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A Conversation with Kathleen Elliot

I recently had the opportunity to interview flameworking artist Kathleen Elliot. She is active in the Northern California glass community, a past board member of GLANC and a current board member of BAGI. Her work shows in galleries and museums across the country and she has won numerous local and national awards.

SJL: Tell a little about how you came to glass.

KE: For about 6 years I worked in the semiconductor industry and had a friend, Michael Green, who had done scientific glassblowing. He loved glass and tried to share it with anybody and everybody. Finally I went over; he put me behind a torch and taught me some of the basics.  After a couple visits to his garage we decided to try making some beads. Bead making was just becoming popular in the U.S. Unfortunately Michael had been battling leukemia and soon after, he lost the fight. I remember Michael often. He would be thrilled that one of his friends actually took up his passion for glass and ran with it. 

SJL: You created jewelry for a period of time. Can you speak to that period?

KE: After those first lessons with Michael I was in love with glass, bought a bead-making set-up and installed myself in a little corner of the family room (Well actually Brent, my husband, set me up. I didn’t know anything about gases, torches, hoses, connecting all those, and I was a bit afraid of it.) I bought a couple books about bead making and then just started experimenting.  I seem to have a knack for looking at how-to pictures and figuring them out, so off I went making beads and having a great time at it. 

I made beads every chance I got for maybe 6 years.  I made all sorts of beads, I just tried everything, looking at other peoples’ beads and trying to figure out how to make them without ever seeing anyone do it. In fact I had a surprise the first time I saw glass beads in person and discovered how large they were! I had been making all those little details in my small beads, which is a lot harder to do. Glass was a hobby, I was just playing, and didn’t realize how much I was learning. 

After about 6 years, people were asking to buy my jewelry, a few things in life sort of lined up and Brent said, “Why don’t you do glass seriously? See where you can go with your glass as a career.” Wow! How many people get that chance?! 

At the time I thought, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it well, and I applied for Pilchuck Glass School, the top glass school in the world. [at right: Winds of Change]

SJL: What made you transition to sculpture?

KE: It was a natural step once I decided to pursue glass as a career. 

My first class at Pilchuck was glassblowing with Canadian artist Laura Donefer. A few days into the class she said, “What are you doing in this class? This is starting over. You should take flameworking classes since you have so much skill there.” I hadn’t thought my bead making would translate to sculpture, but I followed Laura’s advice and the next summer I went back to study with Robert Mickelsen.  We were making triple incalmo, graal vessels and pretty early in the class I realized I didn’t want to make vessels. I was much more intrigued with cutting the glass bubbles open, and I cut out my first leaves.

After I returned home I couldn’t do much with what I’d learned. Flameworking is not easy! I kept making jewelry, starting to show it in a couple galleries.

Next summer I went back to Pilchuck again for a class with Shane Fero. During that class everything clicked – all my bead years, Robert’s class, and Shane’s teaching. That’s when I made my first little botanical pieces.

Jewelry and sculpture were like trying to have two businesses at the same time. On the advice of a mentor I stopped making the jewelry except for fun, gifts and commissions. 

SJL: How have you evolved your subject matter and what have been some “Aha!” moments?

KE: For a few years I focused on representational botanicals, just from my love of plant life. Like with bead making, I pushed, my ideas always 5 years ahead of my skills. I loved these works and still do.

One day (I remember the moment) I realized I could figure out how to make just about anything I wanted without having all my attention on the actual making.  That was a big aha moment. I suddenly realized I could “say” something with my work. 

In 1985 I started studying philosophy and linguistics (and haven’t stopped since), then in my late 20’s and 30’s I studied and practiced what I call “alternative spirituality” – 10 years of work with a shaman, with R. Alan Fuller, A Course in Miracles, I met and worked with Alberto Villoldo in ceremony, and later Carlos Castaneda. These disciplines have been a huge part of my development as a person. [at right: School]

Among other things, all these disciplines address the nature of reality – what is real and how do we know? I love these questions. I wanted to bring these ideas into my work. I started with imaginary botanicals – plants from alternate realities.  These first took the form of different fruits and vegetables mixed together on plants, and then developed from there into fantastical botanicals. (“Fantastical botanicals”. That sounds weird.)  Anyway, even though these were imaginary, they were still regular plant forms. I wanted to take that idea even further. I got to thinking of non-botanical phenomena growing as plants in other realities, the first one being a cyclone. If a cyclone was a plant it would have a completely different meaning, and I began to see cyclones as a metaphor for life, growth, becoming, and a symbol of personal development. Other ideas have included a ballerina as a plant, plants and animals merging, and windmill plants. 

