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A Conversation wtih Lani McGregor, Part I

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Lani McGregor, Lani McGregor, Executive Director of Bullseye Gallery and partner with husband Dan Schwoerer in Bullseye Glass Co. in Portland, OR. Bullseye recently opened a Resource Center in Emeryville. The journey up to this point has been a colorful one!

Note: Part 2 of this interview, bringing Bullseye into the 21st century, will appear in the Fall GLANC

 

SJL: Let’s start at the beginning! Tell us how the idea of Bullseye as a glass manufacturer came about?

LMcG: The company was started in 1974 by my partner Dan Schwoerer and his two former partners, Boyce Lundstrom and Ray Ahlgren. It was essentially a get-rich-quick scheme by three art school graduates who were waiting to become Dale Chihuly. Dan and Ray were students of Harvey Littleton at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and Boyce studied under Dr. Robert Fritz at San Jose State. They had a dream of being artists working in glass and being able to support themselves with their art, which was totally unrealistic in 1974.

Ray Ahlgren, Dan Schwoerer and Boyce Lundstrom

Ray and Dan had a glass blowing studio, and they met Boyce at an arts and crafts fair in Belleview, WA. That’s where they got this idea that they could get rich making sheet glass. There was a huge demand at that time for sheet glass because of a resurgence in interest in Tiffanyesque sorts of work. And because they were arrogant as hell, they thought that if they could blow glass, they could do anything, even though they had never been inside a sheet glass factory. So they decided to start one and make a lot of money. The plan was that they would each retire with $100,000 and go back to being full-time glass artists.

So in 1974 they started a sheet glass factory. Boyce borrowed $10,000 from his mother. Ray and Dan owned a ramshackle house in Portland that they had bought for $8,000. That was the site of the Bullseye factory. They put furnaces up in the back yard and built a cinderblock warehouse around the furnaces and tried to start making glass sheet.

At first they knew how to make one color: a copper red. They had a lot of failure initially, and spent about six months running the furnaces and making pretty ugly glass that looked like cows’ tongues (in fact, that’s what they called them: cows’ tongues). But within a year they had a palette of about 13 colors. They put the glass in a WV bus and drove down the California coast, and I think they stopped at C&R Loo. I believe C&R Loo agreed to buy their entire year’s production. They thought they had it made.

So they went back to Portland. At that point Boyce, who was in charge of sales, said, “Well, my job is done. I’ve sold the entire year’s production, so I’m going fishing.” Ray and Dan continued to build this ramshackle factory and continued to make sheet glass.

SJL: Creating a sheet of glass has a lot of chemistry involved. Did anyone of them have the background to know how to develop viable sheet glass?

LMcG: Dan and Ray had melted glass at Madison, but they had a pretty perfunctory awareness of the process. They really taught themselves out of books. One of the things they learned early on was that most of what they learned at the university was completely useless. I shouldn’t say “completely useless.” I think Dan would say some of his best lessons from working with Harvey in Madison were about having a curiosity and an open mind and a compulsion to do whatever you felt like doing, and about having the conviction and the confidence that you could make it happen. It was kind of a ‘60s thing: If you want it, then DO it.

SJL: Then Harvey succeeded very well in his message.

LMcG: Yes, he did! When Dan speaks of Harvey, it’s with incredible fondness. Harvey was somebody who had an insatiable, childlike curiosity about how things work, how you did things. That, more than anything else, I believe, is what Dan learned. He didn’t learn how to build a glass factory because Harvey didn’t know either. Harvey didn’t know how to blow glass. If you look at pictures of the work Dan did in that era, he didn’t know either. But nobody did!

This is the original (on the left) frame house where Dan, Ray & Boyce first started Bullseye - building furnaces in a block house they built in the backyard.

 

SJL: You arrived at Bullseye in 1984. What was the factory like at that point?

LMcG: The factory at that point... well, it was the year 1984, things were a lot like the book “1984.” [Laughs] It was at a stage where the partnership was breaking up. Ray had left 5 years earlier, and Dan and Boyce were sort of in “marriage counseling,” with psychologists who specialize in counseling business partners who are having problems. This happens in a lot of businesses after the initial drive, all the hard work. Once the romance of starting something is over, people can get distracted from the focus of making the thing run on a day-to-day basis. There was also real tension coming from the difference in their personalities. Boyce was always the dreamer, the romantic, the sort of messianic soul. Dan was about getting the work done and making things run on a daily basis. He also has his dreams, and he’s passionate about the arts and architecture. But before anything else -- and I say this because he’s a farm boy -- he’s about getting the cows milked. He knows what he has to do to make something work.

