Beyond the Glass Ceiling
Vines the color of ice melt, loop and twist sinuously, gracefully, culminating in a bulbous, open-jawed Venus fly trap. Much as a butterfly lands briefly, hesitatingly on one’s hand, a heart perches on the bottom lip of the trap. The partially finished glass sculpture rests on a tabletop in artist Ginny Ruffner’s leafy, glass-walled Ballard studio.
Beauty and vulnerability seem to strike a tenuous balance in this piece, as in many of Ruffner’s works. She is known nationwide for her often whimsical, always thought-provoking glass and metal sculptures that are intensely personal.
Ruffner is among a group of three prominent, internationally known Seattle women artists who have been producing challenging, emotionally charged works in glass for decades. Cappy Thompson, Mary Van Cline and Ruffner share a number of parallels in their works, yet their artistic styles vary dramatically. Ruffner produces smaller pieces using a technique called lampworking, the crafting of small glass objects and beads of glass using a torch. In recent years, her work has included metal-and-glass sculptures and large-scale installations. Thompson began by creating luminous vessels with brilliantly colored mythological themes, then segued into immense, personal, narrative works on flat panes of glass. Van Cline prints haunting photographic images on thick slabs of glass.
“All three of them work figuratively,” says Josie Kellen, director of the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art, in Tacoma. “There’s an element of the narrative in all of their work, and they also all work from the feminine perspective.” The latter can easily be seen in Ruffner’s recurrent themes of hearts, flowers and other such images, Van Cline’s photosensitive glass images of women in flowing robes and Thompson’s frequent portrayal of stylized folkloric women in her works.
In a city the size of Seattle, perhaps it’s not surprising that the three artists form a mutually supportive circle. They frequently spend time at each other’s studios and move in the same artistic circles, attending museum and gallery openings and teaching at Pilchuck School of Glass.
“We have a mutual admiration,” says Ruffner. “Seattle is the best place in the world to be. It’s known around the world for glass art.” According to Kellen, there are approximately 500 glass artists in Seattle. Yet it’s also an intimate, collaborative environment that has helped each woman to grow as an artist. “Everyone knows and helps everyone else,” says Ruffner.
However, Seattle is merely a launching pad for these women, who are known worldwide for their glasswork. “We’re all in the prime of our careers; we have put in 25 years as artists, and the glass movement has allowed us to break out of the local scene,” says Van Cline. Thompson is currently creating works in Germany, Ruffner is in virtually every major museum around the world, and Van Cline is better known in Europe and Japan than in the United States: She has won numerous awards for her works in Japan.
Despite the large number of artists in this area and the region’s artistic reputation, it hasn’t always been easy to be female artists.
“In the glass world many, many years ago in Italy, men worked in glass; women didn’t so much,” notes Kellen. “These women have really broken the barriers in so many ways.”
“In the world at large, men are taken more seriously than women in any field,” says Van Cline. ”There may be the same amount of respect, but money-wise, there is a disparity.” Ruffner points out how few articles there are devoted to women artists in major periodicals, compared with those following men’s careers.
Van Cline adds a positive note, however: “Working in the field of fine arts allows women to climb the success ladder far easier than in the business world. In this field you are an artist first, your gender is second, and the materials you work with are third in importance.”
One might think that working in glass in a city where “Dale Chihuly” is a household name might be a challenge. Yet in conversations with the artists, it quickly becomes clear that this is a misconception. Thompson met Chihuly when she was just getting started as an artist. “I was recognized pretty early for the glass art I was doing,” she says. “Dale Chihuly and his mom visited me in my studio in Olympia. It was like a visitation from a grand master,” she recalls. As her career developed, her relationship to Chihuly shifted to that of a fellow artist. Van Cline sees Chihuly as one of an elite group of five of the region’s most prominent glass artists, including the trio of women and William Morris. “Chihuly is a fantastic artist who has pushed the movement,” she says. “He is the reason why glass art is not stuck in the category of decorative art, but is in the fine art category.”
