More craftsmanship…

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At this time three years ago I’d just finished cutting 200 mirrored glass stars for table decorations at MASS MoCA‘s annual NY City gala. A few months earlier I’d cut 230 much, much bigger ones -some as big as 4ft across- in 1/4″ thick mirror for Sanford Biggers exhibit “The Cartographer’s Conundrum“. I cut glass by hand. No waterjet, no bandsaw, just a glass cutter, a sturdy pair of running pliers, and my hands.

It was a happy week of pure craftsmanship. I needed to work carefully and sensitively with the glass, paying careful attention to the way it wanted to break. I was observing how it responded to my pressure (1/4″ plate glass is very different to 1/8″, and different yet again to hand-made coloured glasses), and how the precise position of my pliers would result in a successful break (or not!).

The 1/4″ mirror arrived in 5ft x 10ft sheets and I had to cut it right there on the A-frame before lifting sections with suction cups onto my work table. I had the help of a young intern to help lift the mirror, and later take back the sharp edges with a carborundum stone. Mostly, he watched, fascinated.

I was using all my old, familar, glasscutting methods, my knowledge of the material and how it behaves, and pushing the craft of glasscutting to it’s outer boundaries. It was a real delight for a very small person like me to carve into this strong, dense, yet delicate material, and create pile after pile of five-pointed stars.

Hundreds of 5-pointed mirroed glass stars hand cut by Debora Coombs stained glass artist  Hundreds of 5-pointed mirroed glass stars hand cut by Debora Coombs stained glass artist

Hundreds of 5-pointed mirroed glass stars hand cut by Debora Coombs stained glass artist Hundreds of 5-pointed mirroed glass stars hand cut by Debora Coombs stained glass artist Hundreds of 5-pointed mirroed glass stars hand cut by Debora Coombs stained glass artist

Here’s a final photo, of the Cartographer’s Conundrum. Note that the colored light you see in the gallery is not stained glass. They are colourful plaxi-glass pews made by Richard Criddle and his crew, the fabulous art installation and fabrication team at MASS MoCA (in 2 mins).

As part of his aesthetic and artistic message, Sanford Biggers smashed around 60% of the stars with a huge iron pole. In the light of the pride I’d taken in my craftsmanship, and the sense of achievement I’d gained from cutting the stars whole, it was a curious thing to witness.

Sanford Biggers at MASS MoCA. Handcut mirrored glass stars by Debora Coombs

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self-leveling floor compound

Why teach craftsmanship?

Because some things just can’t be learned from YouTube.

Richard and I were reminded of this last week as we wrestled with self-leveling cement for a bathroom floor. We have 15 years of art school education between us, and a broad range of practical skills. Richard has been MASS MoCA‘s Director of Fabrication and Art Installation since the museum opened in 1999, and responsible for building hundreds of extraordinary works of art in a wide variety of materials. But this tiny, 5ft x 8ft bathroom floor was threatening to get the better of us.

self-leveling floor compound second attempt

We’d watched the videos, pored over instructions, and measured everything precisely, but this darn cement turned out to have a mind of it’s own. Plus, a fierce surface tension that made it cure into pahoehoe-like slabs with lightning speed. Self-clumping would be a better description, like kitty litter. Figuring out how to level this lava-like eruption forced me to become more intimate than usual with the subtle topography of our bathroom floor. Eventually, we sort-of won, and the floor was sort-of leveled.

Battle-weary, as we cleaned our tools and tidied my studio for a week of glasspainting, it hit me: I teach in order to save others from this same experience: the demoralizing frustration that results from such a huge gap between what you want or expect, and what the mixture or material appears able to do.

Just a few days earlier, Annie O’Brien had come from Cornwall in England for private tuition. She had heard about my methods, downloaded my Notes for Students and painted glass with my mixture, but had yet to achieve the results she saw in my videos. Annie teaches stained glass at Penzance School of Art and, besides developing her own work, wanted to help her students paint glass more fluently.

Reviewing Annie’s workshop in the light of my floor-leveling struggles prompted me to recall comments such as “Oh, I read about that in so-and-so’s book but it didn’t/I couldn’t/it wasn’t clear…”. Then, as I took Annie through my basic procedures, I began to hear “Oh, this is so different than I’ve been getting… “. Or, as she learned to recognize the correct consistency and viscosity “This is way easier, and so much more fun.”

And this is my point: all the YouTube videos out there cannot substitute for a few hours of hands-on time with the right person.

And so, last week, four more artists drove across the country to take a 5-day workshop, Glasspainting For Artists, in my studio. Marianne Parr from Athens, Georgia, was working on developing a free and more personal style of glass painting and figuring out where she wants to go as an artist. Daniel White of Cain White Art Glass, Virginia came to learn how to create more expressive tracing and textural effects for commissioned work. Carol Slovikosky, who has taken several design and painting workshops with me, was expanding her figurative work to include canine portraits, and Brenda Benson came to the workshop to learn how to add pattern to her sculptural pieces.

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I always aim to teach the individual, and this is easier with small groups. As I figure out each artist’s needs and goals I can be flexible with the curriculum, address specific requests, and encourage exploration. Last week I gave slide presentations that included aspects of stained glass design, including the positioning of support bars, which spurred a spontaneous session I dubbed “Sacred Geometry 101”. Then, since both Brenda and Daniel wanted to use my mixture for figurative work, they chose to paint faces during the workshop. Brenda, whose tuition fees were covered largely by the SGAA’s MalDeb Fund, went on to figure out the precise viscosity of paint needed to print hand-carved linoleum.

My next student, LeaAnn Cogswell, is an accomplished sculptor and painter who has yet to figure out how to use glasspaint as beautifully as she does clay. She has remarkable drawing skills, masses of experience and solid art training. The Stained Glass Association of America awarded LeaAnn a Dorothy L. Maddy Scholarship to come and study with me. With a few days of one-to-one, hands-on instruction, I’m confident that LeaAnn will swiftly become an excellent glass painter.

stained glass painting workshop with Debora Coombsphoto 3