Historical Highlight: Family Treasures & the Birth of the Studio Glass Movement in America

Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist

 “There are very few movements where you can pinpoint a birth date,” says Tina Oldknow, Curator of Modern Glass at the Corning Museum of Glass. “Here, you can: It started in March and June 1962.”

“American Craft Council: Glass’ Big Bang”, published January 31, 2012; https://craftcouncil.org/magazine/article/glass-big-bang 

We recently acquired some studio glass pieces with interesting histories that were made in the early days of the American Studio Glass movement, and are the ancestors of our more contemporary studio glass. They aren’t as grand as Repose in Amber or as dazzling as our Brilliant Cut Glass, nor do they incorporate electronics or steel as some of our amazing recent glass acquisitions do, but these small, humble pieces hold an important place in art history and came straight to us from the founders of the movement. If they could speak, they would tell the fascinating story of the birth of the Studio Glass movement in America, with some direct ties to folks we know.

My friend, Ron Burt, is heroically managing his parents’ estate since his mother, Anita Burt, passed in 2018. Ron’s dad was Clyde Burt, who many may remember as the long-time ceramics professor at the Fort Wayne Art School. Anita and Ron were both students of the art school, and later became staff members—Anita worked as an assistant curator at the museum and Clyde was a beloved faculty member. Anita saved, not just Clyde’s ceramic work, but also art that she and Clyde had collected over the years at the art fairs they participated in and through their circle of artist friends and colleagues. The pieces that came to us lately from the Burt family include two small vases of green glass by Dominick Labino, a small sculpture called Loop by Harvey Littleton, and a small asymmetrical pale green bottle also by Littleton.

A transparent glass bottle blown by glass artist Harvey Littleton.
Harvey Littleton, American, 1922-2013. Marble Bottle. Blown glass, 1966. Photo courtesy of Ron Burt.

Students of the Fort Wayne Art School had the good fortune to have Burt, master of modern American ceramics, as their teacher. He began teaching at the school in 1959 after completing studies at the Provincetown School of Art, Alfred School of Ceramics, and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He taught until his death at age 59 in 1981— gone way too soon. Burt was a prolific and innovative creator of thousands of ceramic vessels, sculptures, and hanging wall pieces as well as an expert at glazes and firing techniques; but if his friend, Harvey Littleton, had his way, Burt would have also become a master of molten glass!

After WWII, both Clyde Burt and Harvey Littleton found themselves in art studies as serious ceramists. The two were colleagues in clay at the Cranbrook Academy of Art and later at the University of Wisconsin; but, Harvey Littleton had grown up immersed in the glass community of Corning, New York as his father, Jesse, was the first PhD physicist on the staff of Corning – his efforts contributed to the invention of Pyrex, among other Corning innovations. Jesse hoped to steer Harvey onto a similar path, but corporate glass production was not the right fit for the young man who wanted to study art. Harvey ultimately earned his MFA, and was well on his path to becoming a successful ceramist, even though he had something left to resolve with glass. While he was teaching ceramics at the University of Wisconsin, he was crafting glass at home with a homemade furnace and crucible. He took this self-taught knowledge and launched his long-dreamed of mission to make glassmaking accessible on a one-artist scale – to allow the artist to directly handle the glass alone or as part of a small team of fellow artists. All his life he was told that it could not be done—he remained convinced otherwise. Otto Wittmann, then director of the Toledo Museum of Art, told Harvey he could work out of a small shed on the museum grounds and run a workshop from there if enough interest was generated. Nine applied – mostly fellow ceramics instructors.

The studio glass workshop participants sit and stand in a black and white class photo outside the Toledo Museum of Art.
Studio glass workshop participants, Toledo Museum of Art, photographed by Robert C. Florian, June 1962. Gift to the Rakow Research Library at Corning by Robert C. Florian. Photo courtesy of the Corning Museum of Glass.

