Artistic Practice

How One Workshop Became the East Coast Epicenter of Glass Art

The pioneering New York studio UrbanGlass — which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year — has served as an idea incubator and workshop for the likes of Robert Rauschenberg and Dale Chihuly. Today, it supports a thriving new generation of artists.

The headquarters of the Fort Greene, Brooklyn, art-glass studio UrbanGlass underwent a $62 million top-to-bottom renovation and expansion from 2011 to 2013. Photo by Mark Hall. Top: a detail of South Seas Cloud, 2015, by Nancy Callan, who first trained as a graphic artist

Finding studio space in New York City is difficult for many artists, but for glassblowers, the challenge is nearly insurmountable. They need a furnace that can heat the material to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, along with the requisite ventilation and safety systems. Building and maintaining such a studio can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

To address this need in the art community, there’s UrbanGlass, a Brooklyn nonprofit that has welcomed glass artists, as well as those simply curious about glass, since 1977. The studio is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year with a series of exhibitions and events, including a blowout birthday party on December 11.

“It’s harder to be an artist in New York City today than ever before,” observes executive director Cybele Maylone, “so our mission to support artists remains extremely relevant.”

The studio glass movement came into its own in the United States in the 1960s: Artists, outside industry, began adapting the material as a medium, and university art departments began adding glass programs. In 1977, young art-school graduates Erik Erikson, Richard Yelle and Joe Upham arrived in New York City and were frustrated to find that there was no glass studio where they could affordably rent space. So they founded the New York Experimental Glass Workshop, a scrappy artists’ collective, inside the Clayworks ceramics facility, at 4 Great Jones Street, in Manhattan’s Noho neighborhood.

A few years later, the group moved a bit south, to Mulberry Street, which at the time was ruled by the Gambino crime family. “At first, the mafia thought, ‘Who are these weird artists?’ ” observes Maylone. “But then, they learned that the artists were working in an Italian art form, inspired by master glassblowers of Venice, so they started fixing their parking tickets.”

Dale Chihuly (foreground left) watches William Morris (foreground right) work on a piece at UrbanGlass’s original space, on Manhattan’s Great Jones Street, in the 1970s. Toots Zynsky, who still works at UrbanGlass, can be seen looking on in the background, between Chihuly and Morris. Photo courtesy of UrbanGlass

 

Dale Chihuly and other maestros of the medium worked at the studio in the ’80s. A group called the B Team pioneered glass-based performance art by juggling and dancing with hot glass; Zesty Meyers and Evan Snyderman, cofounders of the design gallery R & Company, were members, along with artist Jeff Zimmerman. It also became a destination for artists in other fields, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Matthew Barney, who used the studio to create glass elements for their pieces.

Eventually, the workshop moved to Fort Greene — it’s now located next to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater — and changed its name to UrbanGlass. From 2011 to 2013, the studio underwent a $62 million renovation and expansion, becoming one of the largest glass facilities in the country, with 17,000 square feet of space. This was achieved with significant grants from the Bloomberg administration.

“We were recognized as a critical part of the artistic dialogue in New York,” Maylone says.

UrbanGlass now serves 350 artists each year through rentals, fellowships and residencies. It also houses an exhibition space and a shop, runs a robust education program and puts out the critical journal Glass: The UrbanGlass Art Quarterly.

Here, Introspective spotlights five innovative and accomplished glass artists who talk about their work and the role of UrbanGlass as an art incubator.


Thaddeus Wolfe became addicted to working with glass while a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the early 2000s. When he moved to New York after graduation, he headed straight to UrbanGlass. There, he eventually worked with Zimmerman, who, like him, is represented by R & Company. “I was very influenced by Jeff’s method,” Wolfe recalls. “If the glass wasn’t perfect, he’d let the mistakes lead him.”

Wolfe now works in a similarly improvisational style, although his shapes are radically different from Zimmerman’s sinuous, shiny bubbles. Wolfe’s vessels and light fixtures evoke chipped mineral formations and Brutalist architecture, with matte, textured surfaces. To create them, he blows glass into his own meticulously made angular molds in a process known as blown-glass casting. He layers in colors and later grinds away pieces of the material to reveal hidden hues in organic patterns reminiscent of Abstract Expressionist paintings.

