Jack Cantey, Contributing Writer
When you walk into the 46th International Glass Invitational Award Winners exhibition here at FWMoA, it’s likely that your eye will be immediately drawn to a pair of large, brightly-colored pieces standing in one of the gallery’s corners. These works by American glass artist Stephen Powell have playful, enigmatic titles, and, with their size and thinly curved structures, seem to be part-sculpture, part-architectural element. Lurid Salacious Viper, the taller of the two, features an irregular pattern of yellow, orange, purple, and green polygons; at the center of these repeating, layered shapes are vortexes that swirl away from the viewer into the sculpture itself. Frazzled Whispy Dreamer features alternating purple and turquoise vertical bands, which are tightly packed with overlapping organic forms that might make you think of cells viewed through a microscope. These alluring pieces are blown glass murrini, a kind of glassmaking process that utilizes handmade patterns—both simple and complex—created from the cross-sections of glass cane.
The making of glass murrini stretches back to over 4,000 years ago in the Middle East, perhaps originating in Alexandria before becoming popular in ancient Rome. Murrini is a very old term that originally referred to a precious stone (likely the colorful mineral fluorite) from Parthia. The Roman author Pliny writes about craftsmen who were able to create glass mosaic works with patterns that closely resembled these stones. After disappearing for centuries, the blown glass murrini process was brought back to life in the late nineteenth century by Venetian glassmaker Vicenzo Moretti on the island of Murano. The term began to be used to define a much broader range of glass mosaics, rather than just those patterns that imitated the appearance of Murrina stones.
Today, murrini (alternate spellings include murrina, murrine, and Murrine) can refer to small cross-sections of composite glass cane, as well as a multicolored pattern placed inside a blown glass vessel or structure. Contemporary artists such as Stephen Powell and Lino Tagliapietra create blown glass murrini by first making cane. These narrow rods (though they can also be flat) are produced when molten glass is stretched and left to cool; complex cane can be made by fusing bundles of these rods together. When the cane is cut into smaller pieces, their cross-sections are used to introduce patterns—whether geometric or organic—into blown glass artworks; the shapes, color combinations, and patterns made possible by this technique are virtually endless. These cut pieces of cane can be arranged into a pattern on a table. A glassblower then carefully picks up these pieces by rolling a bubble or cylinder of molten glass over them; once heated inside the glory hole (a hole in the side of a glass furnace), the murrini pattern becomes embedded in the molten glass, which can be formed into a variety of shapes, such as vessels, windows, or the remarkable structures of Powell’s currently on view at FWMoA.
Watch Stephen Powell and his team making a blown glass murrini window for his home and then come see his work in person at FWMoA in the 46th International Glass Invitational Award Winners through September 23rd, 2018!