Jenna Gilley, Associate Curator of Exhibitions
The first glass I ever witnessed being made was a paperweight. On a field trip to Zimmerman Art Glass in Corydon, IN, I remember standing just outside a little shed. I could feel the heat of the furnace even in my huddled class. I enjoyed the dance of the glassblower and learning the mystery of “how they get that in there”, seeing the final polished sphere with swirling colors inside. My 3rd grade self was super excited to take home a paperweight of my very own—we chose our desired color on a form sent home the week before (mine was purple). Fellow classmates shared the array of new gems with each other on the bus ride back to school.
If you were a midwestern schoolchild, or had a slightly eccentric relative, it is likely that your first encounter with glass was the miraculous paperweight, too. It was the only glass around me that had little function, compared to glassware in the kitchen and dining room, as paperweights were pretty useless in the 1990s when air conditioning became the standard and weights were no longer necessary to hold down papers in drafty rooms. They existed as beautiful trinkets, small works of art with just enough complexity to spark a bit of childish wonder but easy enough to make as a beginning glassblower looking to turn a quick profit.
This philosophy has rang true since the paperweight’s inception in the mid-1840s, when Venetian glassmaker Pietro Bigaglia created and exhibited the first signed and dated weights at the Vienna Industrial Exposition in 1845. These relatively affordable objets d’art were developed as elegant gift items, a little extravagance to decorate and add taste to one’s home. Jump forward to the 1960s, and the paperweight became a staple in America’s burgeoning glass scene. It was used as a teaching tool for those interested in getting into the Studio Glass Movement, adopting the popular imagery of psychedelic flowers and abstract designs.
Enter Paul Stankard. In 1963, Stankard was beginning to find his industry glassblowing job dull and craving more artistic expression. He became enchanted by the work of Charles Kaziun and Francis Whittmore, a fellow Northeasterner, who had revived the intricate and more technical process of creating and trapping natural specimens in glass. By 1969 he quit his day job completely, taking the risk to focus exclusively on his craft.
In the next few years, Stankard slowly grew his business and talent. He secured a patron in Reese Palley’s gallery in 1971, selling out his first solo show—a rare feat even today. In the late ‘70s, after meeting early members of the Studio Glass movement like Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino, Stankard became enamored with the creativity and freedom of the new group of American artists, and along with the writings of naturalist Walt Whitman, was inspired to develop paperweights beyond the simplistic floral imagery of the past. Determined to be accepted into the ranks of this pioneering group, he created the “botanical” series, a new way of looking at a paperweight in which imagery was viewable from all sides, not just from the top. Through this, and by shifting the focus of his subject matter inward to illustrate his personal experiences with nature growing up in rural New Jersey, Stankard’s paperweights became stunning works of art.
Currently, the FWMoA has two pieces by Paul Stankard on display: one traditional paperweight and one “Assemblage”, considered by Stankard to be one of the best and most complicated of his creations. While impressive, this post will focus on the work that earned Stankard the accolade “Father of the Modern Paperweight”.
Looking at Pineland Bouquet with Honeybee and Ant, one can immediately see that this is not your grandma’s gift shop bauble. The intricate cluster contains flora and fauna native to the Pinelands, a 3-million-acre undeveloped forest in South Jersey, the place of the artist’s childhood. While not a plant identifying expert, I believe the flowers in this cluster are sunflowers, morning glories, and forget -me-nots. Unlike the Victorians, who endowed flowers with sentimental meaning, Stankard does not choose specific blossoms to convey a message but rather to set a seasonal tone or describe a specific location. Accompanying them are a bee and ant, like the title suggests, and an American burying beetle. Stankard explores how pollination, budding, fruiting, and the ultimate death of creation are each integral to the life cycle of each grouping. Below the floral surface is a network of spindly roots, including a figural shape. Stankard has dubbed these forms “earth spirits”, protectors of the natural cluster and a reminder that humanity is inseparable from all life on earth. Their fleshy bodies, à la Reubens, also call to mind the history of the nude in fine art.
Stankard works with a team of artists, including two of his daughters, to carefully construct each individual element before assembling it into a cluster. In the beginning, he created all work by himself, gradually gaining the knowledge to train others in the delicate art of flameworking. Team members have their own specialties: Christine Kressley (Stankard) and Katherine Stankard, insects; David Gerber, blueberries, leaves, and earth spirits; and Paul Stankard, the blossoms. Each element is stunning on its own, encouraging close looking, as you may be surprised by the tiny new wonders you find with each angle. Stankard runs his shop on the Benedictine motto, “To labor is to pray.” He sees all his works as mantras of spirituality, both reminders of God and our place within the world.
The FWMoA is proud to announce that 25 more of these beautiful weights were unveiled in a special display in our Glass Wing as part of the Dorothy L. and Paul E. Shaffer Fund for Master Glass Artist Paul Stankard. These works span Stankard’s entire career, covering the early ‘70s and his simplistic, delicately formed and carved weights in the French style to some of his first ever “botanical” weights to the masterworks he produces today. The collection comes from Habatat Galleries via the collector Mike Belkin, a longtime admirer and good friend of Stankard. Many thanks to Dorothy L. Shaffer, Habatat Gallery, and the artist for making this gift possible.
If you would like to see these stunning works and many more, be sure to check out the Glass Wing at FWMoA!