That’s where things stood when I arrived. But I consider myself very fortunate, because when Dan and Boyce “divorced” in 1985, that opened up a place for a completely unrealistic dreamer to step in with hair-brained schemes, but there was still somebody who really had the reins, who was going to keep the company and the factory alive. Those years, the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s were hard for Bullseye. We were basically digging out of the hole that fusing got us into. Fusing almost bankrupted Bullseye. It was a dream of a product for which there was no market. Nobody wanted fusible glass. Nobody was fusing!

SJL: So why did Bullseye dream of that?

LMcG: I would say that because Dan and Boyce (and also Ray) came out of blowing, their hearts were never in stained glass. It was a day job for them. They always dreamed of doing something bigger, something hotter. Dan dreamed of doing something architectural without leadlines. Boyce was very much tied to the identity of being an artist and being more free-form than stained glass allowed him to be. So they were both enthusiastic about fusing, but there was no market. And again, the product line as it was made at Bullseye in those days, was sheet glass for the stained glass trade. The company had about 50 distributors across the US and the world, and these were all distributors to the stained glass trade. The distributors didn’t want to handle fusible glass in those days. They didn’t care about fusing.

So the first thing that had to happen was that we had to create classes for people so they would know how to do this. And that was part of a very short-lived operation called The Fusing Ranch, which existed for 2 years from ’82-‘83. It was in a little shack on the railroad tracks near the Bullseye factory in southeast Portland. And at The Fusing Ranch we did all sorts of explorations of methods of fusing these glasses together and developing ancillary products like shelf primer and overglazes. It was also where some Northwest artists like Richard LaLonde, Ruth Brockman, Gil Reynolds, and David Ruth came together. Boyce used to call them “the ranch hands.” Working with Boyce, they developed teaching projects and methods for fusing and went out across the country teaching them. Dan and Boyce wrote Glass Fusing Book 1. They spent an enormous amount of time, six months to a year, doing the research. And remember, this was original research; this was doing all the testing, this was determining a testing system for making compatible glasses, investing time and money, and most importantly putting the focus on fusing.
But again, there was no market for fusing. Distributors were saying, “Not only do I not want to carry it, I don’t want to hear about it. “ And a company that is focusing on a product with no market is company with no future, unless they figure out a way to sustain themselves financially.

SJL: Was the stained glass market slowing down?

LMcG: The stained glass market was peaking at that time, in the late ‘80s . The crazy thing about it was that manufacturers were sending container loads of stained glass into China for the burgeoning demand for Tiffany lamps. Maybe it was the beginning of the end of stained glass, but it was peaking. It was a great place for people to make a lot of money, selling traditional stained glass. But Bullseye never went after China, never went after the Tiffany trade, especially not the Tiffany knock-off lamp trade. They might have made a lot more money doing that, but it wasn’t where their hearts were. What they should have done, with 20/20 hindsight, was try to achieve a better balance. They should have been able to say, “OK, we’ll do this to pay the bills. It may not be our passion, but we have to pay to support this.” Instead they poured more of their resources into fusing.
When I arrived in 1984, the company was close to bankruptcy. They could not pay the gas bill, which is not a place you want to get yourself into as a glass manufacturer. The partners were totally at odds. Within a year, Dan bought Boyce out and for the next 10 years he dug the company out of a pretty deep hole. But during that time fusing did start to get a small following. Through the ‘80s we watched the numbers go from selling five percent fusible glass, to 10 percent fusible glass, to 50 percent fusible glass in 1990.
By the early ‘90s, the market had developed to the point where the users were starting to know more about the product than we did as the manufacturer. We realized we needed to have a department that did nothing but research and education, and worked with artists. Bullseye had always worked with artists, right inside the factory. After all, the guys that started the factory saw themselves as artists. They were doing their own projects. So it was natural that people like Narcissus Quagliata, Paul Marioni and David Ruth came in and did projects side by side with production over the years, but nothing ever formal.

 

SJL: So what do you think inspired this dedication to the idea of fusing?

LMcG: Something pretty pivotal happened in 1979. Boyce went up to Pilchuck while Klaus Moje was working there. Here was one other person in the world (Klaus was living in Germany at that time) who was interested in something called kilnforming, or fusing. Klaus, had been using German color bars and had been having a lot of compatibility problems.

Anyway, these kindred souls recognized that they were after the same thing. And Boyce had the arrogance to tell Klaus, “We can make a compatible glass! We’re glass blowers. We can do anything!” Klaus thought they were completely arrogant, bubble-headed American hippies. But six months later, after working through the methods for testing for compatibility at the factory, the guys sent a crate of tested compatible glass to Klaus in Hamburg, Germany. And that coincided with the time Klaus accepted the position as head of the new glass workshop at the Canberra School of Art in Australia. He took his crate of Bullseye glass that had gone from Portland to Hamburg over to Australia and started the glass program that has so far turned out two generations of some of the best kilnformers in the world.

So even though it didn’t make financial sense to follow kilnforming, there was the personal passion of the founders of the company and there was one person, Klaus, who was truly inspirational throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. That inspiration allowed us hang on to a dream: The idea that we could do something that was really original and revolutionary, that we could solve a technical problem that could make a certain sort of artwork possible.

