A Conversation with Tone Ørvik

I had the opportunity to meet with sculptor Tone Ørvik at her Alameda home/studio, which was filled with large figurative glass sculptures. She has recently moved here from Seattle.

Tone Ørvik

SJL: I am really pleased to be here and see your wonderful glass sculpture and your other sculpture as well, which I didn’t realize you were doing.  First, tell me about your background.

TØ: I started out as a socially engaged academic, I suppose. I studied history and philosophy and religion at the University of Oslo, Norway. I worked in the European feminist movement since I was 15, and did a lot of writing about the living conditions of women in other countries.  Since I was very young I was always engaged in some kind of social work.  I worked with psychically handicapped orphans in London, and homeless boys in Dublin; I worked with criminal youth, and mentally ill adolescents in psychiatric care. That was what drove me ... to help someone less privileged than I was in a hands-on, direct way ... to find the answers to why they were in such need ... why there is systemic suffering and poverty, and how to change it.  

Trying to translate between my experiences of working with people in need and the theory systems I was studying was very frustrating.  I came to a point of exhaustion and disillusionment by intellectual answers, especially my own!  One day I picked up some paints and brushes and felt that I had entered another world, one that was not based in logic or justice, it was just open. 


Then one day I got some Italian stone-carving tools on sale and bought a baby headstone in marble, and I started carving it in the kitchen with no real clue of technique.  Immediately I knew that I had found what I had been looking for.  The resistance in the white stone, and the meeting between it and me, and all the things that sparked in me, it was a complete mystery and I was in awe that I could be in a process and not know what would happen next. Sculpture started to take over more and more. 

I was not going to go to art school because I already had a huge student loan, and I was not looking at sculpture as a career – I was much more interested in using the process as a tool to understand myself, to remain in touch with and express what felt essential in me, and learn from the work that was created from that place. 

Larry Silverstein en face

For a while I lived in Sweden by a marble quarry.  I had a studio in a barn, it was freezing cold.  Some neighbors of mine were carvers.  One of them came over one day with a huge truck with tons of clay, and he said, “I just had the feeling you should work with clay” and dumped 2 tons of raw clay on the barn floor.  I had thought of clay as an inferior material – nothing was as pure as marble ...  It was a very different process, much faster.  You could turn out 3 sculptures in a night! And you didn’t have to go to an icy cold studio out in the Swedish farmland!

Later I moved to Washington State, and was fortunate to be an assistant to Ken Lundemo, a local sculptor and potter who was very expansive and very, very fun. We were both nuts about tools and the materials.  We’d go to the Navy dump together and get these (probably radioactive) brass fittings and we’d cast bronze the old fashioned way with lots of near-disasters, and smoke up the neighborhood doing raku.  I treasure having had this time to play and experiment with forms and materials.

My passion was all about people - faces and figures were what I was about.  As I was showing and selling more, I finally had to admit that I needed formal training in anatomy.  I went to figure drawing classes and workshops, and worked with a Russian master sculptor in Seattle, Boris Spivak.  Then I started working with Eugene Daub, and was encouraged to do real portraiture.  I started getting portrait commissions, and taught portraiture in clay at workshops and in my studio. 


SJL: I’m having a really good time, sitting here, looking at your sculptures. While we’ve been talking it rained and now it’s sunny, and the sculptures have changed!  Tell me how you transitioned into glass.
TØ:  2004 was an important year for me; I had two students who influenced my work and my life significantly. One was Drew Bennett, who worked with his father David Bennett at Bennett Glass nearby.  David said “Your work would look great in glass – go to SOFA and see what people do in glass! “So I went to SOFA Chicago with a little business card with 4 sculptures on it, and got such great response from galleries that I thought I really had to look into this glass business. 

Drew and I cast the first figures, and I was floored, totally amazed, I couldn’t stop looking at them in every light!  The other, very talented student became my husband, Brad.  His understanding and encouragement have been pivotal in my work.  We became equally besotted with glass, and went together to the Czech Republic to meet Zdenek Lhotsky who said he would cast for me. 
David Bennett liked one of my small figures especially and put it in his house when Habatat Florida brought a collectors tour.  He wanted to see if it caught Linda Boone’s eye.  It did and she invited me to her International Invitational a few weeks later. The first time I was there I sold 5 out of 6 works and got a commission for a portrait.  I feel very privileged.  It has been amazing to meet the outstanding artists and very knowledgeable collectors.  Now I’m turned on by every technique in glass.

SJL: You have work in several different scales. What are your thoughts regarding the power of a piece in relation to scale?

Wind - Sun glass

TØ: If a piece is good, it will be powerful in all sizes.  When it comes to glass, we seem to have an intuitive appreciation of the sheer technical difficulties of creating large pieces, and there is so much focused light in a large cast piece that it can just blow your mind.   I like to work big, and it’s getting bigger. To cast glass as thick as “Wind,” for example, takes 41 days in the kiln. That size means that I depend on somebody else.

It can take a whole year to get work back from the Czech Republic.  As frustrating as that is, they do amazing work.  To control the time frame better, I cast some larger pieces myself – mostly in relief.  I am interested in using glass relief for architectural purposes.  I just got an award to study architectural glass at Corning this summer.  I’d love to do full figure portrait commissions in glass relief, for example, and show how the body has language just as much as faces.  It could be mounted to a wall, or be a wall.

I also do work that doesn’t lend itself to glass, either because it is too big, or because it demands a specific medium other than glass.  In an age where some are focused on conceptual non-medium-based art, I continue to be inspired by the materials themselves and the endless possibilities of the processes.  The materials are ancient; I love being connected to history in that way.  At the same time I’m urged to explore how I can merge classical techniques and content with the contemporary technology of glass making, and take part in this very rapid evolution. 


SJL: When you are working, do you find yourself saying “This work belongs in bronze, or stone, or glass?”

TØ: Definitely.  It is fun to work with glass because it is intrinsically so attractive, yet glass can also seem remote, idealized and stylized – even unintentionally decorative.  Some of my pieces are not meant to be attractive; they have a different message, and need a denser material to be more immediately “human” and approachable. 

SJL: And that is glass’s own existential question. So many times it is dismissed because it is inherently beautiful.  Tell me about the portraits I see.

TØ: The portraits came out of anatomy studies.  I found that I loved doing them.  There is the challenge, and the responsibility, of getting it “right” – not just likeness, but a real feeling of that person.  You have to connect.  You meet very interesting people and you want to honor them, and portray the best of who they are.  Casting portraits in glass captures both strength and fragility, but most of all glass adds to a sense of timelessness and essence.

SJL: Where can we see your work?

TØ: You can see it at Habatat Florida and Virginia, and Riley Gallery, Cleveland, and here at the studio.

[Susan Longini]