GO Arts: Irish glass talks of fragility and strength at Museum of Glass

Tacoma News TribuneNovember 26, 2013 

Calling a glass exhibit “fragile” is like calling a construction site dirty. But at the Museum of Glass, “CAUTION! Fragile. Irish Glass: Tradition in Transition” speaks to much more than just the breakability of the objects on display. Thanks to a unique collaboration between studio glass artist Róisín de Buitléar and three former Waterford factory cutters, the works in the museum’s second gallery speak to the fragility of the Irish glass industry and its workers’ livelihoods, juxtaposed with the longevity and traditions of Irish culture.

But what strikes you first, before you even read the wall texts for the backstory, is the sheer beauty of the glass, a beauty transformed by its highly unusual combination of smoothly minimalist form and detailed, Victorian texture. Vessels, objects, giant bells, even musical instruments made of glass sit like museum artifacts from an alien time and place, speaking in symbols at once mysterious and enchanting.

Understand the backstory, though, and the symbols reveal themselves. An Irish studio artist of 30 years, de Buitléar had long admired the cutters at the Waterford crystal factory, who apprenticed into the trade as teenagers and spent long hours perfecting one single skill along the factory line – etching tiny, detailed textures into clear glass with the edge of a spinning copper wheel. The technique goes back generations, with often a spinning copper coin as the cutting edge.

“At its peak there were 4,000 people working at Waterford,” says de Buitléar, who would bring her university students there. “There were 600 blowers, 600 cutters. You can imagine the might and power.”

And then in 2009 the factory closed. Undercut by cheap sandblasted glass from Eastern Europe – much quicker, without all the man-power – and by society’s dwindling desire to collect engraved crystal, Waterford shut down, taking away the only skill and livelihood many of the workers had. De Buitléar, dismayed at seeing skilled cutters reduced to truck driving, decided to organize a show that would both bring a new horizon to the chief three Waterford artists and bring their art to the world by creating blown glass forms in her own style (mostly during past residencies here in the Northwest at MoG and Pilchuck) and shipping the glass back to Ireland for the cutters to work on.

Now it’s back here, a strange, breathtaking array of sculpture that draws on Irish history, culture and (unusually for them) the cutters’ own personal experiences. There are the four droplets of the “Soft Rain” series, basketball-sized globes of fluid green with a clear bubble on the outside, magnifying tiny human figures cut by Greg Sullivan into the side and “trapped” between the raindrops. (Something Tacomans can relate to, also.) There are the giant bells of St. Patrick, given a bronzy, translucent patina and suspended in mid-air, cradling inside a tiny cut-crystal bird or person cut by Fred Curtis. There are the glass axeheads, modeled on prehistoric ones from Ireland’s National Museum, inscribed by Eamonn Hartley with calligraphic proverbs like “Building castles takes time” – a sad memorial to the glasscutting trade itself.

Most hauntingly unusual of all is the room with musical glass instruments – long horns, tiny goblets with a thin blowing tube, filigree ‘seed pods’ for tapping, a circular glass bodhran – all bearing de Buitléar’s signature curvy style and some element of intricately-etched crystal. Playing on speakers is the music that was made on these sculptures by Irish musician Liam O’Maorlan – eerie, otherworldly, gently beautiful, just like the glass and the country itself.

Around the corner is a display of Dale Chihuly’s rarely-seen Irish Cylinders – a peek at Ireland through a foreigner’s eyes – and next summer both Fred Curtis and Greg Sullivan will have hot shop residencies at the museum.

Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. third Thursday and noon-5 p.m. Sundays through 2014. $12 general/$10 senior, student, military/$5 ages 6-12/free for under-six and 5-8 p.m. third Thursdays. 1801 Dock St., Tacoma. 866-4-MUSEUM, museumofglass.org

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 rosemary.ponnekanti@thenewstribune.com

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