Another artist had a profound aha effect on me. I was in a seminar with Paul Stankard and one of our assignments was to familiarize ourselves with the work of 50 contemporary glass artists. I discovered Christina Bothwell and her piece called Birth. Christina combines cast glass and clay to make very sensitive works - beautiful babies, animals and children, expressing vulnerability and metamorphosis. Birth is a woman giving birth, the baby visible in the woman’s belly, with just its head birthed. I found the piece intensely beautiful, personal and also somewhat creepy. That’s a surreal sight, just the baby’s head out of a woman’s vagina, and here is a beautiful art piece depicting that moment. Kind of shocking. Birth inspired me to bring not only intellectual ideas into my work, but also personal experiences. 

The first piece I made in that direction was Angst. From as early as I can remember I have suffered major depression, as have a couple other family members. It’s a horrible affliction, like continually drowning just under the surface of water. I wanted to depict the experience of depression as a plant, so I made an apricot trapped deep inside a snake-like vine with thorns inside and out. It’s a deeply meaningful piece for me and I don’t imagine I’ll ever part with it. I made an Angst cyclone too, with an apricot trapped in the bottom of the thorny cyclone.

At some point I started using Facebook. I don’t read the newspapers or watch the news, so I usually encounter news events on the home page of Comcast. On Facebook, people post all sorts of comments and links to stories on every topic imaginable, and I came to learn about genetically modified foods and how the companies that make them are working to get their products “accepted”. That and other issues since have revealed to me how, even though our government is “by the people and for the people” we actually have almost no say in how things go in our country, even things that deeply impact our lives. [at right: Angst]

So in my quiet little corner of the world I launched Questionable Foods, a series of work protesting the genetically modified foods and how they’re being handled.

SJL: You have collaborated with several artists. Can you talk about those experiences?

KE: What’s exciting about collaborations is that ideas and work are produced that neither artist could create on their own. 

My first experience was with Robert Mickelsen while I was in his class at Pilchuck. It’s stretching to say it was collaboration though. I drew some dancing figures that he included on one of his amazing incalmo vessels. 

In 2006 I won the People’s Choice Award at the Bay Area Glass Institute and the prize was 20 hours in the hotshop. I don’t do hotshop glassblowing and didn’t want to waste the opportunity by making a bunch of clunky beginner cups and bowls, so I invited John de Wit to be my gaffer. I made a bunch of lead glass “drawings” that we picked up and blew into different vessel forms, many with loops for attaching things later. I draped one of them with my glass beads. In fact, I still have several of those. I have to pull them out and finish them. They’re very cool. In a sense though, this wasn’t a true collaboration. John was carrying out (and greatly enhancing!!) my ideas.

In 2009 I won the Hans Godo Frabel Professional Award and was invited to spend a day in his studio. Kim Fields won the amateur award and she was there as well. Godo made one of his Longfellows, his assistants made leaves, and I draped its hands with a garland of my fruits and Kim’s gorgeous little bird. Of course we all wanted the piece so to be fair we donated it to the Glass Art Society auction. That was a weird experience. It was a once-in-a-lifetime piece, made as a prize for an award, and I wanted to buy it. I was on the phone with a friend bidding for me at the auction. Someone was bidding against me knowing it was me trying to buy the piece. Isn’t that weird?  What collector would bid against an artist trying to buy their own piece?! Just weird. Luckily I was able to get it though, and it’s a piece I treasure. [at right: Frabel Collaboration]

The true collaboration I’m doing is with you, Susan. For the readers, Susan and I are making a series of work together exploring humans’ relationships with our environments, either external or internal. We’ve made 3 pieces so far.

I’m not sure I can articulate how the experience has been. I’ve not put it into words even for myself yet. Let’s see. I haven’t found collaboration to be easy. Spending time with another artist, visiting her studio, hearing how she approaches her work, seeing her work space, that’s all very fun and cool. What’s not so easy is blending my thinking and creating with someone else. It’s a completely different skill than making art on my own. While we’re inventing our ideas together, I realize I’ll never experience your reality and you can’t experience mine. That’s just biological fact. I get impressions of your thinking and then try to share enough of mine so we can do something with them together. I’m not saying it very well. In the process of thinking, talking, designing, I feel the tension of knowing I can’t really control the process or the outcome. 

Talking here, I realize it’s an illusion that I control my own process and outcome, but it certainly feels more so than when collaborating.  At some point in the designing, I realize I can’t get it all figured out and settled between us. I have to get enough and then go off to do my part until we come back together. I don’t know how that is for you, Susan. For me, that’s a challenge. It’s an actual physical sensation, that tension of wanting to figure everything out, and then having to let go. Later, as we come together and finalize the piece, I’m still in that tension of letting go. The piece is always a surprise. The piece is not really mine and I need to spend some time to learn it and how I feel about it.  It’s a curious experience that I imagine I’ll get better at with practice.

