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A Glass Triumvirate: The Art of William Morris, Henry L. Hillman Jr. and Howard Ben Tré

September 17 - November 21, 2004


Over the last 40 years, glass art has re-emerged in America with a renewed energy, vigor and freshness. The Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art is celebrating this fascinating movement and medium with a monumental exhibition of three American glass art masters. From the highly-detailed and intricate creations of William Morris, to the towering, expressive works of Howard Ben Tré and Henry Hillman Jr., the SAMA exhibition offers an up-close look at the vast artistic possibilities that exist in modern glass art. A Glass Triumvirate: The Art of William Morris, Henry L. Hillman Jr. and Howard Ben Tré opens September 17 at the Loretto Museum and will remain on view until November 21, 2004. In total, the exhibition features 30 complex works of art.

Morris, Ben Tré and Hillman are each considered noted contributors to the glass revolution set in motion by the much celebrated artist, Dale Chihuly, the renowned Pilchuck Glass School and the American glass studio movement.


A brief history of glass art

Despite the feverish attention and intrigue among glass art, the genre itself is not a necessarily new one. Louis Comfort Tiffany, Frank Lloyd Wright and the company, Steuben Glass, were among the most notable early champions for glass art in the nation's history. The buzz created by those pioneers would eventually lead to the American studio glass movement, an event in American art that would change the glass art medium and push its possibilities and limitations.

In 1962, Harvey Littleton, a ceramics professor, and Dominick Labino, a chemist and engineer, held workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art, where they unveiled a new structure of glass, characterized by a low melting point that would enable artists to use ceramic kilns as de facto glass furnaces. Prior to this, glassmaking required expensive equipment and technical skill, neither of which were available to the common artist or sculptor. The Littleton and Labino creation was a groundbreaking one for glass art, as artists now could work with the medium in their own studios. The innovation sparked such a surge in American glass art that it resulted in an official movement. Within two years, university courses were being offered in the art, and, by the '70s, approximately 100 university glass art programs had been instituted. (right: William Morris, Raven on Disk, 1999, blown glass with steel stand, 20 x 18 x 7 inches. collection of the artist. Image © Rob Vinnedge)

During the late '60s, Dale Chihuly, a former student of Littleton's, went to study ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he also established a prominent glass program. In 1971, he co-founded the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash., which has developed into a gathering place for national and international glass artists. "Chihuly's talent and vision helped generate the perception that glass can be more than a craft; specifically, Chihuly created glass as sculpture, or as fine art," said Dr. Graziella Marchicelli, exhibition curator.


William Morris

William Morris is considered among the elite glass artists in the world. His technical mastery of such a fragile, difficult medium invokes immediate respect. His use of color and design on his sculptures, not to mention the subject matter itself, also are reasons for the artist's international renown. Egyptian funerary jars, animal bones, horns and tusks created in glass and images drawn from early European cave paintings comprise the majority of Morris' output these days. His work is strongly influenced by an interest in archeology and ancient pagan cultures and addresses the timeless relationship between humans and their environment.

Morris was born in Carmel, California in 1957. His introduction to, and immediate passion for, glassblowing came at age 20, when he drove a truck for the Pilchuck Glass School. His talent and technical excellence impressed Pilchuck co-founder Chihuly so much that the artist appointed Morris to serve as his gaffer (master glassblower) at his Seattle studio in the early '80s. Upon leaving Chihuly's tutelage for the prospects of his own career, Morris remained in the Pacific Northwest, where he works in his studio today. (left: William Morris, Rhyton: Bull, 1998, blown glass, 16 x 22 x 11 inches. collection of the artist. Image © Rob Vinnedge)

Since serving under Chihuly's direction, Morris has become a highly-decorated artist in his own right. He recently claimed the 2004 Juror's Award at the 32 nd Annual International Glass Invitational at Habitat Galleries in Royal Oak, Michigan In 2002, he received the Artist as Hero Award from the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia and was awarded the 2001 Visionaries Award by the American Craft Museum in New York. His work can be found in the permanent collections of museums throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Art, the Corning Museum of Glass, the Chrysler Museum of Art, the Louvre, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris.

Morris' art lies in creating the optical equivalence of bone, wood, stone and leather. He pushes the limits of glassblowing with his mesmerizing sculptures of spirited forms, using extraordinary skills that seem beyond the physical and chemical properties of glass. A unique aspect of his work is his treatment of surface texture, achieved by various techniques such as sprinkling powdered glass and minerals onto a blown surface, etching, and acid washing to achieve "ancient" and textural diversity.

"He pinches, tugs and prods hot glass by hand with only the basic tools: pincers, paddles and fireproof gloves -- no molds," said Marchicelli. "His glass sculptures exude an elemental vitality; they prompt a visceral curiosity, a gut level desire to explore not just the myriad tactile surfaces, but also the intangible archeological aura that consistently permeates each work." (right: William Morris, Artifact: Shard with Bone Pins, 1995, blown glass, 18 x 28 x 10 inches. collection of the artist. Image © Rob Vinnedge)


Henry L. Hillman Jr.

Henry L. Hillman Jr., a native of Pittsburgh, creates his columnar sculptures from cast glass, steel and granite. A critical element that plays an integral role in Hillman's monolithic works is light. The play of light onto the various textured and polished glass surfaces, along with the stainless steel detailing, reinforce the artist's interest in motion, mystery and color. The artist also has adopted a minimalist approach to his work that has forged success without sacrificing the complexity of the material and process. Through this, it is Hillman's goal to achieve a balance between architecture, craftsmanship and fine art. (left: Henry L. Hillman Jr., Yellow Moon, 2001, cut and polished cast glass, 83 x 22 3/4 x 11 inches, courtesy of the artist)

"Minimalism's chief attribute is the reduction of various elements, such as color, shapes, lines and texture, to a minimal number," said Marchicelli. That reduction allows for a "playful tension" to permeate many of the artist's sculptures, she said "The works demonstrate simultaneously stillness and rhythm, rest and movement, solidity and fluidity, opacity and jewel-like transparency. His elegantly long, straight vertical lines and dynamic chaotic edges, like turbulent water, work to emphasize each other."

