Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s, Jan Stoffels found herself drawn regularly to the floor at Marshall Field’s department store dedicated to teen apparel. But rather than a dress or a pair of shoes, an artwork on display there attracted her attention — a clear glass vase decorated with a bluebird. One day, a salesperson saw Stoffels gazing at the vase and suggested that she apply to buy it on credit.
“It was no money down, pay what you can and no interest,” Stoffels recalls. “I didn’t even tell my parents.”
Nearly 30 years would pass before Stoffels bought another piece of glass art, but these days one of the finest collections of glass art in Tampa Bay fills her St. Petersburg home. Through October, 19 of her prized possessions — including the bluebird vase, c. 1965, by Swedish artist Eva Englund — are on loan to the Museum of Fine Arts for the exhibition Global + Local: Studio and Contemporary Glass on Florida’s West Coast. Assembled exclusively from Pinellas County-based collections of glass art, the survey of 108 works paints a vivid picture of both a passion for glass that runs strong among local collectors and the complexity of the medium as a form for contemporary art and craft.
Not by coincidence, the practice of blowing glass as a form of studio-based art in the United States celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The medium’s “birth” outside the world of commercial industry dates to 1962, when ceramics artist and teacher Harvey K. Littleton — the son of an employee of Corning Glassworks in New York State — began teaching visual artists to blow glass at the University of Toledo. Though the impact of his teachings goes largely unappreciated outside glass art circles, one of Littleton’s later students, Dale Chihuly (whom he taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison) went on to become a household name.
Both artists are represented in Global + Local by pieces from Stoffels’ collection. (Chihuly has several pieces in the show.) The Littleton, circa 1987, consists of three parts made of cased glass, or glass composed of layers in different colors fused together. AN inverted arc of clear glass containing a central ribbon of rose, orange and blue sits atop a clear, rectangular base. Next to them rests a clear orb, sliced in half and containing inner circles of the same colors. Polished to glimmering perfection, the assemblage of shapes is a study in simply elegant geometry and color relationships.
Other Stoffels contributions to the show illustrate what else glass art can be. A 1996 sculpture by Dante Marioni riffs on cup and pitcher forms (the kylix and the oinochoe) from ancient Greece in blown glass, elongating the shapes and showcasing the artist’s interest in reworking tradition. A show-stopping piece by Jay Musler called “Cityscape” (1981) turns a commercial glass object — a spherical Pyrex flask — into an urban microcosm. (To create the piece, Musler split the sphere in half to make a bowl, carved its edge into a miniature cityscape of building silhouettes and spray painted the vessel smoldering orange-red.) Yet another work, “Teddy” (1999) by Lisabeth Sterling, demonstrates glass’s narrative potential; her clear and amethyst-hued vase tells a fairytale through elaborate illustrations engraved into alternating layers of colored glass.
One thing Stoffels admits her collection lacks are works by William Morris, an artist well-known for his somewhat macabre forms. Morris is represented in the exhibit by five pieces — including a large urn that contains a skull made of glass — loaned by collectors Lynn and Jeff Vilmar and William and Hazel Hough (major donors to the MFA). Morris’s work doesn’t reflect Stoffels’ collecting aesthetic, which she describes with playful defiance as “pretty.”
Most of the pretty — nay, beautiful — works she has collected over the past 30 years are on display at the museum, where they make up about a sixth of the glass art on view.
“When you love glass, you want to share it,” Stoffels says.
MFA curator Jennifer Hardin decided to organize the show after receiving a letter about the 50th anniversary occasion from the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass, a non-profit group of glass art enthusiasts whose mission is to promote the medium. At first Hardin thought the exhibit would be small, but once she met with local collectors — in some cases for the first time since a 1999 glass art exhibit at the MFA — she realized that the quality and scope of collections in Pinellas County alone could support a major exhibition.
Struck by the intensity of local interest in the medium, Hardin believes its cause is a special relationship between the Gulf Coast’s characteristics as a place and the transparent, translucent medium.
“I think it has to do with the light we have in Florida,” she says. “Collectors have their glass, they live on the water, they have huge windows — and the light in Florida with the water is just magical. Glass looks completely different here than in the northern light.”
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