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A Conversation wtih Jim Della

Bay Area resident Jim Della is a long time, prolific glass collector and was recently elected to the GLANC board of directors. His book GLASS The James Della Collection has just been published.

SJL: Thank you Jim for agreeing to this conversation. Your collection is amazing and deep and it’s obviously something that has evolved over time. Congratulations on publishing a beautiful book of your collection.

SJL: How were you exposed to glass?

JD: I first received two gifts of glass back in the mid 1980s from business friend, and prior to that had not pursued glass as a collection or hobby. However, it certainly inspired me to look for more information about glass and to find out what it was all about.

SJL: What were the pieces you received as a gift?

JD: They were two pieces of San Diego artist Steven Correia. The person who gave me the gift was also from Southern CA and was familiar with his work. They were very appealing to me as they were beautiful, unusual shapes, and after receiving the second one, I thought “this is very interesting” and decided to pursue it even more.

SJL: Were those particular pieces what attracted you to glass?

JD:  I’ve always been interested in art of all different forms. I’d taken art classes from an early age, studied some art history at Cal Berkeley and I think the fact that my mom is an artist, a lot of my artistic inclinations came through the genes. I’ve done artwork myself: painting, needlework, creating my own designs. I like working with my hands, so I think a lot of this is just a general accumulation of my appreciation for art.

Today I am reading Chasing Aphrodite which is a history of the Getty  Museum and how they acquired their pieces of ancient art and the paths they took to collect art both properly and illicitly. You hear all the stories (good and bad) and I find that very interesting, so I like all mediums regarding art, whether it’s sculpture, painting, etc. The idea of glass was an extra pin in the cushion to inspire me in the pursuit of collecting something new. Also, the fact that I was a collector of butterflies and had studied and collected them for about 15 years prior to glass and that I was initially a marine biology major in college attests to the fact that I was always interested in color, designs and patterns in nature - whether for their use as camouflage to protect animals from predators, or the brilliant colors of birds, butterflies and fish to attract the opposite sex.

The relationship between color, design and the natural elements were very important to me, and glass was able to incorporate a lot of these same qualities with opportunities to use diverse ways of working with them. I often say that dichroic glass with its reflective properties is so similar to butterfly wings. As you change angles light can capture a wonderfully different vision.  So I think glass was a perfect transitional category to pursue when I stopped collecting butterflies.

SJL: Was this a conscious decision to collect glass or did that decision evolve?

JD: I don’t think I set out to make a glass collection. It was more after I obtained an interest in the glass and began to see what opportunities there were locally for me to pursue. I discovered the Nourot Studio, Smyers Glass and Zellique Glass in Benicia, so there were three studios side by side. I really kind of started with them. I’m probably one of Micheal Nourot’s primary collectors over the years because he was so open and allowed me to come behind the scenes and view not only the  process, but also learn what was inspiring them. I’d look in the dusty corners of the studio and ask ”what’s that?” and they’d say “that’s an old project and we did this and that”, so there were a lot of things that the public never got a chance to see but it made it that much more interesting to me. Back in those days, the mid 1980s, studio glass was still very new and it wasn’t the popular thing that you see today. It was really something radical that this initial group of artists began, the process of studio glass blowing, and I really appreciate that he took me under his wing. Randy Strong was another one later on who did the same thing, and to this day they’re both good friends. I enjoy going over to the studios whenever I get the opportunity. I think with the Benicia studios, what got me hooked on the collecting besides the fact that I appreciated what they were doing was that they were making marbles, paperweights and perfume bottles, which was what I could afford then. Plus, that’s what most artists were making in those days. The wide variety of subject matter hadn’t yet evolved as their intellectual insight was still limited by their technical knowledge.

