Tacomans go to the Seymour Conservatory in Wright Park for many reasons: It’s a cozy place in winter, it’s full of bright light and the kind of plants we’ll never see growing in the wild around here, and it’s ripe with Victorian history. Now there’s another reason: fun art. The Hilltop Artists, student glassblowers at the Jason Lee Middle School hotshop, have just installed a new exhibit of whimsical glass insects, birds, nests and plants, nestled among the palms and orchids and adding a tongue-in-cheek humor to the greenhouse.
Officially opening Friday night with a sneak preview event, “Symbiosis: A Mutually Beneficial Relationship” pairs glass fauna with living flora on two levels. On the first, practical level there’s the biological, environmental symbiosis necessary for a healthy ecosystem. But when you enter the warm humidity of the conservatory what you’ll really notice is the artistic symbiosis – colors and shapes riffing off each other, visual puns, sly comic gestures.
By the huge lemon tree near the entrance a metal tree of glass dragonflies also supports a glass nest of brightly-colored fused-glass birds in bright reds, yellows and aquas. The dragonflies, with clear wings and steel-gray bodies, have hilariously squished faces, and heads that reflect the cheerful orange of the plant behind them. Nearby are black boards with glass butterflies “pinned” to them; around in the spring display section are box frames sporting glass versions of exotic insects: dung beetles, rhino spiders, their knobby legs perfectly mirroring the elongated cacti behind them.
Around the corner a three-foot bird perches on one yellow, steel-bolt leg, its blown-glass body shot through with green and blue and its wings fused with “feathers.” It’s a clever combination of quirky scrap-art and garden glass art. A set of golden ducks sit nursing pale-blue-green glass eggs in a glass nest, amid pointy, Chihuly-like reeds in neon-green that riff on the sharp-edged aloe right behind them.
And while the craftsmanship is what you’d expect from middle-schoolers learning the trade, the clever placement is the key thing in “Symbiosis”. A translucent glass float actually floats in the koi pond, a blood-red heart nestles beneath a pink African violet in a hanging cage like a surrealist painting. Fused glass insects swarm up the tall sago palm under the dome, and beneath the giant philodendron a nest of pink glass birds is menaced by an opaque, poison-green glass snake.
The whole installation adds a new dimension of humor and color to the lush, tropical greenery.
As a whole the Hilltop Artists program, which just turned 20, has many reasons to celebrate. The students have also created an installation for the Rhododendron Species Garden in Federal Way, featuring imagined carnivorous plant species made in glass. The program was also recently invited to show off its groundbreaking work at the Glass Art Society National Conference in Chicago, where hot shop manager Jason Mouer spoke about using glass art to reach underserved youth. Hilltop Artists, founded by Tacoma-born glass artist Dale Chihuly, was the first such program in the country.
The program is also reaching out to Europe, with collaborations and exchanges happening in Germany and France. German youth glass studio Berlin Glas has set up a design exchange with Tacoma’s Hilltop Artists, where groups from each studio design a sculpture and send it to the other location for students to make it. And this summer Tacoma’s sister city of Biot, France, will send a glass art student in exchange for a Tacoma student to learn the glass art techniques and culture of the other country.
“Symbiosis” is up at the Seymour Conservatory 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday through June 16, with sneak preview event 6-8 p.m. April 11 ($20, includes beverages and hors d’oeuvres) and opening artist reception 11 a.m.-1 p.m. April 12. Entry $3/free for 11 and under, and 10 a.m.-7 p.m. third Thursdays. Wright Park, 316 S. G St., Tacoma. 253-591-5330, metroparkstacoma.org/conservatory, hilltopartists.org