A Conversation with Jim Baker - Part 1

I recently had the opportunity to speak at length with James Baker, Executive Director of Pilchuck Glass School. Our wide-ranging conversation was very encouraging. With his finger on the pulse of the international glass community, Jim is excited about both the present and the future regarding artistic development using glass.

Jim Baker Biography

James Baker is currently Executive Director of the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle and Stanwood, Washington. He recently served as President of Maine College of Art in Portland, Maine (2006-2010). Previously he was Executive Director of Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Snowmass Village, Colorado (1995-2006).

In 1973, Baker received his undergraduate degree in Meteorology from The Pennsylvania State University. In 1975, he earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design.

He served as an Assistant Professor of Art (tenured) at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania (1975-1986) and as an Associate Professor of Arts and Humanities (tenured) at the University of Texas at Dallas (1981-1986). In 1986, he accepted the position of Program Director for Photography at Anderson Ranch Arts Center and in 1995 was invited to serve as Executive Director.

Nationally, Baker has served on the boards of the Society for Photographic Education, the Alliance of Artists Communities (chair 2004-2005), the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design and the Nominating Committee for the Glass Art Society.

What is Pilchuck’s mission?

Pilchuck sees itself as an educational organization serving a worldwide community centered on the creative uses of glass. That’s a broad mission, considering not only traditional ways glass has been used creatively, but also the new directions that are happening in glass now with artists in all different media, including those that have been trained as glass artists and those who have been trained as sculptors or even in other disciplines further afield from glass.

Our vision is to inspire creativity, transform individuals and build community, and that’s a little different than our mission. We were discussing that recently on the board, making a distinction between what we aspire to do as an outcome of our activities, and what we see our purpose as.

More broadly, we see ourselves responding to the audiences we serve, everyone comes to Pilchuck of their own volition. It’s not like a college where we have required courses, so they have to take what we offer them; they choose what they want to study, so we are responsive to that.

At the same time we understand our leadership role educationally and so in that sense we are looking at not only what our audiences are interested in, but also what we recognize as the future trends in working with glass. Some of those are technical trends, often they’re aesthetic trends. We aspire to lead through being aware of what’s going on. We keep our pulse on it through our network of artists that have taught at the school, through our students and the affiliate organizations that are knowledgeable in what’s happening in glass, what they see as the future directions.

During sessions, collaboration is an important part of the Pilchuck culture.
Everyone on campus is welcomed to assist other hot glass artists in the creation of work.

So, for instance, there’s a lot of exploration of glass being part of works of art including other material: metals, wood, stone, and photographs, even video in some cases. Or glass being designed through computer programs, where you can visualize a piece, or the form of the piece, or how specifically the cane would look in a Venetian style of glass when the colors are combined in a certain way -- there’s pre-visualization that’s happening via computer programming. That’s a very new direction, but it’s supporting a traditional outcome in the look of the glass. There’s this wide range of possibilities that are happening that our artistic director Tina Aufiero is in charge of keeping her ear to the rail about. She relies on lots of advisors, her own discretion and experience in glass and seeing where we can best serve our audiences. And I say that plural, because we serve different kinds of audiences.

Who are your audiences? What is your student body makeup?

I’ll answer that first demographically, then more subjectively. We have different programs that serve different audiences. The program that we are most noted is our summer sessions. It starts in the spring and ends in the fall. The median age of the participants in that program is the mid to late twenties. But it ranges from age 18... you have to be 18 to take the classes, to our oldest student who was 90 years old. It doesn’t usually go that high, but that was a very healthy 90-year-old!

From May to September, and in all kinds of weather,
facilities are open and active 24 hours every day.

I would say most of them are pursuing or hope to pursue a full time career in glass as their art form. Many of them are already making a full or partial career in glass in a variety of ways. They may be assisting other artists, they may be working in a company that makes glass, and they want to further their skills, aesthetically, technically, conceptually, in a variety of ways. But then there are also individuals who we absolutely welcome, who have never touched glass before. Some are younger people who may not have much formal training, who see themselves learning glass in a direct way rather than going through higher educational systems. Some of our most renowned glass artists probably started that way. All of this to say we offer classes for beginners. But probably most of the students are in the intermediate to advanced level in their training in glass. Or certainly in related fields: in ceramics or other art media where they’re bringing a lot of experience.