It’s a fresh fall morning when I knock on Ruffner’s studio door, just off a cobblestone street in old Ballard. The door swings open and Ruffner appears with a smile almost hidden by her mass of light, ringleted hair. She leads me through the foyer and a hallway to the back courtyard, where she explains that landscapers are laying plans to add the latest layer of greenery – a “hall of vines” – to her jungle of a garden. An immense tree fern from Tasmania shades a colossal terra cotta stone head of a woman with ferns growing atop. Vivid magenta impatiens and burnt-orange begonias jostle for space alongside slate steps, and metal sculptures of vines, leaves and flowers intertwine with actual vines alongside massive Grecian columns. “I want the garden to be a wonder,” Ruffner says, simply. It truly is, and it’s easy to see how Ruffner’s delight for growing things is reflected in her numerous botanical-theme glass creations.
The artist points out an immense opaque glass chandelier resembling a tumbling mass of sandblasted leaves and petals hanging over a porch. It’s her newest creation; she held a party in honor of the sculpture’s completion the night before. It took her four months of work to craft it from 177 pieces of glass. This piece is representative of the direction in which Ruffner is headed. Her latest ambition is to create larger-than-life sculptures of glass and metal, and installations. “If you see a glass sculpture, 90 percent of the time you are bigger than it,” she notes. “An installation is bigger than you, though. It changes your sense of yourself.”
One of the best examples of Ruffner’s installations, Creativity, The Flowering Tornado, 2003, mines the creative process. The work, currently on a national tour, will be on exhibit next summer at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass. It contains about a dozen lampworked glass pieces and bronze sculptures fashioned into chains, hearts and arrows, flowers and other symbols, assembled within huge frames. A tornado with giant wings represents the nucleus of creativity; a chain-bound frame represents how vision becomes constricted when people dwell on the details of a problem. Ruffner shows me a pop-up book she wrote and illustrated – produced by the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts – that accompanies the exhibit. It’s filled with inspirational passages such as, “Imagination with courage is the enabler of creativity.”
Ruffner’s works seem to be fairly bursting with creative energy, a joie de vivre. John Braseth, co-owner of Seattle’s Woodside/Braseth Gallery, which represents Ruffner, says, “The thing that attracted me the most to Ruffner’s work is that there is a sense of humor about her work. It can be construed as either sarcastic or extremely funny or happy or ironic. You have to see the piece and look at the title and put them together.” Indeed, Ruffner’s works have more than a little sunshine and tongue-in-cheek playfulness about them, reflecting the very character traits that have enabled her to brave hardships in her own life.
Ruffner, 50, earned a B.F.A and M.F.A. in drawing and painting from the University of Georgia. Upon graduation, she took a job at a studio where she learned lampworking. In 1984 she taught lampworking at Pilchuck, and the following year moved to Seattle. Ruffner’s works had become well known by art critics, and she had established a niche for herself in the art world when tragedy struck: In 1991 Ruffner was in an automobile accident that left her in a coma for five months. The accident erased her memory of colors, art, even who she was. Through sheer will and the help of friends, Ruffner gradually returned to her art, re-learning everything step by step.
“You can laugh or you can cry, so why not laugh?” says Ruffner about the accident. “It made me reevaluate what I had been doing, and I realized that I was doing exactly what I should be,” she reminisces. “It made me want to do things bigger than me, and less fragile.”
Today, Ruffner’s works can be found in most major museums in the country – from the Seattle Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. – and in museums worldwide, from Japan to Switzerland to Australia. “Ruffner is by far the most nationally known glass woman artist, no question about that,” says Braseth.
Mary Van Cline
It’s a short stretch, across the Ballard Bridge, from Ruffner’s studio to Mary Van Cline’s low-profile Queen Anne studio. Tucked into the base of the hill, the one-story studio has an Asian feel to its sparseness. The expanse of floor is bisected by a spotlighted white half-wall with three mounted, life-size castings of women’s torsos.
We settle in at a tall counter. Van Cline, in a pink work shirt and Kokopelli earrings, looks like she has just emerged from a whirlwind as she hustles us into her studio and speaks in rapid-fire staccato. “I’m currently working on an 18-foot-long installation in Tel Aviv, with a London architect,” she says. “I mostly do private commissions, site-specific spaces now.” Many of her commissions are overseas.
I see evidence of her installation pieces in a corner of the studio, where a gnarly bronze tree patterned after an actual 800-year-old tree seems to have stepped outside a nearby slab of glass bearing a photograph of the tree.
