When Dante Marioni was in high school, he found it so easy he stopped paying attention, so his father Paul insisted he take additional classes in something outside school. Instead, Dante went for a job sweeping up at a neon factory – then, when asked to cut his long hair, decided on a glass-blowing shop instead.
His sister, Marina, simply hated school and dropped out, getting a succession of jobs with local artists.
And their father, Paul? A single parent and artist himself, he supported them as they each found their own way.
It’s a story that highlights the dynamic in the Marioni family, one of the Northwest’s most influential artistic families. And it’s that dynamic of independence tempered by strong bonds that Tacoma Art Museum is exploring with “The Marioni Family,” a first exhibit of the work of all three artists together.
“It’s the realization that there is this family that’s devoted their whole careers to art,” said TAM senior curator Rock Hushka, on the impetus for the exhibition. “It’s a recognition of why and how the family has achieved so much.”
Paul Marioni, now 70, was one of the forefathers of the studio glass movement, an innovative artist who taught at the Pilchuck Glass School during its first decade and whose large, free-form glass sculptures of everything from sad mask faces to abstract shapes are in collections from the Corning to the Smithsonian museums.
Dante, 48, began glassblowing at 15 and developed a formidable technique and voice in his blown goblets and elongated vases, also in major world collections. Marina, 45, spent many years learning techniques from welding to ceramics, finally developing her own ironic, pop-influenced voice in art jewelry that got recent attention from the PBS series Craft in America.
As artists, their styles are wildly different, converging only in a sharp wit and a desire to push boundaries. As a family, however, they remain close. Paul still lives and works in the converted Wallingford telephone exchange they first found when they moved to Seattle in 1980. Around the back is Dante’s hot shop studio. Marina comes every evening to get dinner for her father.
“We see each other every day,” said Dante, as the three sit down for lunch in Paul’s apartment.
With soaring ceilings, the converted exchange is perfect for Paul’s walls of shelves jam-packed with his own art and that of other studio glass artists whose work he’s collected over the years. And it’s this collection, in fact, that was the other impetus for the TAM show: Paul, wanting it to stay intact and in the Northwest, offered the 400-piece collection to the museum. Hushka thought it a great way to put Paul’s work in context not only with other glass artists but with his family as well, and the show now balances 50 of Paul’s experimental flat, cast and blown-glass sculptures with 94 of Dante’s goblets, 25 pieces of Marina’s jewelry and 125 other glass works from painted beer glasses to slumped 1960s vessels.
“We’re trying to show his collection in the way he has it at home,” explains Hushka. “Paul collected ideas rather than works of art. You realize how voracious his appetite was. It’s really stunning.”
The other thing the TAM show is trying to do is showcase the personality of each of the three artists, something that comes out as clearly in their lunchtime conversation as in their art.
“People always asked me if I would blow glass like Dad,” said Marina. “I hated glass. It was hot, hard, miserable, stupid. ...”
“Expensive, dangerous,” added Dante in a teasing tone.
“You see how much influence I had?” said Paul calmly.
All three acknowledge that growing up with a famous artist for a father wasn’t easy.
“I was an unorthodox parent,” Paul said. “But as a single parent, there was no room for negotiation. I could make my own decisions.”
“The downside was having to hear stories about ‘when I knew your father,’” said Dante. “As a kid, I actually wanted to be a motorbike racer.”
“It was hell,” Marina said bluntly. “I vowed I would never be an artist myself – there was too much struggle. I saw how hard it was. Nobody made a living at it.”
“Same here,” agreed Dante.
“Same here,” added Paul mildly.
“They’re all super-smart and all passionate,” said Hushka of the Marionis. “Watching that dynamic unfold is fascinating. Dante’s focus on the Venetian technique and scale is sort of a reaction to his father’s ... experimentation. Marina is a wild card – she’s so skilled at whatever she wants to do. To watch her take care of her father and develop her own voice in jewelry has been remarkable, magical.”
As lunch is packed away, Marina leads the way to Dante’s studio where the furnaces are blazing. She passes Dante’s motorbike collection and enters the shimmering room where goblet upon goblet in every hue and size is stored. Searching, she finally picks up one clear, small one with black edges, and grins.
“This is my favorite,” she said. “It’s Dad – do you see?”
Sure enough, there are the long ears, the big glasses, the shock of wild gray hair, the aquiline nose: Paul Marioni blown in glass squiggles. Dante smiles and goes back to work.