During spring break of 1962, Harvey Littleton brought together the intrepid clay artists who knew next to nothing about glass production to make art. The workshop, stalled by technical challenges, was saved by Harvey’s old friend, Dominick Labino, an industrial glass expert, inventor, and artist. The workshop glass would not melt as needed, so Labino, who was the director of research and development at Johns Manville, brought in his invention—the #475 Johns Manville industrial marbles that have a lower melting temperature.  He also instructed Littleton and the students to rebuild the furnace from a kiln-type to a tank-type furnace:

“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, former Kent State instructor who started the glass program there in 1969. – “Shining moment: Workshop held locally in 1962 paved the way for an artistic movement”, Tahree Lane, The Toledo Blade, June 10, 2012.

“Shining moment: Workshop held locally in 1962 paved the way for an artistic movement”, Tahree Lane, The Toledo Blade, June 10, 2012.

The workshop students were then able to use blowpipes to work the glass, though with little success until Harvey Leafgreen, retired Libby glassblower, volunteered some old world technique to the workshop attendees.

The workshop, deemed a groundbreaking success in spite of the initial technical mishaps, was repeated in June with the same degree of excitement and camaraderie. Harvey returned to the University of Wisconsin afterward and was able to launch a glass program there, teaching instructors who then began their own glass programs. Only a decade after the Toledo workshops, more than 50 glass programs were in place in colleges and universities across the country. From these roots sprang the Studio Glass movement. Much of the studio glass produced in the U.S. today has direct ties, spanning several generations, to Harvey Littleton, Dominick Labino, and the 1962 workshops.

Blown glass artist Dale Chihuly recalls:

“Without a doubt, Harvey Littleton was the force behind the studio glass movement; without him my career wouldn’t exist. He pulled in talented students and visiting artists; I used the same concept when I taught [at the Rhode Island School of Design]. Also, Harvey was a big thinker—if he wanted a special piece of equipment, he would spend the money; he taught us to think big instead of thinking small. Some of that rubbed off on me. And he encouraged us to be unique—Harvey liked that.”

The Corning Museum of Glass: All About Glass: Harvey K. Littleton and the American Studio Glass Movement; https://www.cmog.org/article/harvey-k-littleton-and-american-studio-glass-movement

The pieces just added to the FWMoA collection were made in the mid-1960s to early 1970s as studio glass gained its foothold in the U.S. Now, these family treasures have circled around to join the more recent products of the movement – mementos collected long ago when Ron was a kid at art fairs and cookouts listening to the masters’ stories of bottles made of marbles and art crafted of molten glass. Thanks to the Burt family for sharing them with all of us to help us tell the story of the birth of American Studio Glass and of the innovators who launched the movement.

Want to see glass making in action? Check out Blown Away on Netflix, where glass artists are given a new challenge to complete each week! See finished products by glass artists here at FWMoA, on display during our regular visiting hours.

Studio Glass Terms

  • Annealing oven – an oven used to remove the stresses in glass by slowly cooling it after it has been melted and formed.
  • Blank – a glass form that will be decorated using cold techniques like cutting, etching, and sandblasting. Brilliant Cut Glass (on display at FWMoA) is made from blanks.
  • Cane – a solid rod of glass of one color or multiple colors used for surface decoration or fused into a bundle that may be manipulated to create objects of many colors and intricate designs. The well-known millefiori (thousand flowers) glass of Murano, Italy is made with canes or rods of colored glass.
  • Cold work – generally, glass processes that do not involve heat like engraving, cutting, etching, laminating, grinding, and even stained glass crafting.
  • Flameworking – also called lampworking; the forming of glass objects from rods or canes over a small open flame.
  • Fuse – to bond pieces of glass together by heating in a kiln.
  • Gather – to collect a mass of molten glass from the furnace onto a blowpipe or gathering iron. The mass is called a blob, gob, or parison.
  • Hot work – generally, glass-forming processes that involve heat.
  • Kiln-forming – processes that involve heating and forming the glass in a kiln. Slumping is glass formed in a mold within a kiln.
  • Prunt – the blobs of hot glass that are added to the surface of a blown glass object.
  • Tesserae – small, thin pieces of glass, often used in the making of mosaics.

There is lots more wonderful glass information here in Corning’s Glass Dictionary!

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