Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist
“For me it very much has to do with the process — to be in the hot shop, to be near the volcano, to be near birth and death, when the glowing dangerous material turns to ice, that fascinates me.” – Bertil Vallien
“Desire, energy, passion – I can love and hate all at the same time. I’m both argumentative and totally committed. With glass, everything is possible. It’s immediate, intense, demanding; never is it just plain old glass. I use it to paint on and tell tales. I have no rules, and I allow my instinctive feelings to take me wherever they want.” – Ulrica Hydman-Vallien
I don’t remember exactly when I first saw one of Swedish glass artist Bertil Vallien’s sandcast boats, but I do recall that I was captivated by the mysterious, mythical piece. It left me full of questions, because I sensed there was a story, an ancient legend, in that boat.
“In a boat if you want to be by yourself or with someone you love, the solitude of the boat is total. The very thin skin of the boat is the only thing that protects you from danger. A boat is a means to enter other worlds.” – Bertil Vallien
We are now very fortunate to hold seven of Mr. Vallien’s works; and each is as compelling as the next, evoking questions and a longing to know the tale it contains. Recently, we also acquired a glass piece by Bertil’s wife, Ulrica Hydman-Vallien, a large vase with a brightly-painted surface adorned with some of Ulrica’s favorite motifs – human faces and a charming, elegant snake.
There is an obvious connection between these two Swedes who tell stories in their imagery and who have both developed unique visual vocabularies that viewers can explore and ponder. The world lost the outspoken, energetic, and beloved Ulrica in 2018, just 3 days shy of her 80th birthday, but how fortunate we are to know her life’s work. Ulrica was one of Sweden’s most known and popular artists; a prolific painter, designer, sculptor, and glassmaker, her work encompassed everything from a long career as an independent artist and designer to a 40-year stint with Kosta Boda glassworks to the decorating of a British Airways jet!
Bertil called her “a wonderful woman, full of ideas”, and the two met around 1960 when they were students at the Konstfack School of Arts, Crafts, and Design in Stockholm. Both studied under Stig Lindberg, renowned ceramics and glass artist and designer, who was also a wonderful teacher. In fact, Bertil called his college years some of the best of his life.
Both Bertil and Ulrica began in ceramics; while both were sculptors at heart, they retained their love of drawing throughout their careers. Their facility in drawing enhances their three-dimensional work in interesting ways. The motifs seen in both bodies of work overlap in some ways but are unique and particular to each artist. In Bertil’s work we see the inclusions of human heads, horses, sarcophagi, maps, houses, ladders, keys and, of course, boats! In Ulrica’s paintings, drawings, textiles, ceramics, and glass, we see the human form, animals of every sort, a profusion of plants and flowers, hearts, and, of course, the snake! The graphic imagery is far from ornamental, though. There are tales of life and death, human conflict, journeys into darkness and light, and much mystery in their vocabularies of symbols.
“I draw a lot. Drawing is a fantastic language, a fantastic way to getting understood, to convey messages, the point of a sharp pencil, the white paper, and then you and your brain and your heart and your arms connected, you can tell exactly what you want.” – Bertil Vallien
And though companions in life for decades, their art explorations were each personal. Bertil describes his relationship with his wife this way: “We have always been each other’s fiercest critic. We live, you might say, in a constant state of creative tension. We fire and mutually stimulate each other’s work.”
Clearly a sassy and independent woman, Ulrica defied the constraints of stereotypical romantic feminine design and forged her own way. One of her first convention-defying works at Kosta Boda was a glass vessel decorated with images of rats! After his initial shock, her boss had the good insight to let her do her own thing, and her fan base grew so that in time she became one of Sweden’s favorite artists and one of Kosta Boda’s most lucrative.
Both Ulrica and Bertil came from large families: Ulrica grew up in an artistic family near Stockholm and Bertil was raised in a very religious, working class family. His strict upbringing left some “scars on his soul”, but art helped him cope. “We all like to be liked,” he says, and he had a trick to make all the girls in his class like him – drawing horses! Horses were a part of Bertil’s life when he served in the Swedish military cavalry and still appear in his work; and clearly, drawing has served him well throughout his life.
After completing college with honors in 1961, Bertil was recruited by the Hal Framholdt Ceramics company in Los Angeles to produce and design ceramics. He was quickly deputized to design his own pieces for production. One of his duties was to make kiln gods to guard the fire and pieces in the kiln during firing, and these household gods also became part of the company’s production line. He had two shows during his two years in California – one adjacent to an early Andy Warhol exhibit!
