Off the Cuff: Ground Zero for Studio Glass

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

FWMoA President & CEO Charles Shepard with cast glass sculpture “Taking Off” by Czech artists Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Let’s look back in time today: It’s the summer of 1962 in America, and I’m driving to the beach with three slightly older friends in a Corvair convertible with the top down, listening to the Beach Boys, and pretending that the four of us are going to start a band. Life is good. Gas is 0.28 cents a gallon, so it only took us a half-hour to find enough 0.03 cent returnable soda bottles to buy the quarter tank of gas needed to get to the beach. And even though our parents only made, on average, $6,000 a year, they could send us to Harvard for less than $1,200. Better yet, since none of us could get into Harvard anyway, we could always just go to the University of Maine, which only cost residents about $300 a year. We had it made!

Nothing of this sort, however, was on Harvey Littleton’s mind at the time. In 1962, he was a Professor of Ceramics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his mind was grappling with why molten glass might not be a more malleable and aesthetically pleasing medium than clay. His father was the first research physicist at Corning Glass Works and his mother basically invented Corning’s Pyrex cookware. So Harvey, in essence, grew up in a family that was professionally and personally dedicated to exploring the properties and potential uses of glass. He frequently accompanied his father to his experimental laboratory, and, as a young man, learned how to cast molten glass in a mold. By 1941, he had cast a female torso. When he returned home after the WWII, he again experimented with glass casting in his father’s special lab. Both he and his father could not, however, envision creating anything in glass outside of an industrial setting, such as the one Corning provided.

Therefore, as Harvey prepared to head off to the University of Michigan, he was singularly focused on the practicality of pursuing a degree in industrial design. Although he did well enough as an undergraduate, industrial design didn’t resonate with his heart and soul. As a result, he enrolled in the graduate program at Cranbrook Academy to pursue his MFA in Ceramics, which he loved to such an extent that, while still a student, he accepted a part time job teaching ceramics at the Toledo Museum of Art. Three days each week, for two years, Harvey would drive the roughly three-hour round trip to the museum. His investment of time and energy paid off. First, he developed a strong friendship with two people who would later play major roles in both his career and in the development of studio glass: Otto Wittman, then a curator at the Toledo Museum of Art, and Dominick Labino, a glass research scientist, like Harvey’s father, who frequented the Museum. Secondly, Harvey’s teaching caught the eye of the head of the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who offered him a faculty position in ceramics upon his graduation from Cranbrook in 1952. Harvey’s career took off after he arrived at the University; not only did he excel as a teacher, but his own work began attracting national and international attention. At this point in time, experimenting with glass had become the furthest thing from his mind.

The same was not true for Dominick Labino. Dominick had the soul of an artist trapped in the body of a scientist. While his day job in industrial glass-making at Johns Manville was highly regarded by his colleagues, in the evening, Dominick retreated to the basement of his home and slowly taught himself to blow glass using a primitive blowpipe and small, hand-built furnace. Technical knowledge of glass, and years of experience, were Dominick’s strengths: he had designed major glass furnaces, developed the first glass paper from quartz fibers, and invented the glass fibers that were used to insulate NASA spacecraft. He was highly trained in mechanical and electrical technologies at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and, in his freshman year, was recognized for creating the world’s smallest electric motor (it fit inside the shell of a hickory nut!). Directly after graduation, he was hired by the glass manufacturer Owens – Illinois in Pennsylvania to experiment with glass formulas and glassmaking equipment. After the death of his wife, he moved with his daughters to Ohio to become a pioneer in the fiberglass industry. Dominick’s credentials in glassmaking were solid, even if his experiences in artmaking were virtually nonexistent.

But this was soon to change. Harvey’s success as a ceramic artist earned him a research trip to Europe in the winter of 1957 – 1958. While visiting artists’ studios in both Spain and Italy, he unexpectedly discovered small glassblowing “shops” that were producing both functional and decorative objects. While he wasn’t especially drawn to what these shops were creating, he was excited by the idea that these artisans were successfully working with glass in a non-industrial environment. These shops were average-sized studios and, thus, proof to him that glass could be blown and worked on an individual scale. The key was to use a much smaller furnace and melt glass in small batches. Harvey was over-the-moon excited about this discovery and, upon returning to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he rigged up a small ceramics kiln and experimented with different formulas for making and melting glass. In 1958, he was asked to serve on an artists’ panel at the third annual American Craft Council (ACC) conference. There, he spoke with great passion about his belief that glass would become a popular new medium for individual artists. The next year, the ACC asked him to present a solo lecture on glass which, by all accounts, was a huge success. Harvey then asked the University of Wisconsin-Madison to consider letting him set up a glass program. They agreed on the condition that he could find someone to fund the venture. His grant request, however, was declined and, without foundation support, the University was simply not prepared to authorize the program.

