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WSU celebrates glass art at Pullman event

Glass object from the "Glass Comes Alive" symposium
Courtesy of Hallie Meredith
For hundreds of years, cultures have made art pieces and other useful objects out of glass.

This week, Washington State University is celebrating arts pieces made from glass.

At “Glass Comes Alive,” WSU professors held a short symposium at the Schnitzer Museum to talk about the historic use of glass. Outside, blowers from the Tacoma Museum of Glass displayed their skills in a mobile unit.

Tacoma native Dale Chihuly has become one of the world’s most famous glass artists, designing colorful and elaborate pieces that are displayed all over the world. But Chihuly is only one of the most visible practitioners of a genre that has been around for centuries, says WSU Art History Professor Hallie Meredith, who, along with WSU Materials Engineering Professor John McCloy, organized the event.

“The Romans actually started glassblowing around 50 B.C. or A.D. and not much has changed since then," Meredith said.

She is fascinated with glass, its history and the ways people, through the millennia, have created and manipulated it.

At the symposium, Meredith discussed ancient glass production, such as artifacts from Rome, early Islamic and Sasanian glassware. (The Sasanian Empire ruled in Persia between the 3rd and 7th centuries.) She talked about how those objects were made and what we know about them.

For her presentation, Meredith printed 3-D versions of ancient glassware so that people at the symposium could hold them.

“The 3-D printed versions are a way to kind of help people understand what these objects look like and felt like and how they could have been manipulated," she said.

Meredith also created an app about ancient glassware that participants could download and follow along as they listened. Participants could also visit a gallery in the Schnitzer Museum and see an exhibition featuring glassworks by Native artist Jeffrey Gibson.

“People have been interested in the origins of glass since, really, its founding," she said.

"All the advertisements I have show the one image of glassblowers from around that time that glassblowing was invented. There’s always one lead glassblower. We think there’s always a pair working together, somebody else who tends the fire. And so the lead glassblower has a large blowpipe. There’s always a furnace and then the assistant and that’s really all you need. It’s largely unchanged in two millennia," Meredith said.

Though the methods for creating glass have changed little since the earliest days, the final results vary widely from culture to culture.

“There’s ancient Egyptian glass. They didn’t blow glass, but rather they used a kind of molten material and sort of wound it around a core but, staying with the glassblowing, there are recipes, there are certain types of ingredients in the glass itself which help to date it and so it’s pretty consistent, lime and silica. There’s variations of that. Sometimes they used potash. Sometimes they used natron.

"You get the raw materials and then you, wherever you were, Europe or the Far East, you could then have that raw material and then you could make it in your own town," she said. "The signature in the fabric tells us about where it came from originally, the main ingredients, and then also the local additions. It’s really interesting how much you can tell from the fabric of the glass itself, and then obviously the techniques have changed.”

Was there a golden age for glass blowing?

“I would say the late Roman periods, like around the 4th century. There was a lot of carving and so, at that time, you have the blown glass, which was then manipulated in various ways when it’s carved," she said.

"In the 4th century, you have kind of an apex, a pinnacle, in terms of the carving. It’s really interesting because you have these beautiful objects which were both hot worked and cold worked and they’re really rich and layered."

After yesterday’s lectures, blowers from the Tacoma Museum of Glass set up their mobile unit on the campus’ pedestrian mall where people could watch and created glass pieces, some of them maybe replicas of older treasures.

“Some are incredibly complicated and the idea is not to replicate them, like just making versions of them, but instead to think about how they were made and what are some of the different approaches that were possible, because, again, there was a lot of variation in terms of how they were made, what could have been made and how and that’s part of where the interest comes from, I think," she said.

One of the Northwest's most seasoned reporters is returning to his SPR roots. Doug Nadvornick will be heard frequently on KPBX and KSFC reporting on local news.