Glass as art: Movement began 50 years ago

Paperweight from Bergstrom-Mahler collection

Before Dale Chihuly – the celebrated architect of big, bulbous, vivid and swirly glass sculptures – there was Harvey Littleton.

Before Littleton, glass was for eyeglasses and windshields, goblets and vases – but not heating and blowing into fine art. People worked with glass in industrial settings, not art studios.

That changed when Littleton, now 89, introduced the nation’s first college hot-glass art program at the University of Wisconsin. The art department chairman’s work launched the American studio glass movement, and Chihuly – a University of Washington interior design graduate – was among Littleton’s best-known students.

This year art museums throughout the nation (including at least four in Wisconsin) present major exhibitions to celebrate the 50th anniversary of American studio glass.

Devoted to artistic expressions in glass all year, every year since 1959, is the Bergstrom-Mahler: Wisconsin’s Glass Museum, 165 N. Park Ave., Neenah. The 1929 Tudor house also is informally known as the Paperweight Museum because it opened to the public with Evangeline Bergstrom’s collection of 652 glass paperweights.

Now about 3,500 items fill display cases; collections also include contemporary glass, Victorian glass baskets and Germanic glass drinking containers. Three-dimensional perspectives of insects, flowers, geometric patterns and much more are etched, cut or blended into an array of antique to contemporary paperweight designs.

Complementing the museum’s permanent collection is “All That Glitters,” works from eight artists that involve cold glass manipulation (cutting, polishing, laminating). The show stays up until Feb. 19.

Opening Oct. 8 is “The Legacy of Littleton: Harvey Littleton and His Wisconsin Glass Program Students,” a show that pays particular attention to the professor’s first art glass students.

New this year are classes in glass fusing, painting with glass, producing special effects with glass and working with glass rods in a kiln. Some workshops and Saturday activity days are for children. Costs depend upon class length and materials used.

The Bergstrom-Mahler overlooks Lake Winnebago, admission is free and tours can be arranged; www.bergstrom-mahlermuseum.com, 920-751-4658.

Viewable now at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, 700 N. 12th St., Wausau, is “The Americans in Glass Legacy,” an exhibit of 43 works of art from the museum’s permanent collection, acquired during hot-glass shows there in 1978, 1981 and 1984. Harvey Littleton’s 1976 “Double Downthrust” is a part of the presentation, which stays in place until April 7.

The museum’s specialty is bird art, small sketches to lawn sculptures, and admission is free; www.lywam.org, 715-845-7010.

Opening April 21 at the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave., Madison, is “Spark and Flame: Fifty Years of Art Glass,” which features about 160 works by Littleton and other notable artists. The event is a tribute to Littleton and the impact of the UW program he established.

Maurine Littleton, the art professor’s daughter, helped select artwork for this exhibition; some comes from her father’s private collection. She operates Maurine Littleton Gallery, which specializes in glass art, in Washington DC.

Admission to the newly enlarged Chazen is free; www.chazen.wisc.edu, 608-263-2246.

Racine Art Museum, 441 Main St., Racine, adds “Cutting Edge: Exploring Glass Jewelry – RAM Honors 50 Years of Studio Glass Art” from Oct. 28 to Feb. 17, 2013. The show notes “the intersection of two important elements of artistic production – art jewelry and glass,” says the nonprofit Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass.

Contemporary crafts from internationally known artists is the Racine museum’s specialty; www.ramart.org, 262-638-8300.

Near Wisconsin are upcoming art glass shows at:

Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, Ill., whose “Into the Light: Illinois Glass” is in place June 22 to Oct. 21; www.rockfordartmuseum.org, 815-972-2878.

Michigan’s Muskegon Museum of Art, which hosts “50 x 50: A Glass Invitational Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Studio Glass Movement,” Aug. 23 to Oct. 28; www.muskegonartmuseum.org, 231-720-2573.

Lubeznik Center for the Arts, Michigan City, Ind., which presents “Light and Flow: 50th Anniversary of Contemporary Studio Glass,” May 26 to Aug. 26; www.lubeznikcenter.org, 219-874-4900.

For more about the nation’s many other studio glass exhibits, lectures and demos this year, consult www.contempglass.org, 214-890-0029.

Toledo Museum of Art, where Littleton and the late scientist-artist Dominick Labino of Ohio in 1962 offered the first glassblowing seminar for artists, is the site of the 2012 Glass Art Society Conference on June 13-16, an official 50th anniversary celebration of the art form. For more: www.glassart.org, 206-382-1305.

Ready for release this month is the photo-rich biography “Harvey K. Littleton: A Life in Glass, Founder of America’s Studio Glass Movement” by Joan Falconer Byrd ($45, Skira Rizzoli). The author was a student in the UW professor’s first glass-blowing class. Her book follows Littleton’s life as the son of scientist at Corning Glass Works, in New York, through placement of the artist’s work from the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.