SJL: Last summer you taught at Pilchuck. What was that like?

KE: Teaching at Pilchuck was a huge honor. I remember my anticipation before my first class there in 2001. I was so excited and nervous to be going to the best glass school in the world. I had that same experience preparing for my class this past summer, but from the other side as an instructor. 

My class had ten students and two Teaching Assistants (Jennifer Umphress and Jessica Landau) for two weeks. It was FANTASTIC! My students were terrific. Many had never touched flameworking. Jennifer and Jessica were incredibly supportive. I’ve heard terrible stories of instructors doing a morning demo and then just leaving. Yikes! I organized the class so the students got mostly one-on-one help with their projects. We demo’ed a new technique each morning and afternoon, and then my TA’s and I spent the day circulating amongst the students, helping them connect the techniques to their own ideas. It was a great way to teach, the students got the knowledge and experience of three instructors focused on their individual ideas and skills. They progressed surprisingly quickly.

I had one student from Israel who had done glass casting. She was terrified of the torch and kept leaving the class. I felt responsible that she have a good experience at Pilchuck and I was determined to find something she could enjoy in flameworking so I tried teaching her this and that and the other; she’d give it a try and then disappear. I wouldn’t see her all morning or afternoon. It was pretty frustrating. Finally with perhaps 4 days left she connected with making marbles. Yay! That was the most satisfying part of teaching – those moments when each student clicked with something. 

On the last evening of the session each class cleaned up their studio, displayed their work on the worktables, and everyone circulated through the studios to see what others had been working on. My class was invited to display their work in the small gallery on campus. I was so proud to see their work honored in that way. Their exhibition was amazing given that they were such beginners, and they were over the moon with pride.

Another great aspect of teaching was meeting and spending time with the other instructors. They’re all world-class artists I would not have occasion to meet otherwise. Jim Mongrain was teaching a Venetian style goblet class in the hotshop. We did collaboration as a demo for both our classes  His TA’s pulled some cane for me and I made tiny pears, flowers and leaves that Jim incorporated into an intricate goblet. That was absolutely cool!! And I have the piece, which I’ll cherish forever.

SJL: When most people think about torchwork, they envision smaller objects. What are your thoughts on scale?

KE: Flameworking is traditionally called “lampworking” because makers worked the glass over small oil lamps. It’s hard to make large objects with those tools, so scale was constrained. I think that’s the beauty of flameworking though - we can achieve minute detail. Its scale lends itself to more narrative work and I think it’s more versatile than other forms of glass work. Ginny Ruffner paved the way with her early works. (Her flameworked pieces are my favorite ever! I only now and then allow myself to look at them otherwise I want to make them.) Carmen Lozar is one of my favorite flameworking artists. She makes wonderful works that tell little stories. Paul Stankard makes breathtaking vignettes of tiny flowers, leaves, bees, and little “root people” then encases them in crystal glass. I can look at his work endlessly and find something new each time.

Flameworkers are definitely pushing the scale though. Robert Mickelsen has made some amazingly large vessels, and more recently, large pieces in a technique he calls “networking”. The technique is reminiscent of Anna Skibska’s and some of Susan Plum’s work. Eunsuh Choi works in a similar technique.  David Willis also – he did a show with seven foot tall trees.  Brent Kee Young made a life-sized rocking chair. Because these works are made of thin rods of glass rather than blown components, they can be built into large pieces with relatively low weight.

The pipe makers are also pushing flameworking into a new era. They’re the ones who actually make money with their work. It’s a billion dollar industry, so it’s the pipe makers who have generated most of the advancements of color and tools for borosicilicate glass. It’s too bad, there’s been a lot of contention between the “non-functional” and “functional” communities, with the pipe makers feeling disrespected and shunned.  I think their work is incredible! I love their irreverence toward art snobbery and establishment culture. “Art” or not, who cares!  They’re innovating and pushing what were thought the limits of flameworking into some amazing work, including works of art you would never guess are actually pipes. 

Other artists build large pieces by combining smaller sections of glass. Janis Miltenberger made a few life-sized figures comprised of leaves. Stunning!  My larger pieces such as From the Valley of Heart’s Delight are made by hanging clusters of fruits and leaves on steel vines. These types of pieces require some form of structural support. 

Flameworking is experiencing a renaissance, so to speak. It used to be associated with carnival glass – the guy in the booth making those lacey ships.  But people in all branches of flameworking - fine art, decorative works such as lighting, pipes, beads, marbles, insects - are bringing flameworking into a new art form. 

SJL: Please explain about soft glass vs borosilicate.

KE: There are different types of glass, most incompatible with the others. They’re different enough that most people stay with one type. 