But I think it’s important to emphasize the school has a lot of applicants. The school’s main interest is in serving students who have a high level of commitment, not necessarily a high level of skill. Starting with high commitment seems to lead to the best outcomes in terms of their lives or their careers as artists personally and professionally.

I’m wondering how you make a distinction?

In the beginner level it’s really very difficult because you can’t evaluate a portfolio. But sooner or later our registrar ends up speaking to everybody that’s likely to get into a course. We have some courses with long wait-lists. They’ll talk particularly if there’s any question about the course and it’s not too hard to discern -- though it helps if your a registrar who’s a little bit ‘psychic’ to figure out who would best be placed in what course. And fortunately, we’ve had registrars who are very good at doing this .Our current registrar is a glass artist, so she can astutely ascertain where somebody should be placed. On a beginning level, if it’s a very popular class, they might literally be chosen by lottery. But at some point we intersect with our applicants and, if needed. Can redirect them to the right course.

On the intermediate to advanced level, most of those students are applying for scholarships. An outside jury gives them a ranking and they can attend even if they don’t get a scholarship. But we’re pretty aware what their skill is, so we can redirect them, or to put it another way, lead them into a class where it will make the most difference to them. They’re usually very receptive to that advice.

Do most applicants successfully get into courses?

In round terms, about twice as many people apply for classes as we have room for.

Dale Chihuly, Joey Kirkpatrick and James Mongrain
demonstrate Dale's team approach to making glass.

What are Pilchuck’s other programs?

We have residency programs that take different shapes and forms.

For instance, every fall we have a 2-month program called the Emerging Artist in Residence program. That’s aimed at artists that are in the beginning half of their career and are highly talented. The ratio of applicants to those who get it is about one out of ten. There are only six or seven people invited. They are supported in terms of their housing and certain other elements of the program. They often come from different countries around the world. Those artists are generally pushing the boundaries of how glass is used. They tend to work generally with a lot of different kinds of materials. They are very cutting edge and conceptual in their vision. In fact, they are generally chosen on that basis. All these people are chosen by outside juries. We don’t do that in house. We do choose the jurors and we try to get a mix of renowned individuals to do the selection. Fortunately that’s a benefit of the school; that it has a good reputation, so we are able attract very capable jurors.

Are the residents supported if they’re working in new conceptual ways with new materials, is that supported either financially or in kind? Is there collaboration that can go on with other artists?

We have another program that goes on for collaborative residency. A number of emerging artists do end up collaborating amongst themselves, but that’s up to the emerging artists themselves. They tend to be very receptive to a number of things, certainly to innovation in their work in terms of working with other artists. Our technical staff supports them. The program is for independent artists; it’s not a class that they’re taking. That said, we support them as they need support to help them work with our equipment or to help them get familiar with materials. We have donated materials and do some underwriting.

The idea is to liberate them so they can experiment freely with new ideas. It’s not generally oriented toward artists who are trying to produce a specific exhibition, though they may do that. It’s more oriented toward artists who need to get out of their studios and try something new. We see this as, in effect, the Research and Development Department of the art world. They like that and often gravitate toward the residency for that reason. And in fact the Alliance of Artist Communities I’m attending now in San Jose is about the national/international network of communities for writers, dancers and visual artists, and, for that matter, for people who work artistically in glass as well. So this is not a concept unique to Pilchuck, but what is unique to Pilchuck is that we have fantastic facilities so they can do a lot of different things in glass that they wouldn’t be able to accomplish as well elsewhere.

In 1971, Dale Chihuly (right) worked with Jamie Carpenter (left) and Robert Hendrickson (center) to build a glass blowing facility during the initial season of what would become Pilchuck Glass School.


[Susan Longini]