One of my favorite things to do was to go to the Benicia Peddlers’ fair, take friends with me and introduce them to glass at the same time and buy my holiday gifts. The people who were selling glass there were the apprentices and assistants at the studios, and it was still very early in their careers. I got so excited seeing how excited they got when I would buy one of their pieces as it kind of validated their work and their abilities as artists. This is going back now over 25 years, and a lot of those artists continued on and opened their own studios, so it’s fun being a part of the initial process; that inspires me. Even today when I go to the studios I talk to the gaffers and assistants and try to share some of my experiences with them. It’s very enjoyable to me because again it’s a new generation of artists coming in and maybe they aren’t as limited with their ideas as the initial groups, but they still have to learn the basics of blowing a bubble before they can express what may be in their heart and mind. It’s nice to work with them - they aren’t as technically limited as the original artists were and the younger artists are ready to jump ahead at a faster rate and try new things. As a collector or just someone who appreciates glass it’s exciting to be able to go and see surprisingly different kinds of things when you go into a gallery.

SJL: How do you view collecting as opposed to acquiring?

JD: To me acquiring is kind of a cold word. It means simply securing a piece. Somebody told you that you’re a collector and here’s a list of artists you really should have in your collection if you really want to be considered a collector. So you find a piece, you buy the piece, you’ve got it and check it off your list: very cold. To me collecting is just the opposite. It’s an emotional experience. I get excited when I find a new artist, when I can work with them and discover how they made the piece, their reasoning and rationale behind the piece. I go to their website, and ideally go their studio and meet with the artist in person. You learn that much more about them. It’s an emotional experience. And rather than a one-and-done type of situation, it encourages me to go further, to follow that artists’ path and see how they evolve technically and aesthetically, as well as to go and look for other new artists. One of my favorite things is that we are so fortunate to have so many great artists in the Bay Area. You multiply how many artists there are out there nationally and internationally and who you might never get a chance to meet. When I look for art I will go on the internet, will talk to other collectors for recommendations, talk to artists, visit galleries, studios, go to auctions, glass tours; there are so many different ways to be exposed to art, whether it’s buying books, looking through the pages...I never get tired of looking at glass art.

I really enjoy the research and the fact that I’m fulfilling my own knowledge the more I know about the artists. I can look for hours on the internet searching for gallery names and checking out their roster of artists. Years ago I may not have heard of 80% of the artists, but now it’s a lot less. I click on the list of artists, look at their body of work and see if it appeals to me and then follow up. Again, the whole idea of collecting is it’s not just making a purchase, putting it in your home. It’s an ongoing process and you have to have passion. That’s the difference between collecting and acquiring. I think you can tell by my voice. I get excited just talking about it.

SJL: You go online, look for the galleries, click on the artists, look at their work...how do you buy glass? Do you buy the work that you see online or do you have to see it in person?

JD: The purchases that I make from artists in their studios certainly make me feel warm and fuzzy  because I feel that much more connection with the artist and to the piece. But if I see a piece I like online and I’ve done some homework - I’m familiar with the artist, I trust who I’m dealing with, a reputable dealer, etc., I’ll buy it online. I’ve spent a great deal of money buying pieces that I have not seen in person before purchasing. When it gets to my house it’s like Christmas and I’m always holding my breath first of all to make sure it’s been packed properly and it arrived safely. But to get back to the question, I’m pretty decisive. I don’t tell people I’ll get back to you in a week or two. I’m pretty spontaneous. If I like it, I’ll know right away. I don’t have to study it and ask myself how would it fit into my collection. One of the things you’ll also see in my book is that I have a lot of depth from artists. I often don’t have just one example. I like to see at different stages of their career what type of things they’re making, how they’ve evolved over the years.

Because this has been a 25 year process, in some artists I don’t see a lot of change because what they make is still popular, everyone likes it or it may pay the bills, and they may have to keep producing a certain amount of that kind of work. On the other hand, there are artists who do a particular series, and then it is brought to their attention that another artist is doing something similar, not that they’re officially doing knock-offs, but they get the impression that it’s time to be doing something different as they don’t want to be doing what everyone else is doing. I certainly have to appreciate and credit them for taking that position. And that is how people do evolve; they challenge themselves or the situation could encourage them to try something different.

SJL: Is the focus/parameter of your collection the artists themselves?