After hearing of the set-back of Harvey’s dream of starting a glass program, Otto Wittman, by now the director of the Toledo Museum of Art, invited his old friend to organize two glassblowing workshops in the spring of 1962 which the Museum would fund. Otto also reached out to Dominick Labino to see if he would like to get involved. Of course, both Harvey and Dominick were excited by Otto’s generous offer and immediately began pulling everything together for these two trailblazing workshops in glass. The Museum cleared space in a garage on their property and sent a press release out to attract the community’s attention. Harvey built a small pot furnace in which the workshop participants could melt the glass, and assembled the various tools needed to work the glass. Eight people signed up for the first session, including three of Harvey’s students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dominck Labino, Norm Schulman (ceramic instructor at the Museum), and two of Shulman’s students. Despite everyone’s enthusiasm, the first two days of the first workshop were a disaster. The batch of ingredients to make the glass failed miserably. On the third day, Dominick raced back to his lab at Johns Mansfield and retrieved a box of commercial glass “pellets” which he then brought to the workshop in an effort to solve the problem with “batching” the glass. Labino’s pellets worked perfectly, enabling glass blowing to commence. Better still, on that third afternoon, a retired commercial glassblower from Libbey Glass in Toledo, Harvey Leafgreen, stopped by on a whim just to watch. Seeing Harvey’s furnace full of melted glass encouraged him to step in and give the group an impromptu two-hour personal demonstration of professional glassblowing. His performance was galvanizing, as it underscored everything that Harvey had promoted to everyone he met: It was entirely possible to make glass art in your own personal studio!

As tempting as it might be to think that the attendees at the two Toledo Museum of Art-sponsored glass workshops were, as a group, the first artists to carry the torch of studio glass to other artists all around the country, that is not the case. With the exception of Harvey, Dominick, and Norm Schulman, none of the others ever worked with glass again. That didn’t matter, though, because the real importance of the 1962 workshops is that Harvey used their modest success to convince the University of Wisconsin-Madison to allow him to create a glass program in the coming academic year without requiring him to secure grant funding. Students flocked to Harvey’s new program, which initially was only open to grad students who had received their BFA. Harvey’s logic in accepting only grad students was that he could more quickly focus on helping them earn their MFA and send them off to teach glass at other colleges and, thus, spread the “gospel” of studio glass. His approach was particularly effective. Marvin Lipofsky, for example, finished his BFA in Ceramics at the University of Illinois-Champaign-Urbana, came to Madison to study with Harvey, and then went to the University of California, Berkeley to start a glass program. Later, he started a second program at the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, California. Over time, he taught many of the best glass sculptors working today. A second example was Harvey’s student, Dale Chihuly. After earning his MFA, he was recruited by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to start their glass program. In the course of becoming the most well known and highly respected glass artist in the world at RISD and, later, at Pilchuck, Chihuly taught legions of students who successfully went on to brilliant careers making and teaching glass art (two of them, Martin Blank and Therman Statom, have pieces in the FWMoA permanent collection!).

Despite the two workshops at the Toledo Museum not turning out as Harvey had anticipated, they were, in other ways, even more effective. They cemented the relationship between Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino, and they indelibly linked the Toledo Museum of Art to not only the history of glass but its future. Most importantly, the two workshops were the springboard for launching studio glass programs at universities across the country. On a personal note, the workshops were the catalyst that Dominick Labino needed to transform himself into an artist who, even while continuing in his role in glass manufacturing, made serious aesthetic contributions to contemporary glass sculpture. For Harvey Littleton, the workshops opened the door to a lifetime of teaching and creating glass artworks. In 1977, when Harvey became Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he moved his home and studio to North Carolina and got to work in his new studio. Not only did Harvey’s work become highly sought all over the world, but his four children also followed him into the world of studio glass and have had successful careers. Harvey passed away in North Carolina at the age of 91 in 2013. Harvey died a happy man; one who had accomplished his dream of making hot glass a viable option for individual artists everywhere.

Come visit FWMoA to see glass by both Dominick Labino and Harvey Littleton on display. If you have a little extra time for reading this month, pick up a copy of Harvey’s Glassblowing: A Search for Form, published in 1971, and long considered the manifesto of studio glass. I promise that you’ll enjoy it!

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