Ulrica joined Bertil in California in 1961, and from there they were able to explore Mexico and Guatemala, drawing inspiration from local artisans and their craft. The two returned to Sweden when Bertil was recruited by the Åfors glassworks in the Småland countryside. It was in 1967 that they suffered a heartbreaking tragedy when their two-year-old son, Mattias, drowned near their home. The adventurous little boy had wandered too near their pond while under the care of a nanny. Making art became a way for them both to process their grief, “That was actually how I started to make boats in glass” Bertil states “they were made in memory of Matthias. I just kept working with them.”
“To me it’s a such a wonderful shape, to me it’s an abstract form. It’s the first way of communication on this planet. The vey thin skin is the only thing that protects what is in the boat from catastrophe, that makes it very spiritual. The boat is like a country with a captain – there is something very special about that. The boat is the perfect place for solitude.” -Bertil Vallien
Bertil describes the evolution of the “inclusions” (the small things you see trapped inside the glass) in his boats: “The first ones had very little – just one figure, then the more skilled I became and the more I learned, the inclusions became like words, my own private metaphors, symbols, more elaborate, they have evolved from very simple to now being very important parts of it.”
About the alphabet of his symbology he says, “Sometimes I do choose the words — the ladder, the staircase, the door, the key, the keyhole. Sometimes it happens randomly. There is always a passenger moving in the boat, there’s always a person, I like the boats to contain fragments of my life or lives that interest me.”
The boat archetype goes back to Bertil’s early work in ceramics and has become one of his most powerful glass symbols as “The boat shape has become for [Bertil] what the canvas is for the painter. The boat I can fill with my stories. And they are all about moving, of course, a symbol for moving beyond the horizon. For me, the boat shape is what the canvas is for the painter, it draws attention, is easily understood, but I can fill it with all kinds of images and stories.”
How fitting that one of Bertil’s small boats, Journey Stone, traveled to space on the shuttle Endeavor in 2000. The crew was trained by a Swedish psychologist who gave them the boat at the end of their training course, and they chose to carry it with them on their mission.
Human pathos has often informed Bertil’s work. A newspaper clipping about a young Swedish girl from the 1870s who suffered a fall on ice that left her nearly comatose for over three decades fascinated the artist. When Karolina Olsson woke up, she did not want to talk about her experience, just stating that all she saw while “asleep” was darkness and threatening blue heads. It was felt that Karolina had left life from the age of 13 to 46 because she was abused as a child. Bertil’s long interest in making heads of glass was first inspired by this fascinating story, he remarked, “Twenty-four blue heads — those heads are not nice, they are threatening portraits of men, of blue men. I was very touched by this story, that’s the first time I actually made heads, that’s how it started, so I could work like a brain surgeon inside the head, I could add something – what’s going on inside the head.”
Looking into and through surfaces and describing the interior story has deep roots in the artist’s psyche. Swedish history and lore are ever present. He describes the diaspora of Swedes from about 1860 to 1930 – the little deserted farmhouses, left untouched with tattered curtains, and perhaps an empty chair, as having something beneath the surface: “when you walk up to empty houses in the forest where people lived but left for America during the poor years in the early 1900s, where people left long ago. You see into a life through the icy windows — something I sometimes want to convey – what is beyond the surface.”
The processes demanded by glass are also deeply important to the artist. The perfecting of the sand mold, the creation and decorating of the inclusions, the planning and scheduling of the pouring (always 11:30 on a Friday), and the long, fraught wait for the annealing – sometimes weeks to open and see the solid results of the pour.
Bertil describes a near catastrophe of several years ago when his assistant, unfamiliar with his handwriting, added 2,000 grams of cobalt to the glass being prepared for a one-ton pour – it should have been 20 grams! He describes the molten glass in its first gather as looking like asphalt, yet decided to pour anyway, as the preparations had been made and the team was ready — but dreading the outcome. When the two dozen pieces were finally annealed and revealed after three weeks– they were black and dense. What was thought to be a failure turned into a momentous win: “We thought it was going to be a failure, but I just love them, they were a turning point in my life, all of a sudden everything I had been talking about — transparency, light is not there any longer — surface, only. . . . all of a sudden, they became much more interesting. Especially when cutting through the sandy surfaces to the obsidian-like surfaces. Artistically, I think they are some of the strongest pieces I’ve done.”
Now 83, Bertil Vallien continues his exploration of life’s mysteries through symbols and stories in glass. And here is more exciting news – we are soon adding to our collection more work by both of these fantastic artists! I can’t wait to see them!
Visit FWMoA anytime to see our collection of Contemporary Studio Glass on display in the atrium, and watch out for our glass exhibitions opening at the end of July and beginning of September: FWMoA Exhibition Calendar.