JD: If you look at my collection I’d honestly have to say I don’t have any parameters. Whatever appeals to me, it’s certainly a very eclectic collection. Dorothy Saxe was recently at my house and started the tour where the older part of my collection was. She made the comment, “Well, you really seem to collect primarily vessels”, which is what people were making and what was available in those early days. And then I pointed to other work nearby in the same room, and she said, “Well, maybe it isn’t all vessels”. : )  As I’ve grown as a collector, my tastes have evolved as well. Now you can look through the house and you’ll see sculptures, other things that are very unusual, and that appeals to me. What causes me to make decisions whether to buy a piece or not is #1, you have to love it. It’s kind of like people; if you’re going to be around them for a while, it’s much better to enjoy their company. When you make your selection, make sure it’s a piece that appeals to you. That’s the top criteria: Am I going to enjoy this today as well as tomorrow and next year? And over the past 25 years I’ve never sold a piece, I’ve never parted with one or traded. People are amazed that I can tell you the circumstances of every piece in my collection - when I bought the piece, what was going on at the time. When you have a passion, you take it to heart and you live with it every day and it’s important to you. And even today, every piece is singularly important to me. I don’t really favor one over another. I respect the very first marbles and paperweights as much as the later pieces that I have purchased.

SJL: What do you look for in a work?

JD: My initial reaction has to be “Wow! This is beautiful, this is different, this is interesting.” It has to resonate with me one way or another. I can appreciate what some artists do, understand where they’re coming from, whether it’s an intellectual interpretation, etc., but it’s not always going to be something I might enjoy in my home. Going back to collecting in general, I said I must enjoy the piece, but I also want to reiterate the importance of artist relationships. If you are a collector and have enough money to go out buy what you want and do the kinds of things that you need to collect pieces, that’s great, but to me the true satisfaction is getting to learn more about glass by working with the artists. I’ve spent countless hours with many artists in their studios, BS-ing over glass, talking about techniques, exchanging ideas.

I have so much fun “talking glass”, and I appreciate they recognize my contributions in the sense that they’re willing to listen. Over the years I’ve been able to work with so many artists to commission pieces, coming up with a design and letting them know what I’m looking for. We might sit down and modify the design and come up with a working plan to execute the piece. For me it’s so personal, to be able to be a lay artist if you will, and still have my own input into some of the pieces. I’m really fortunate to be able to do that. And there are a lot of people I’ve worked with who are equally excited when the beautiful pieces are finished and they seem to appreciate having someone else’s perspective on how they do their own work, but adding another element they haven’t thought of or something to inspire them going forward.

Some of the artists with pieces that I’ve commissioned and designed asked, and even insisted, that I help make the piece. So I’ve actually picked up the blowpipe and inserted it into the glory hole and helped shape the glass and then added color to it. Again, it’s making the connection between you, the artist, and the piece. I think that glass can be extremely intimidating to someone from the outside who has not had the experience of working with it - that it’s hot and possibly dangerous and difficult. All of those things may go through their mind, but I really encourage anybody to go to a class or watch artists demonstrate how they work with glass.

There are a great number of educational opportunities here in the Bay Area. Take advantage of it!  That will really increase your scope and spectrum and appreciation of the glass. “A”, you’re seeing how difficult and complex it truly can be and “B”, you can experience the effort and perseverence it takes to get to the level to produce a beautiful finished piece. But just getting the hands on experience is so great - go to the studio and get your hands dirty. Artists are often very welcoming in allowing you to do something like that. And it enhances the relationship of artist to collector. I think it’s mutually beneficial to both of us.  You do get a much more profound appreciation for everything with glass. The idea of collecting is an ongoing process, and the more you do this the more it inspires you to keep collecting. It’s tough to step away from glass because once you’ve been exposed to all the different types of things that have been done, you want to go one step further and travel the same path as the artists. As they have evolved I want to evolve.

SJL: So actually you enjoy being a collaborator.

JD: Yes, absolutely.

SJL: That brings the idea of collecting to a whole different level, when you’re part of the creative process with the artist. Any other thoughts?

