Summer of glass

Before steel and coal jump-started its economy and darkened its skies, Pittsburgh was known as the Glass City — shipping plate glass, tableware, and lighting fictures across the nation. If not for the influence of barons like Andrew Carnegie, Pittsburghers might be cheering on the “Glassers” at Heinz Field today.

But glass is making a comeback in Pittsburgh, in the form of glass art. 2007 has been dubbed the “Year of Glass” in Pittsburgh, and this summer features many exciting glass-related exhibitions and events.

Richard Piacentini, director of the Phipps Conservatory, set this summer’s events in motion in 2002, when he visited an exhibition of glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work in Chicago. Immediately, Piacentini knew he wanted Chihuly in Phipps. Piacentini contacted Richard Armstrong at the Carnegie Museum of Art to see if the museum would consider holding a glass exhibit as well. Armstrong called Karen Johnese at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, who asked the Glass Art Society to consider holding its 2007 conference in the former Glass City — and the foundations were laid for a “Summer of Glass.” Read on for a list of four exhibits of glass art coming this summer to Pittsburgh — from Venice to Japan.

Garden & Glass

On May 10, Phipps Conservatory will be transformed into a splendor of glass, leaves, and light in an exhibit called Chihuly At Phipps: Gardens & Glass. The show is sure to be an “incredible centerpiece” for the summer, said Sarah Nichols, curator of the Carnegie Museum of Art’s parallel exhibit, Viva Vetro! Glass Alive!. Phipps is showcasing glass artist Dale Chihuly, known for his elaborate multicolored pieces. After spending time in the world-famous glass factories of Venice, Chihuly returned to the United States to help establish glassblowing as an art form, in particular the use of collaborative teams in glassblowing. By using teams to blow glass, Chihuly is able to produce huge, elaborate pieces like 40-foot towers of glass or room-sized installations.

Chihuly’s work is especially fitting in a natural environment like Phipps because of the organic look of his art. His pieces often take the form of natural objects like shells, reeds, or seeds, and according to Michael Sexaver, Phipps’s director of communications, one of the goals of the exhibition is that the glass pieces “look like they grew there.” Sexaver said that Chihuly’s crew visited the conservatory several times to plan the show, and the conservatory has replanted and rearranged several plant beds to better complement the art. Sexaver expects the exhibit to more than double the conservatory’s visitors; tickets can be reserved online at www.phipps.conservatory.org.

Viva Vetro! Glass Alive!

Chihuly would be nowhere without the Venetian glass art tradition. Venice has been a center of glassmaking for centuries, but Americans didn’t study there until after the Second World War, when Italian glass was first exhibited in America to help boost the country’s economy. After Americans learned about Venetian glass, American designers and artists — Chihuly among them — began visiting factories in Venice in order to learn glass-making techniques and design glass items.

The Carnegie Museum of Art’s exhibit, Viva Vetro! Glass Alive!, focuses on the connections between Venice and America since the 1950s. Beginning May 12, the exhibit features 100 works from Venetian and American glass artists, in addition to illustrating many Venetian techniques and the American art they inspired. The show highlights all kinds of glass art, from works based on practical pieces, like chess sets, bowls, and chandeliers, to abstract sculptures.

Allure of Japanese Glass

The Pittsburgh Glass Center attracts glass artists from all over the world, but its main exhibit this summer features emerging Japanese artists, many of whom have never had their work shown in America. Beginning May 4, the exhibit includes work ranging from delicate sculptures that would fit in the palm of your hand to large installation pieces.

Until the Glass Center came to Friendship in 2001, glass artists in Pittsburgh had nowhere to work. Heather McElwee, director of education and exhibitions, said that the Center has four studios: the hot shop, where artists blow glass; the flameworking studio, where beads and marbles are made; the casting studio, where stained and fused glass is made; and the cold shop, where artists grind and engrave glass. In addition to studio space, the Glass Center hosts exhibitions, workshops, and tours.

Metamorphosis: The Life Cycle of a Glass Bead

The Heinz History Center, which also features a permanent exhibit on the history of glass in Pittsburgh, will hold an exhibit of glass jewelry starting May 5. Marianne Filiaggi, a bead artist whose work is part of the exhibit, said in an e-mail that the exhibit’s purpose is to “explain the creative process of going from a focal bead to a finished piece of jewelry.”

Metamorphosis, explained Leslie Kaplan, the president of the Three Rivers Glass Beadmakers, will also include loose material so visitors can see what glass beads feel like. The Three Rivers Glass Beadmakers is an organization for glass artists interested in beadmaking which sponsors workshops and supports local artists.

Pittsburgh’s glass community

The Glass Center has revitalized Pittsburgh’s glass art community. Filiaggi said in an e-mail, “The success of the Pittsburgh Glass Center has been a catalyst in bringing many master glass teachers to this area.”

Since the Glass Center came to town, 2000 glass artists have moved into the Pittsburgh area, and McElwee and her peers at the Center hope that members of the Glass Art Society, in town for the conference, will decide to relocate to Pittsburgh. The city’s history with glass, low cost of living, and growing art community could entice enough artists to make Pittsburgh the Glass City once again. As Filiaggi said, “It’s an exciting time to be a glass artist!”