The Glass Blower's Delicate, Demanding Art

Pilchuck, America's only school devoted solely to glassmaking, challenges students to extend the boundaries of an ancient craft. ARTS IN SEATTLE: GLASS

WILLIAM MORRIS pokes the glowing end of a preheated metal rod into a 2,300-degree ``glory hole'' (furnace), and brings out a red-hot glob of molten glass. ``You've all rolled honey on a knife - right?'' Mr. Morris asks a group of visitors. ``That's how we work.'' He hands us some lacy clusters of the rapidly cooling material, then uses a blowpipe to fashion pliant bubbles for us to touch.

Some 13 years ago, Morris was a truck driver. Today the young father of two is an acclaimed glass artist whose work is displayed in galleries around the United States and abroad.

He is also an instructor here at the Pilchuck Glass School, located an hour north of Seattle on 40 acres of timberland in the Cascades foothills.

To the northwest, the secluded site offers a spectacular panorama of the Skagit River delta and the slate-blue waters of Puget Sound beyond. To the east, the property is bordered by towering cedars and Douglas firs. Along the unpaved drive, stumps 10 feet high and eight feet across testify to the property's history as a logging site. The school was named after a stream that flows through the lush meadows.

We're standing in the roofed-over but wall-less ``hot shop,'' equipped with four furnaces. ``The wonderful thing about glass is that it's so simple in its physical nature,'' says Morris, a Washington native. ``It is affected by heat, cooling, gravity, centrifugal force. You don't have to be a genius to work with glass.

``I learned the most important things I know from two masters, and neither spoke English. You just watch, and soon you see there's a reason for everything they do. Then you have this beautiful material....''

That's an understatement for the Pilchuck pieces on display here and in Seattle [see box at lower right], works that show an extraordinary variety of approaches. There's a classic 14-inch bowl formed with paper-thin curves of luminescent blue and scarlet, a graceful vase whose aquamarine walls have been coaxed into delicate folds like the drapery on an ancient Greek bronze. There are life-sized, perfectly formed apples, pears, and oranges, whose glossy colors aren't painted on but are part of the glass itself. There's a spiky sculpture fashioned from a rainbow array of shards. Perhaps most dramatic of all is an enormous cluster of morning glories whose 15-inch blossoms, done in crenelated sheets of white and clear glass, are strikingly lifelike.

Though Morris makes the glassmaker's art sound easy, there's plenty of evidence here that it demands not only originality, persistence, and exactitude, but also stamina, well-calibrated teamwork, and precision timing.

The school's director, Alice Rooney, confesses that she has tried making glass ``but only enough to discover how hard it actually is.'' Glass artists ``are really interesting Renaissance people,'' she adds. ``I've been here nine summers now, and I could say ho-hum, but I don't feel that way at all.''

As if to demonstrate the fragility of the art, the school's walkways and gardens are dotted with pieces that developed cracks or flaws in execution or in the computer-controlled annealing (cooling) process and therefore could not be exhibited or marketed.

When he discusses his latest series of pieces, William Morris notes that they mark the highest survival rate yet for his work - 15 successful pieces out of 30 attempts. ``Usually we lose about 75 percent,'' he adds.

In addition to getting ready for the busy term here, Morris was preparing a piece for shipment into Seattle. ``Offering'' is an immense and intricate glass sculpture he has made for ``Figures of Translucence,'' an exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (though Aug. 13).

``Offering'' and the rest of Morris's ``Artifact'' series, together with the upright sculptures and vessels from another series called ``Standing Stones,'' have occupied the young artist for six years.

``I've traveled to a lot of old sites,'' he says, ``islands in the North Sea, the southern tip of Greenland, Brittany, Malta. What I saw there prompted these pieces. I also did a series of pieces that have the Stonehenge images. The vessels use petroglyphs from [the walls of the prehistoric caves in] Lascaux, France, and places like that. I'm not trying to replicate anything I've seen, but it's sort of a vehicle or format for me to create images and situations that I would like to see.''

``Offering'' is an intriguing arrangement of white curved pieces of glass that suggest the vertebrae and ribs of a whale skeleton. These, in turn, cradle the yellowed glass form of a human skeleton with ancient symbols embedded beneath clear glass on the skull. Morris notes ``a timeless element'' in the work and the feeling that ``what has survived has survived practically forever.''

He points out that the core of each giant ``rib'' is made of clear glass, which is then covered by successive layers of reddish, whitish, and finally transparent glass. No paint is used; the colors come entirely from the glass itself.

The thought of laminating those thin layers and then curving the 4-by-60-inch pieces as they cool from 2,300 degrees to room temperature brings home to us the kind of challenges a glass artist must surmount. But Morris appears to spend little time thinking about skills that clearly have become second-nature. He's more concerned about the impact of the piece on the viewer. ``The fact that it creates more questions than it answers is the fun for me,'' he says.

``That's what this school is about,'' he explains later. ``We do not teach art as a technique. The creative ideas come first. If you have an idea, and you want to create that idea badly enough, the technique will take care of itself. The ideas are what are hard to come by.

``The best glass blowers in the world come here. We don't want people to copy the style of their work. We want them to develop the skills to execute their own ideas.''

Pilchuck came into being 18 summers ago, when owners of the logging property donated land and money for Tacoma-born glass artist Dale Chihuly to build a school on the site, the nation's only school devoted solely to glass.

Mr. Chihuly, a well-known glass artist who had started the glass program at the Rhode Island School of Design, moved onto the property with two other teachers and 16 students, and began building shelters and furnaces while living and working under tents and tarps.

Today, as the school's artistic director, Chihuly selects the instructors and visiting artists for the sessions, which span the summer. The respect won by Pilchuck teachers and students in the gallery and museum worlds has helped change the image of the glassmaker from artisan to full-fledged artist.

During our visit, we examine one of the surviving shelters from that first year - a low-hanging treehouse with a wooden ladder, four walls made from window frames and panes, and a wooden roof and floor. The interior is just large enough to accommodate a single bed, a small table, and a bouquet of flowers, under the five-foot ceiling.

But the veterans here say amenities, apart from the spectacular natural setting, aren't important to students or staff. The studios are open round the clock, and those who work here want as few distractions as possible during the intensive 18-day work/training sessions.

In fact, says Ms. Rooney, some students ask to be assigned the treehouse for their living quarters, even though the school now provides more spacious cottages, a beautiful lodge designed by Seattle architect Thomas L. Bosworth, a classroom building, a dormatory, and offices.

On June 18, Pilchuck opened the second of this summer's five sessions, which will bring a total of 240 students from 18 countries (including New Zealand, Japan, Lebanon, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and Panama) here. The courses include advanced glass blowing, neon, kiln-formed sculpture, sand casting, stained glass, and even printmaking from glass plates. The students range from novice to expert. The artists-in-residence come from as closeby as Seattle and as far away as London. Czechoslovakian glassmakers Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova will teach a master class.

On July 22 and Aug. 26 the school will hold all-day open houses for the public. Dramatic growth in Seattle's cultural scene prompted the Monitor to send arts editor Bruce Manuel there to sample the city's arts organizations. This is the fifth of several reports from that trip.

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