JD: One thing that I’ve wanted to comment on regarding collecting is the fact that many critics feel they have to categorize glass as either craft or fine art. To me if you’re a collector and you see a piece of glass in a studio or gallery or wherever it is, and it’s beautiful and touches your heart and you want to buy that piece, you should not have to apologize. I think too much of this is going on in the press today, that by trying to categorize glass it kind of ranks it in importance as to how people should perceive it. Some people feel that if the glass itself doesn’t seem to be a profound subject matter or intellectually stimulating or an unusual interpretation of the medium (and if it’s not shiny and pretty so much the better) its importance is challenged. I just want to go on record saying glass is inherently beautiful, so to denigrate the fact that something is created that is visibly “pretty” shouldn’t matter. I truly believe art is in the eye of the beholder and if you like a particular piece and it resonates with you and you believe you’d like to have it in your house, go for it. Critics serve a purpose, but I don’t think they should be so binding. Certainly over the years of collecting I have an appreciation of both craft and fine art and they should be equally valid.

SJL: Do you follow particular artists’ careers?

JD: Yes, certainly, especially local artists because of their accessibility and the fact that I can meet or have discussions with them. If they’re doing a new series they may call and ask me to consult with them and give my opinion, so that really makes it enjoyable for me. As far as on a more global scale, with names people may be more familiar with, I do have to say that my favorites are Lino Tagliapetra and William Morris. Lino, because I appreciate his technical abilities combined with the aesthetic. I really think he’s the top guy in the world that people look to in being able to combine those elements. And William Morris primarily because of his use of subject matter. The fact that we are both lovers of nature and you find his designs incorporating animals and natural elements. Also, going back to my historical appreciation, his use of cave drawings and petroglyphs that he incorporates into his work. I see a lot of similarities in my interests and his and of course the technical execution is wonderful as well.

SJL: As a collector, how do you see the medium evolving as an art form?

JD: I think certainly as new technical ways of working with glass are evolving, we all are being exposed to glass in more and more ways in our daily lives. Look at Gorilla Glass, a product Corning came up with twenty or thirty years ago that has tremendous clarity and strength.  It was set aside for a long time but now has become the staple of ipads, smart phones and LED TV screens. Consider the amazing new Apple stores in Asia.  Their signature characteristic is it’s a building primarily designed of glass, from the exterior walls to the staircases inside.  New technology has made this possible. I do hope that as the general public lives with glass they won’t take it for granted. However, I don’t think this will happen as it’s hard not to also appreciate the wonderful new artistic uses of modern glass. Nikolas Weinstein of San Francisco used to make beautiful glass seaform objects loved by collectors. Now as his technological knowledge has advanced, he has graduated to producing chandeliers, large-scale glass installations (working with the architect Frank Gehry), decorative lobby spaces in the finest international hotels as well as working with Silicon Valley high-tech companies on special projects.

Another trend I have started seeing is artists using glass combined with other natural elements. There’s a young artist that I’ve been working with and commissioned him to do some pieces. He works with glass and materials such as granite and petrified wood and incorporates them together. The effect really is terrific. He does both small pieces as well as large works for public places such as glass and stone seating. It’s another example of glass in our daily lives whose use can be both aesthetic and functional. I think glass continues to grow in so many different ways and it’s not restricted to what you’ll find in galleries and studios. You’re seeing it everywhere, able to inspire even more possibilities, which is exciting for me as a collector.

SJL: Please tell us a little bit about your book, GLASS The James Della Collection, and how you decided to take on such a large project.

JD: It was indeed quite an undertaking, but certainly one near and dear to my heart. After twenty-five years of collecting glass and enjoying so much the pleasure from my experience, I wanted to be able to share that with more people.  Although I’ve hosted several scholarship raising tours at my home, I thought a book could possibly expose more people to appreciate the wonderful world of glass. Also, as noted in the dedication of my book, I wanted to pay tribute to the artists who have truly enhanced my life with their talent and friendship.   

Preview and order the book online

[Susan Longini]