Van Cline’s works take on many different forms, but the typical style is a black-and-white image reproduced on a thick pane of photosensitive glass “framed” by highly varnished wood bearing a resemblance to Japanese architecture. Van Cline is technically inclined – she was the pioneer of this form of glass art. The multitalented Van Cline photographs her own models in stark, often surreal landscapes such as dry gullies and rock plateaus from Crete and Japan to Baja California and Eastern Washington. The settings are stripped bare, with only rocks, the occasional tree and an overarching sky. The models are typically anonymous, often masked, and either semi-nude or garbed in flowing robes. Her works have the feeling of being suspended in time.
“While Mary has always been drawn to images, her work really does pose questions,” says Kellen, director of Tacoma’s Museum of Glass.
In “The Listening Point,” 1999, at Pioneer Square’s Pacini Lubel Gallery, a black-robed woman wearing a stark white Japanese mask crouches at the edge of a rocky pool of water in a dry wash, appearing to observe her reflection. Behind the pane of photographic glass, a metal ladder attached to the sculpture extends upward from the pool. Gallery owner Jerry Slipman sees the woman engaged in self-reflection and aspiring to climb to a higher level of consciousness. “The interplay between the photography, the glass and the sculptural element create a beautiful, peaceful piece,” says Slipman. However one views her works, there is no doubt that Van Cline’s art is provocative.
The 50-year-old Van Cline was born in Dallas. After receiving a degree in industrial design and architecture from North Texas State University, she attended Penland School of Crafts in 1979, where she was introduced to glass. The allure of dramatic landscapes drew her to the Northwest in the mid-eighties. Van Cline also spent considerable time in Japan, where she gained notice, awards and grand prizes, and established a Japanese version of Pilchuck. In the United States, her works can be found in the collections of the Corning Museum of Glass, the Huntington Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute for the Arts and other major museums.
In contrast to the refined, formal works of Van Cline, Seattle artist Cappy Thompson’s glass works are bold splashes of color welcoming viewers into a Technicolor dream world that’s a celebration of life: Men and women embrace, mermaids sing, the fountain of youth spouts, forest animals gather and people dance joyfully.
Thompson, 52, greets me at the door of her south Seattle artist’s loft, and we stroll past a row of illuminated glass vessels with folkloric themes in brilliant colors before settling into her corner kitchen, where she offers a cup of herbal tea. “I was lucky,” she says with a smile. “I trusted myself, and my parents let me do what I wanted to,” she says of her early years.
Born in Alexandria, Virginia, Thompson grew up in Seattle and attended the Evergreen State College in Olympia, where she received a B.A. in 1976 in painting and printmaking. While there, she did a summer internship in a stained glass studio, which sparked her interest in the medium. She began experimenting with painting on vessels. In recent years, her focus has shifted to large-scale, stained glass-style installations.
“I have a vivid imagination,” says Thompson. “I have used dreams as a theme in my work for a number of years.” Thompson’s works are “picture poems” that marry mythology, folk styles and self-expression. She uses a Medieval-age process for painting that begins with careful application of black outlines, which are filled in with lush, sensuous colors reminiscent of a fairy tale. Thompson places herself in nearly all of her works: She’s the graceful woman with a silver (or sometimes gold) pageboy haircut. Her much-loved former dog, Canis, also appears in much of her art.
Both Thompson and Canis are apparent in a recent installation at the new south concourse of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The largest project of her career, “I Was Dreaming of Spirit Animals” spans a window-wall measuring 33 feet high by 90 feet wide, and includes 53 hand-painted, glass enamel and hand-blown art glass window pieces. A man and woman slumber peacefully in a tower as the arc of the night sky – brimming with constellations – bears a chariot pulled by white winged horses. In the chariot, the sun and the moon are sprinkling stars and blossoms onto dreamers and the earth below.
In addition to the time spent on her art, Thompson is a valued member of Seattle’s art community, devoting time to the next generation of artists. “Cappy Thompson’s level of connection with her students is very personal, and that is reflected in her work,” says Ruth King, artistic co-director at Pilchuck Glass School. “Her approach is to get students to delve into personal information and to bring it into visual form. She is a very warm and giving teacher and person.
“All three of these woman have had very tried and true careers as artists in the medium of glass, are very well established in the community, and are very committed to helping the next generation coming up,” says King.
©2004 Caliope Publishing Company
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