By the early ‘90s Bullseye was finally in a stable financial state, not only solvent, but making money and paying for itself, thanks to the fantastic management of Dan, who had kept his eye on the ball all those years. Because of that, we were able to go back very heavily into research and exploration.

We also ramped up on the artists’ projects because we realized that the artists were using the materials in ways we had never conceived they would be using them. Klaus, for instance, had started taking glasses to temperatures that we never expected. We said, “You take the glass to 1500˚, hold it for 15 minutes, then take it down.” Klaus would take it to 1600˚, boil it for two hours it down, then put it back up again. Some glasses can take that and others can’t. That’s how we discovered that just testing for compatibility to certain standards wasn’t adequate for the way certain artists were going to push things.

Even if an artist was the only person in the world who was using a certain way, if they were influential like Klaus, it was very likely that someone else would start doing it. And then we would start getting the phone calls about why our glass doesn’t work. So that’s where the imperative comes from to understand what the users are doing, especially when the users are teachers. If we could understand what the teachers were doing with the materials, we could leverage whatever our efforts were. So any teaching artist who was boiling glass was going to affect anywhere from 10 to 50 to 100 other users who might start doing the same frightening thing. That’s where the involvement with teachers and teachers’ forums came in.

Quite honestly, it’s a wonderful, energizing thing to have at the core of your business: interacting with artists, the most unpredictable, interesting people in the world. My job is to understand the kind of warped mind that would take a process and completely turn it on its head. It’s not like that’s work! Sure, you’ve still got to solve the problems, but it’s also what makes coming to work every day exciting.

 

SJL:  Looking at your gallery, the range of thought processes and what these artists can produce is extraordinary.

LMcG: I think that’s because kilnforming does not constrain. There is so much glamour and romance in glass blowing, but you are constrained by how much you can hold at the end of the pipe and how fast you can keep twirling it. Kilnforming is much broader, we believe, and much more open to a variety of methods. The thing that is most exciting to us about kilnforming is that it is a method that doesn’t require years of manual practice to do well. You can bring a painter, a printmaker, or a sculptor into a studio, and you can show them how to work with these methods, and very quickly they can bring in the rest of their expertise, their understanding of color and composition, all the formal qualities of their art, and they can have immediate results. Architects, ceramicists, whatever, they all have skills but more than anything, they have a new way of looking at the material that we who are working in the material sometimes miss.

In the mid ‘90s, the first group residency we did was with painters and printmakers. It was a real eye-opener to see how they looked at our material. Sometimes they looked at our material with huge distain. Some of them didn’t like glass because it was so “pretty” and “easy,” and, yes, glass sold well because it had all these superficial qualities. But nothing amps up your creativity like working in the face of criticism. It challenges you to produce something meaningful. It’s being told, “You think glass is great, but glass is just glitz,” and then working with someone who wants to find something in glass besides glitz.

One of my favorite artists that we worked with, to this day, is the Mexican Raphael Cauduro, who said flat out “I want to find the unbeauty in glass. I want a stone, not a piece of glass, but a stone you can look into.” He did not want to use the easy side of glass. He wanted something that was gritty and dark and challenging. That’s where we find the best stuff, in working with artists who come without the preconceptions, who might not be immediately drawn to the material. Not someone who says, “Oh, I’ve loved glass since I was a small child,” but someone who says, “I’ve never liked glass. Now prove me wrong.” Then you give them the opportunity to do something different with the material. If they are coming from another medium, in a way they are emerging into glass. A 60-year-old painter can come into glass and find amazing things. And they’re emerging. That’s been our focus with the gallery and with our programs. We call them “exchanges” at the factory, not residencies. In exchange for our providing technical support and material and space, we reap the benefits of what that artist learns, and the rights to publish or disseminate the information, or the works. Sometime we get the work itself.

SJL: That’s very exciting because that is an ongoing process that you continue to do. Do you find at each point you, Bullseye, are learning something, as well?

LMcG: Oh, my goodness, yes. We always learn. I think for me one of the most exciting things is that some of the greatest learning experiences are the greatest disasters. You have something that goes massively wrong. But in the midst of tearing your hair, you realize it may be massively wrong technically, but it’s also fascinating. And more often than not, we have massive disasters with big projects. This happened with Cauduro, and it happened with Jun Kaneko, too. But when the artists saw the disasters, they said, “Oh, they’re fabulous! Let’s do it again! Can we melt 3,000 lbs of glass onto the floor of your kiln again?”

By the mid-'90s, we had enclosed Bullseye's wood frame "roots" inside a slick architecturally designed exterior.

Note: Part 2 of this interview, bringing Bullseye into the 21st century, will appear in the Fall GLANC newsletter

[Susan Longini]