Hillman began his career in glass art when he was professionally involved with the Bullseye Glassmaking Company in the mid-'80s. He studied at Portland State University and Pacific Northwest College, and opened his own studio in Portland, Oregon, in 1993. Over the years, Hillman has collaborated with several prominent Northwest glass artists and perfected the techniques he has come to utilize. He has had solo exhibitions throughout Oregon, including a recent showing at Freed Gallery in Lincoln City, Ore., and three showings at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland.

Hillman is unique among modern-day glass artists in that he creates from the "sand up," whereby all castings undergo precise color mixing and are hand-fired in custom-made kilns. Through this process, Hillman achieves a transparent tonality in glass that he refers to as "cathedral" colors. Strong, yet clear, reds, greens, yellows, blues or magentas appear evenly throughout each 4" to 6" block. In further crafting, the glass blocks are cut, carved, honed and polished, giving shape to his visions. Whether it be his monumental column sculptures or smaller geometric works, which he calls "tabletop pedestals," Hillman's art always seems to be characterized by its vibrant, intense colors, transparency and luminosity. (right: Henry L. Hillman Jr., Ingot Spiral, Green Top, 2001, cut and polished cast glass, 83 x 18 x 15 inches, courtesy of the artist)

"I experiment with the forms and shapes to find a balance that seems natural to each sculpture," said Hillman. "This causes the sculpture to change appearance, as either the light or the observer moves around it, giving the work movement that seems to come from within."


Howard Ben Tré

Howard Ben Tré is known throughout the world for his unique sculptures and large scale works of art. Ben Tré is truly a pioneer in the use of cast glass as a sculptural medium, with works included in more than 85 museums and public collections worldwide. Some of his works are even used by thousands of people every day. His technical innovations have extended his mastery of cast glass and allowed the artist to create monumental sculptures that can survive the rigors of outdoor installation. Among his many notable public commissions is an award-winning installation of fountains and seating created for Post Office Square Park in Boston and a plaza and seating for the federal courthouse in Las Vegas. Plazas, with sculptures, fountains and landscaping, also have been designed and constructed for Bank of America's Hearst Towers in Charlotte, N.C., Brown University in Providence, R.I., and Target Corporation Headquarters in Minneapolis. Museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Japan, and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nice, France, count Ben Tré's work among their permanent collections. (left: Howard Ben Tré, Section 7, 1988, cast glass, lead, gold leaf, and pigmented waxes, 11 x 36 x 10 1/2 inches. collection of the artist; courtesy of Charles Cowles Gallery, New York)

Known for their powerful and evocative nature, Ben Tré's cast glass sculptures have the ability to connect the modern industrial world to the ancient past, prompting viewers to contemplate the interlay between the artist's modern technological methods and his deftly executed allusions to ancient forms and structures. "His sculptures, such as Basins, Columns, Bearing Figures, and Wrapped Forms, are grounded in the modern vocabulary of minimalism with symbolist influences," said Marchicelli. "Yet, they bring to mind the architecture and artifacts of antiquity, the remnants of distant, far-flung worlds, Greek temple columns and Bronze Age Chinese ritual vessels."

Ben Tré, born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1949, began his career in the mid-'70s, during a period of intense introspection. He moved to Oregon earlier in the decade, where he worked construction while taking classes at Portland State University. In 1977, he enrolled in Pilchuck Glass School, where he worked with Italo Scanga, an internationally-renowned artist famous for his sculptures that combined found objects and glass. Within a year, Ben Tré entered the master's program at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied sculpture and glass with Dale Chihuly. (right: Howard Ben Tré, Cast Form 65, 1986, cast glass, copper leaf, gold leaf, and pigmented waxes, 28 1/2 x 9 3/4 x 4 1/4 inches. Collection of the artist; courtesy of Charles Cowles Gallery, New York)

"The idea of making art was new to me, and although I enjoyed the physicality of making sculpture, I also wanted the intellectual and emotional engagement of having the objects be explorative and not just process-bound," said the artist. "I was questioning how my growth as an individual, as well as my relationship to society, were impacting what I wanted to make."

Ben Tré approaches the glass medium with a sculptor's sensibility, employing a sand-casting method more typically used in creating bronze sculptures. He rents a glass factory and casts sculptures that require both industrial equipment and the assistance of factory workers. Time also is required; Ben Tré's glass sculptures can sit for several months before the casts are removed. An arduous road, from sketches and mechanical drawings to sand molds, polishing, and the application of finishes, Ben Tré's dedication is found in works that are monumental and luminous.

"His cast glass sculptures are original, groundbreaking, masculine and thoroughly modern," said Marchicelli. "At the core of his work is an industrial aesthetic that emphasizes the tactile, luminous qualities of the materials themselves."

Dr. Marchicelli will discuss the exhibition and the careers of Morris, Hillman and Ben Tré at a lecture in the Museum gallery on Wednesday, October 20, 2004. The program will begin with a brief tour of the exhibition, and Dr. Marchicelli will be available to answer questions following the program. The lecture is open to the public free of charge, and begins at 2 p.m. Please call the Museum for more information.


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