By Jan Worth-Nelson
Brent Swanson, the Flint Institute of Arts glass programs manager, says he is a “thrill seeker,” and that’s why he makes glass art. It’s fast, it’s risky, and it’s hot.
And that’s what visitors settling into their stadium seats at the new FIA glass art “hot shop” demonstration arena starting every Saturday afternoon now that the stunning new additions to the museum are open will get to see: a unique and dramatic kind of art being made on the spot.
Swanson, 36, said he hopes some of the children—and adults– who watch him work, with his pipes, melted glass, huge glowing ovens, metal tools and big thick gloves, will want to follow in his footsteps and maybe even become part of a growing “glass art community” radiating outward from the FIA.
“It’s entertaining,” Swanson says, explaining why he was drawn to his art. “It’s earth, air, fire and water all at once. It’s very physical.”
Swanson graduated from Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, where he started out as a ceramics major, but changed his mind–and his major–after taking a prerequisite glass art class that got his full attention.
“It was the speed with which things have to be created,” he says, “as well as the turnaround for making things. In ceramics, you can set your piece aside and look at it, think about it…In glass, you have to prepare, because once you engage in making a piece, you’re kind of locked into making it, and you have to start and finish it in the same time frame.
“It’s more risky, it’s more exciting, more on the edge – that’s my speed,” he says.
He suspects he gets an endorphin rush from the work, which entails constantly turning the pipe on which the glass is growing, blowing in puffs of breath for bubbles or hollow cores, and pushing and pulling it in and out of the oven’s orange flames.
“You’re working with a moving and viscous material,” he says, “and you have to surrender to the flow, so to speak.
“The material is dictating what you need to do and it speaks to you in the process—it says, ‘I’m cold, I need to be hot!’ It engages the person to engage with it – it’s very multifaceted.”
Swanson, who’s commuting from Detroit but is considering looking for a place in Flint, has been in his FIA role for about a year. He was hired to develop glass programs—for the first time at the FIA — as the museum built its 20,000-square foot expansion, including the Contemporary Crafts Wing and state-of-the-art glass arena. He says it’s “an honor and a dream job.”
He’d been making glass art for 15 years, putting in stints at Greenfield Village and art fairs. At one point, he recounted, he had five or six jobs at once, traveling from town to town and shop to shop as a glassblower or production art assistant. It was an arduous life, and “can only satisfy your soul so long,” he said.
He says for him – and for visitors and art students –the real beauty of the FIA expansion is the gallery – the Sherwin and Shirley Glass collection – in conjunction with the capacity for live demonstration.
“You can really see what’s happening and what it looks like,” he said. “I can pull from those ideas and show those techniques applied. People can go back and forth between the gallery and the studio and see how it’s done.”
He says one central aim of his work, within the possibilities of the FIA expansion, is to help nurture that “glass arts community” he envisions, with Flint as its nexus.
In fact, glass art itself often requires teamwork, unlike other genres of art where the creator can work alone. The first afternoon of public demonstrations in the Hot Shop, six glass artists, Swanson’s friends and glass art colleagues from Southeast Michigan and Ohio, worked together to produce one new piece per hour for the capacity crowds watching in the stadium seats.
Like almost everyone else, experts and casual visitors alike, Swanson is wowed by the 140-piece Glass glass collection, acquired by the Isabel Foundation and on long-term loan to the FIA. The new wing was built to exhibit the collection, valued in the millions, bought from the estate of an Atlanta furniture magnate, named, ironically, Sherwin Glass.
The collection, Swanson says, is unique because of its scale—“Somebody was really particular about wanting really large work from people who didn’t always make large scale work – the Glass family sought these people out and paid them to make things really big.”
There is, for example, a nine-foot-tall “Lavender Serving Fork” by American artist Rick Beck. Another large-scale piece, not part of the Glass collection but also acquired by the Isabel Foundation, is a giant glass boat titled “Passage” by Swedish artist Bertiel Vallien; it weighs as much as a car.
In a recent demonstration for the press in the new arena, Swanson roamed back and forth between a metal work table and the glowing 1,000-degree flames of an oven, constantly rolling a “gather” of glass on the end of a metal pipe.
Over about 35 minutes, he explained he was “festooning,” threading colors into the glass, flashing, getting a skin on the surface, cooling and heating as needed.
When he finally tipped the piece – a cylindrical bud vase – gently off the pipe,the crowd applauded. “Without further ado, that’s it!” he said. The vase went into an “annealing oven” where it would gradually cool and toughen overnight.
Asked if he’d ever burned himself, Swanson says only small burns from time to time—but opened up his hand to reveal a substantial cut. He got it cooking, he says–but from a knife, not a flame.
His profession does give him one advantage in the kitchen. “I can take hot potatoes out of the oven with my bare hand,” he says.
Free public demonstrations will be held in the 3,620-foot arena every Saturday, due to support from McLaren Health Care. General admission to the museum also is free every Saturday due to sponsorship by Huntington Bank. More information is available at 810-234-1695 or at flintarts.org.
EVM Editor Jan Worth-Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.