Most bead makers use soft (soda lime) glass. It has a lower melting temperature so it can be worked with a smaller torch, it comes in a wide variety of colors, it’s a creamy glass that’s nice to work with. Its limitation is that it’s difficult to make sculpture with - it cools rather quickly so even in bead making, if you’re working on one side of a bead and the other side gets too cold, the bead will crack. I know two artists who make larger work with soft glass – Lucio Bubacco and Loren Stump. Lucio has been working with glass since he was 12 or something like that. It’s one of the 15 wonders of the world watching him work, and his art is breathtaking – large candelabra with mythical figures. I’ve never seen anyone else who can work with soft glass the way Lucio does. Gianni Toso also works with soft glass.

Fusers use soft glass, I think mostly Bullseye.

Neon artists use a lead-based soft glass. In fact, Shane Fero uses lead glass for his spirit vessels and his gorgeous little birds.

“Boro” is a “hard glass”, although I don’t know if “hard glass” is a technical term. Pyrex is one brand of borosilicate. It requires a lot more heat, it cools even faster than soft glass but it doesn’t crack nearly as easily. It can be worked in the flame, cooled, and then brought back into the flame without cracking. Even with small objects, the artist can hold one end while the other end remains cool. Most artists first make components and then build those into their larger pieces. Often broken pieces can be repaired.

People wonder, should I work with soft glass or should I work with boro? That depends on what you want to make. Small, intricate objects – soft glass.  Larger sculptural work – boro (unless you’re a glass god like Lucio).

SJL:  2013 is here. What is in store for this year?

KE: I have a lot of exciting happenings planned for 2013.

I now have two shows totaling 55 pieces traveling the U.S., booked through December 2014! I’m pleased with this accomplishment, although all the business stuff really overtakes the art making, which is frustrating as hell. I’ve got some space for the next several months though, so I can focus on a few series I’ve started.

One is the Questionable Food series, which I’m really excited about, both because of the topic and because I’m working with other media besides glass. I’ve got lots of ideas and would eventually like to do an exhibition at an organic farm. [at right: Questionable Food]

I’m also working on a series called Offerings - hands that come out of the wall offering various botanical objects. I’m carving wood hands, casting plaster and cement, I’m planning some clay hands, and I’ll invent more as I go. 

In the sixteenth century, wunderkammer were invented - “wonder cabinets” stuffed with natural history items - botanical objects, animal bones, man-made objects, specimens from exotic locations, etc. I’m making some small versions of these cabinets filled with objects from my alternate realities. [at right: Cyclone]

I’ll continue with my cyclones too. I really love those. I’m going to experiment with other materials for the cyclones too.  I have in mind slicing old garden hoses and weaving those into a cyclone.

Luckily I have some time to get back to classes at De Anza College.  I’ve been s-l-o-o-o-w-l-y taking classes so I can transfer and earn a BFA. I might be seventy before I finish, but it’s a goal.  Furniture making classes are a requirement for a degree and I have to take three of them. I’m not looking forward to that at all! Straight lines, perfect dimensions, angles and all that are not my strong suit and so far, I don’t enjoy that type of work. Brent keeps telling me it will be fun and I hope I can make it so. Perhaps if I invent projects I’m really interested in that will be the case. The first project in the furniture class series though, is a chair in which every part is perfectly square and 90 degrees. Ugh.

I’m also on the board of the Bay Area Glass Institute and working to grow the flameworking program. We’ll be starting new class programs, I’m training instructors, and we just cleaned out the studio. The biggest challenge is raising money for a ventilation system. This is my first fundraising experience and I sure have a lot to learn!

SJL: Is there anything else you would like to talk about?

KE: It’s important to say that what made the biggest impact on my career to date are people. I have had extraordinary help and support starting with Brent. For so many reasons and so many ways he helps me, without him I would be working a “job” somewhere. He truly enables me to be an artist through financial support, help building and repairing equipment, strategizing, talking through new art ideas or how to deal with customers, and invaluable emotional support. He has more faith in me than I do and without his support, I just wouldn’t be here.

My teachers and mentors have been generous above and beyond. Laura Donefer, Robert Mickelson, Shane Fero, and Paul Stankard in the glass world. Gallery owners who have given me a chance. Ted Lagreid and Micaëla Van Zwoll have been generous mentors. Dr. Fernando Flores and Toby Hecht in the philosophical, linguistic, and business realms. R. Alan Fuller. Michael Green. I don’t mean for this to sound like an academy award speech. I’m just aware that I don’t act alone, my accomplishments are due to immense help and support from others, and it’s a rare opportunity when I get to publicly thank them. 

And thank you, Susan. My association with GLANC has been very fruitful. I appreciate the chance to talk with you and the GLANC members.

[Susan Longini]