“My work doesn’t really look like glass, in that it’s not beautifully seductive, like Venetian goblets,” he says. “But that’s the point.”

 

To make his patterned relief vessels, Wolfe carves the desired pattern into foam. He creates a mold from this and then blows the glass into this form. “The glass has different layers of color,” he explains. “The outermost layer is ground away and polished to create a contrast in the pattern.” All images courtesy of Thaddeus Wolfe, unless otherwise noted

In a 2015 exhibition at R & Company, a pair of patterned relief lamps hang in front of two totemic floor lamps, with a pair of black void sconces on the back wall.

Here, Wolfe carves a foam maquette for a series of experiments with small neon light fixtures.

Wolfe showed a group of works from his Assemblage series at Design Miami in 2014. Photo by Joe Kramm

 

Shop Thaddeus Wolfe on 1stdibs


Nancy Callan has been working with glass since the mid-1990s, when she studied with Lino Tagliapietra at the Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass in Upstate New York. A member of the board of UrbanGlass, Tagliapietra is a native of Murano, Italy, in whose glass factories he attained the rank of “maestro” before moving to the U.S. around 1980 to teach Venetian techniques, which have deeply influenced generations of American glassblowers.

Callan, who had previously worked as a graphic designer, was a member of Tagliapietra’s glassblowing team for 19 years. During that time, she became fascinated by his use of cane: glass rods containing intricate colored patterns. “I realized I could use cane to apply a background in a graphic design to glass,” she recalls. The resulting pieces resemble drawings, with hundreds of thin lines in spirals, zigzags and other configurations — as in her St. Lucia Cloud sculpture.

“I come up with patterns that would look good on the surface of a given shape, to give it a kinetic energy,” she says. For inspiration, she looks to fashion, textiles and quilts.

This fall, Callan is co-teaching an advanced glassblowing workshop at UrbanGlass with artist Katherine Gray. About the studio’s recent renovations, she says, “It’s even cooler now than it was before.”

 

Left: Callan created Metropolis, a blown-glass sculpture with an acid- etched finish, in 2016. Right: The cloud-like, Caribbean-colored St. Lucia dates to 2015. Photo courtesy of Nancy Callan

Callan made the Carmine Anemone Droplet in 2017, and the chandelier, in collaboration with lighting designer Lindsey Adelman, in 2015. Photo courtesy of Nancy Callan

While it’s still hot from the kiln, Callan uses cork paddles to shape the top of her Smokey Anemone Paloma, 2016. Photo by Russell Johnson

The patterns in Callan’s Quilt, seen here on display in October 2016 at the Traver Gallery in Seattle, draw inspiration from textile design, fashion and the natural world. Photo by Russell Johnson

 

Shop Nancy Callan on 1stdibs


Two decades ago, on a whim, William Couig took a weekend glassblowing workshop at UrbanGlass. Little did he know that he would become obsessed. He took another, more extensive class and then became a full-time assistant at a private glass workshop in New Jersey.

Eventually, he founded his own company, Furthur Design, and began producing custom lighting and tabletop pieces for such clients as Eleven Madison Park, the NoMad Hotel and Calvin Klein Home. His lighting — such as his Groove series of pendant lamps with precise indentations — has been a hit with the design community.

Since his childhood, in Greenwich, Connecticut, Couig has been “completely enamored of Manhattan and its architecture,” he says. Hence, his series of skyscraper vessels, with spire-like stoppers and mirrored interiors that conjure the sparkle of sunlight on metal and glass facades. Last year, he re-created Lower Manhattan — including One World Trade Center and the Oculus transportation hub — in glass vessels for a site-specific exhibition in the window of UrbanGlass’s Agnes Varis Art Center. His love of mirrors is also evident in his Mercury series of glass objects that resemble drops of liquid metal separating.

Couig still makes all his pieces at UrbanGlass. “I never want to have to worry about owning a furnace,” he says. “I just want to concentrate on making.”

