Artist forms meaning in poured glass

Before you study the words that explain his sculpture, Howard Ben Tr wants you to do this: Touch it, sit on it, walk around it. Above all, don't worry about what it means. It means, says the Rhode Island-based artist, whatever response it evokes in you.

"One of the things that's very important is to have many levels of experience," says the artist during a recent interview over lunch.

Mr. Ben Tr's career has elevated a seemingly everyday material - glass - to the level of a monumental art form. His chosen medium, poured glass, has a timeless quality, as if the hulking, architectural forms he creates with it have existed from before the dawn of recorded history.

Massed together as in a new show currently on display in Palm Springs, Calif., or selectively sited, as in a growing number of public parks and plazas, they suggest a Stonehenge or Easter Island in the midst of urban civilization.

"[Ben Tr] has a deep understanding of many cultures from around the world," says Patterson Sims, deputy director for education and research at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in a video that accompanies the exhibition. "You have a sense that these objects can evoke a tremendous set of associations."

But while allusions in the posts, columns, and basins to ritual vessels, or religious totems seem to reference nearly every period of art history, the works themselves are best enjoyed on their own terms. "I hope that the sculpture is going to have a lot of layers of meaning," the artist says. "But I hope that people without any history of looking at art, can be drawn in, and have a connection to it."

In fact, his love affair with the unlikely medium of glass grew out of his desire to work with and have a deeper sense of community or connectedness between people.

After a period of political activism during the '60s, the native New Yorker and his wife left the East for Oregon, hoping to find what he calls "a more pure, spiritual experience." They landed at Portland State University, which he discovered had one of the oldest glass-blowing shops in the country. His journey began with a fascination with the religious objects of other cultures.

"I was very interested in the idea of the ritual object and in trying to understand its relationship to spirituality," he says. His first experiments with blowing glass were failures. Then he hit upon the idea of pouring the glass to solve early technical difficulties and unintentionally laid the foundation for a career of exploration.

"However, it's not really an exploration of the material for me," he says. "It's a different kind of journey in which I use the material to help me go where I want to go." The heart of a shared experience is what he looks for, adding, "I'm usually more interested in finding the connections between certain icons or figures from Africa or Japan."

The artist who pioneered the notion of glass as a monumental fine-art medium now has works in major American museums as well as many around the globe. As his work has evolved, he has begun creating more public spaces, such as the BankBoston Plaza in Rhode Island and Post Office Square in Boston.

His current projects are taking him abroad, to Warrington, a small industrial town in England, and Havana. In all his public projects, bringing people together is his goal. He points out that Warrington has a particularly poignant past to overcome.

"In '93, they had an IRA bombing which killed several children," says Ben Tr, who has met with the parents of the slain. "They want that street turned into a place for people to live and enjoy, so it will be a pedestrian route with a fountain as a memorial."

Critics who have followed his work suggest that Ben Tr may only now be getting the recognition he deserves.

"He's redefining sculpture," says Arthur Danto, art critic for The Nation. "These objects create a kind of pleasure we don't usually associate with art. There's a lot of power in his art."

Ben Tr suggests that the power comes from the experience he hopes his art produces for people. "My art is not cynical or ironic; it is hopeful," he says in a recently published book, "Howard Ben Tr," (Hudson Hills Press).

"I am trying to deal with the negative elements in society by taking what we perceive as disconnected and in fact connecting it experientially through the creation of transcendent moments."

*"Interior/Exterior" by Howard Ben Tr continues at the Palm Springs Desert Museum through March 12 and then travels to Scottsdale, Ariz.; San Jose, Calif.; and Newport Beach, Calif.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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