The tale of 20th century studio glass is a stew of inexplicable passion, technology, and countless innovations.
At the heart of its beginnings is a man with an insatiable curiosity for glass, stemming, no doubt, from his father, a scientist who developed Pyrex in 1915 and often took his boy to work with him at Corning Glass Works.
The son, Harvey Littleton, disappointed his father by not becoming a physicist. He wanted to make beautiful objects from glass, which his father insisted could not be done by an individual in a studio. Glass, he said, could only be made by a team of skilled craftsmen working in huge factory furnaces capable of generating tremendous heat. The technology simply did not exist.
Inhabited by an artistic soul, young Littleton went on to study the next closest thing: ceramics, though he remained forever fascinated by glass.
After serving in World War II, he submitted a proposal to study the aesthetic properties of industrial glass in the Corning factory but it, like many subsequent proposals he'd submit, was rejected. Mr. Littleton had taught pottery at the Toledo Museum of Art (1949-1951) and then at the University of Wisconsin. When he could, he went to Europe, searching out ceramic masters but keeping an eye open for glass, and was surprised to find artists making glass in small furnaces, particularly on the island of Murano in Venice, renowned since the 13th century for glass artistry.
Mr. Littleton, turns 90 Wednesday in North Carolina. He won't attend this week's Glass Art Society's annual conference in Toledo that opens on his birthday and will draw at least 1,200 glass artists, connoisseurs, and others for seminars and talks at the SeaGate Centre and the art museum, and shopping at 40 galleries that will glisten with glass. But his labors 50 years ago, when he was a ceramics teacher at the University of Wisconsin, along with propitious input by a talented crew, are central to this international gathering.
Mr. Littleton was ready. In the Netherlands, he'd befriended Sybren Valkrema, who was making glass in a small furnace. And in 1959, he led a discussion on the potential of glass at an American craft symposium.
His "Aha!" moment was in 1962. He'd planned a brainstorming workshop for ceramicists who would spend a week trying to figure things out. Otto Wittmann, Toledo's museum director, urged him to hold it here. Nine enrolled.
"All over the world there were people working on their own in clay, enamel, metals, and so on, but not in glass," said Fritz Dreisbach, who developed a glass-making program at the Toledo museum in 1967. "Artists wanted to work with glass just like clay, enamel, and so on."
The first of two workshops (the second was in June) was in March in a garage on museum grounds. The artists built a small brick gas-fired oven, basically a kiln such as those used by ceramicists to bake their clay. They knew it would need adaptations. Inside the kiln were clay pots in which they put the ingredients for glass and heated them for many hours with hopes the glass would melt enough to be able to blow with a pipe. It was, however, tough and thick.
Enter Dominick Labino, a genius inventor who'd met Mr. Littleton a decade earlier when Mr. Littleton was teaching ceramics at the museum. Mr. Labino, then 51, had been troubleshooting for and making improvements to glass-making furnaces in his job at Owens Illinois and was now vice president and director of research and development at Johns Manville Fiber Glass Corp. in Waterville. He also considered himself a craftsman, puttering with glass, clay, and painting in his Grand Rapids workshop.
Mr. Labino removed the clay melting pots from the kiln, fashioned a top-firing furnace, and reworked the kiln to make it more like a tank. They poured glass marbles which Mr. Labino had invented that would melt at lower temperatures. It worked.
"Labino gave voice to Harvey's singing: how to build the furnace, how to put a cheap burner together. He made everything that Harvey dreamed of technologically possible," said Henry Halem, who developed a glass program at Kent State University in 1969.
The museum's ceramics teacher, Norman Schulman, helped set everything up.
"He was very important for the workshop," Mr. Dreisbach said. "Otto [Wittman] told Norm Schulman to make it work, 'even if you don't think it will work.' Norm knew where to buy all the equipment they needed, he knew to go out to Nick Labino's and get supplies. And he was curious about glass and thought it should be done."
Following the two workshops, Mr. Schulman blew glass at Mr. Labino's studio and was hired to teach ceramics and start a glass program at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design.
Also key to the workshops were Clayton Bailey and Tom McGlauchlin, who had both worked as assistants to Mr. Littleton at the University of Wisconsin. They were so excited about the workshop, they couldn't sleep the first night. Some nights, they played with molten glass until the sun rose.
Toledoan Edith Franklin recalls the workshop. In 1962, she was an Ottawa Hills wife and mother who had taken Mr. Littleton's clay classes at the museum a decade earlier.
"I decided to take the workshop because Harvey Littleton was coming but they said I couldn't, not a little housewife from Pembroke [Road]. Two days before, they didn't have enough people so they asked me to sign up," Mrs. Franklin said. Like the others, she was able to blow glass and produced a few pieces, but the equipment was heavy.
"I wasn't big enough or strong enough. The most important thing was that I couldn't do it at home in my basement by myself," said Mrs. Franklin, who was raising two children. She became highly skilled in ceramics, starting programs and teaching hundreds of people.
"The workshops proved to Harvey that glass was teachable at the level we wanted to learn," Mr. Dreisbach said. "We didn't want to go to school for five years to study glass chemistry."
Returning to Wisconsin, Mr. Littleton began teaching glassmaking at his home studio and added it to the University of Wisconsin curriculum. By 1965, he had schooled the first wave of American glass artists, who went forth and established programs around the country, said Mr. Dreisbach, who has taught hundreds of workshops and classes for 45 years.
He, Mr. Halem, and three other pioneers -- Marvin Lipofsky, Joel Phillip Myers, and Toots Zynsky -- will speak at a history panel Friday called Blowin' in the Wind. The panel is open only to Glass Art Society conference attendees.
Contact Tahree Lane at: email@example.com or 419-724-6075.