 

Couig’s Groove series of pendant lamps includes, clockwise from top left, Pod, Cylinder, Socket and Orb versions. Photo courtesy of William Couig

The NYC iteration of his Skyscraper series comprises five handmade glass objects. Photo courtesy Charles Mudd

For a custom commission in the New York home of Will Guidara, a co-owner of the Manhattan restaurant Eleven Madison Park, Couig clustered together a group of seven Grove series Orb pendants. Photo courtesy of William Couig

One of Couig’s Branded bottles, here in a ruby colorway, is seen just before it’s broken off the metal rod, called a pontil, and placed in an apparatus that lets it cool down to room temperature. Photo by Charles Mudd

The Grove series also includes this Aurae chandelier. Photo courtesy of William Couig

 

Shop Furthur Design on 1stdibs


When Jamie Harris arrived at UrbanGlass, in 1999, at age 22, he had an English degree from Brown University, plus experience working in the glass studio at the Rhode Island School of Design and apprenticing with a glassblower. Developing his skills at UrbanGlass “opened my eyes to how I could take the technique and apply it in a sculptural way,” he recalls. Now, he creates both sculptural pieces and bespoke lighting.

He takes inspiration from Color Field painters, such as Mark Rothko and Kenneth Noland. Their influence is evident in pieces like Tidal, with its bands of cobalt blue and translucent section that allows the viewer to see the vessel’s interior, which is aquamarine.

“I try to take that painterly sensibility into my lighting as well,” he says. It shows up in his Nested Orbs pendant, in which two glass pieces of different colors overlap in a sort of color study.  “When I’m working with glass,” Harris says, “there’s color from the flame and the fire, and I’m trying to capture that.”

 

Harris’s Lilypad chandelier features a trio of blown-glass “lilypads” connected by steel rods. All photos courtesy of Jamie Harris Studio

Left: For this custom version of one of his Lilypad pieces, created for a home in New York’s Westchester County, Harris says he “developed a glass form with the organic variation of white alabaster, contrasting this with clear rings on the sides and finishing it with an amber wrap of color on the very edge of the glass.” Right: For this custom installation, created with interior designer Nicole Gordon, Harris “designed a chandelier that drew upon a play of geometry and allowed the organic nature of my glass to shine.”

“Attention to detail in the quest for perfection is what drives me and makes my work fulfilling,” says Harris, seen here working on one of his Infusion Block sculptures.

Harris created his Malibu Infusion Blocks, 2016, as a commission for a collector’s California home. The process of making these pieces involves working the glass both when it is hot and when it is cold.

The Alabaster Rock chandelier comprises seven pendants hanging from an industrial-chic wood canopy.

 

Shop Jamie Harris on 1stdibs


Toots Zynsky studied with Dale Chihuly at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s and helped him found the Pilchuck Glass School, in Seattle. Later, she was assistant director of UrbanGlass. That’s where she developed her signature technique, which earned her a reputation as one of the most distinctive glass practitioners.

Inspired originally by barbed wire, Zynsky creates thousands of fine glass threads and layers them onto a round, heat-resistant fiberboard plate. The threads are then fused in a kiln and allowed to slump into bowl-shaped metal forms. The process culminates with Zynsky, wearing heat-resistant gloves, reaching into the kiln and squeezing the vessel into a unique, flower-like shape. Her colors, which have become darker and more mysterious over the years, are influenced by “paintings from every period,” she says.

She recalls her early days at UrbanGlass as “a perfect storm — of people, materials and information — that allowed me to develop the work I do now.” It was there that the gallerist Theo Portnoy discovered Zynsky’s work, resulting in her first solo show. Later, one of her early pieces, an acid-green bowl made with her signature glass threads, was the first contemporary glass piece to be purchased by the Museum of Modern Art. Decades afterward, she continues to rack up accolades: This year, she was honored with the James Renwick Alliance’s Masters of Medium award for glass.

 

To create Risucchio, 2016, Zynsky fused and molded glass threads, letting the hot material slump over a bowl before squeezing it into its final flower-like shape. All photos courtesy of Toots Zynsky unless otherwise noted

She used a similar technique for Cervella, 2015.

Zynsky created Scurendo earlier this year.

Euneirophrenia also dates to 2017.

Zynsky inspects a work in progress between firings. Photo by Nancy Evans Lloyd

 

Shop Toots Zynsky on 1stdibs