Friendship’s Hodge Gallery host glass works that mirror true ‘Lifeforms’

From: Pittsburgh Tribune Live

Local glass lovers can rejoice, as the Pittsburgh Glass Center plays host to an exhibit planned to coincide with the Glass Art Society’s annual conference, which did not happen this year.

“Lifeforms,” an exhibit of more than 50 nature-inspired works of glass art from all over the world, was to be a component of the Glass Art Society conference. The Seattle-based society, a nonprofit serving 2,400 members in 54 countries, was scheduled to hold its annual conference in Boston in June, but logistical issues and permit problems made it impossible and the meeting, as well as the exhibit, was postponed.

“The Pittsburgh Glass Center stepped up to the plate,” says Robert Mickelsen, a well-known Florida-based glass artist and organizer of this exhibit, which was inspired by Rudolf and Leopold Blaschka’s glass biological models made in the 19th and 20th centuries for Harvard University’s museums.

The museums’ unique collection of more than 3,000 models was created by German glass artisans Leopold Blaschka (1822-95) and his son, Rudolph (1857-1939). The commission began in 1886, continued for five decades, and the collection represents more than 830 plant species.

“I saw the Blaschka’s glass flowers back in 1996, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have contemporary artists attempt to do something similar to what the Blaschkas did, along those same lines, for the conference,’” Mickelsen says.

For this exhibit, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History agreed to loan several Blaschka models from its collection, and they are some of the first pieces visitors will come to when visiting the exhibit.

Not flowers, but models of amoebas and other protozoa, they include the elaborately detailed “Synura Ulla,” which proves that glass was, and still is, the perfect medium to represent certain lifeforms.

As for the contemporary pieces, only 50 works of art were selected for the exhibit out of 102 submissions received from the United States, Scotland, Italy, Japan, Australia, England and Canada.

“They really did an amazing job,” Mickelsen says of the artists.

Many of the artists chose to create representational pieces in exacting detail, and some, like Alex McDermott of Edmonds, Wash., imbued them with personal meaning.

McDermott’s “Bigleaf Maple Seedling” is a real showstopper, not only because it is a representation of a maple seedling in exacting detail, but also because it is much larger than real life.

As a Pacific Northwest native, McDermott says the maple seed has always been an object of fascination.

“As a child, watching the ‘helicopters’ spin gently to the ground appeared magical,” he says. “As an artist, the maple seed turned into a symbol of life’s evolving transitions of change and rebirth as I lost my kiln-casting mentor and teacher, Susan Balshor, this year due to complications of the influenza virus.”

Emma Mackintosh, a glass artist living and working in Cumbria in the English Lake District, says, “I’m lucky to live in one of the most beautiful parts of the United Kingdom, surrounded by hills, lakes and nature in a national park.”

As a result, her work reflects this. “Blown Beetroot” is in essence a three-dimensional representation of the life of a beetroot.

“I love to focus on the perhaps less ‘glamorous’ parts of nature in what I produce — so, not orchids or lilies but vegetables and wild flowers,” Mackintosh says. “I spend a lot of time cooking for my large family — we all love good food — and the idea of a beetroot ties in with this.”

The piece is functional, with the leaves forming a stopper for the beetroot “bottle,” which Mackintosh says, “I also like because it could possibly be used.”

The other intriguing aspect of the piece, is that it looks very much like a botanical illustration. This is not without coincidence, says the artist.

“I have books of botanical drawings in my possession from my grandfather, great grandmother and even my great, great grandmother, going back to the 1800s,” she says. “All of them drew wildflowers and vegetables. So, this depiction of nature in art must be a family thing. The form of the frame, with the seedling, seeds and beetroot slice, is like a botanical drawing and a reference to this history.”

Then, there is the piece “Quiet” by Rachel Elliott of Edinburgh, Scotland, which is a collaboration of sorts. A piece from a series of works she calls “Fragile Entomology,” Elliott says, “It basically began as a technical challenge to see how thin and fine I could cast glass in the kiln.

“Normally, I resolve a challenge like that or a concept in one finished sculpture,” Elliott says, “but the topic of bees has kept me intrigued, resulting in my first sculpture series.”

“Quiet” was the first piece she finished, and it was selected for the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London last year.

“The wood and the bee honeycomb used to make the piece was sourced locally from a Scottish hive, with the glass bee made by Wesley Fleming, an American glass artist and the glass powder coming all the way from Portland, Ore. So, it’s truly an international collaboration,” Elliott says.

Many more exquisite works make up the show, including several sea creatures by the late Tim Jerman (1957-2004), who has two sculptures displayed in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., making for a well-rounded exhibit that really shows the remarkable abilities these artists have in representing real life in glass.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

Hodge Gallery 2014