How a brilliant form of art gained shape from a humble start


In the mid-20th century, at a time rife with the spirit of experimentation, glass beckoned artists with the freshness of unexplored territory.

Glass in its many manifestations promised brilliant color as glossy and saturated as that of wet paint, but with greater luminosity and plasticity, both of which were yet uncharted for artistic expression.

Up to the early 1940s, the typical perception of glass came from its use as an industrial material applied to mostly functional and decorative objects, conceived by trained glass designers, and made in quantity by skilled glass craftsmen.

After 1945, however, in the culturally and economically optimistic period following World War II, a fundamental shift occurred as glass quickly became a medium for individual artistic conception and expression.

In the late 1950s, Harvey Littleton, an instructor in ceramics at the University of Wisconsin, had been experimenting with the concept of glass as a studio craft for more than a decade when he traveled to Italy to study small glass furnaces and then began lecturing on his ideas.

Toledo Museum of Art Director Otto Wittmann approached Mr. Littleton to hold the college-level glass seminar he was planning in Toledo rather than in Madison.

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The museum, founded by glass industrialist Edward D. Libbey, was already home to the most comprehensive collection of historical glass in the country and had ties with the largely family-owned local glass industry.

The first one-week workshop lasted from March 23 to April 1, 1962, with eight ceramics teachers and graduate students enrolled. They focused on setting up a small glass furnace, melting glass, and attempting to blow glass objects.

With the technical support of local glass researcher Dominick Labino and the glassblowing expertise of Harvey Leafgreen, a 69-year-old retired Owens-Illinois glassblower, the workshop was declared a success. A second, longer seminar-workshop was held at the museum from June 18 to 30, 1962. Although few of the original workshop participants continued to work in glass, the concept of studio glass gathered momentum as Mr. Littleton, Tom McGlauchlin, and others founded college glass programs to train the next generation.

The two Toledo glass workshops have been viewed from the very moment of their occurrence as historic occasions, the genesis of American studio glass.

Fifty years after these seminal events, a new generation of artists is rediscovering these humble beginnings as authentic explorations of the fundamental materiality of glass.

Jutta-Annette Page is curator of glass and decorative arts, Toledo Museum of Art.