttons.

Of course, the current process has its limitations. The famous Shapeways “pate de verre” vase (left) was colored in a separate, post-firing stage with enamels. Right now your color choices are limited to solid white, solid black or recycled float. The texture is rough and this stuff isn’t cheap; first prototypes cost in the $100-$300 range, from the looks of things.

Maximum size is about 75x75x75mm, or a bit less than 3 inches on a side. And the design needs to be carefully engineered to be hollow, with walls of fairly uniform thickness.

Structurally, the support powder (also called a carrier) around the glass isn’t held rigidly in place like investment, which reduces the chance of stress induction/cracking as the glass shrinks during cool down (since the powder will shift as the glass contracts).

But the shifting powder increases the chance for distortion in the glass at process temperatures, as the glass powder softens and pushes out air. Shapeways estimates shrinkage rates at around 80 percent, so very thin fillets or outcroppings will distort or even separate. All that has to be taken into account in the engineering of your design.

Those are a LOT of variables, and a lot of problems to be overcome to engineer a glass piece that could scale into factory production at an outrageously unsalable (for now) price. Still, it’s a tremendous start with an amazing amount of potential.

And the powder deposition/sintering method is only one potential technique available in 3D printing. Direct printing with molten glass is another that’s being explored. And long before we’re directly printing with glass the casting alternatives, i.e., 3D printing in refactories and waxes, will be here pretty quickly.

Brian Boldon and Amy Bauer wrapped up the conference, discussing the use of photographic decals on glass. They provide this service for other artists, and use it in their own work. They discussed their setup for four color printing based on color laser processes, which they say produce near-photographic quality on glass. (And they’re based in the Minneapolis art district, part of my old stomping grounds. Cool.)

Their decals fire on glass at 1300F/704C, so you do the forming firings first, then fire on the decal. They offered some really gorgeous architectural images, which made me want to try it.

(Or at least to suggest to some local artist-and-sign-making buddies in the area that they ought to be getting into this business too. I’ll bet there would be PLENTY of demand in glassland….are you listening, Ed and Donna? 😉 )

This is already enormously long, and so I’ll finish with a wrapup of best, worst and the Lehr-B-Que tomorrow. G’night, all.

PS: If you want to read all the posts in the BeCON 2011 series, check here: