- Harvey Greenleaf demonstrates glassblowing techniques to Rosemary Gulassa while Harvey Littleton, center, looks on. Collection of the Corning Museum of Glass
It could have been just nine exhilarating and exhausting days: a dozen artists melting glass and twirling blowpipes with the curiosity of 10-year-olds tinkering with a chemistry set. But through a combination of tenacity and serendipity, what happened at a workshop in a garage on the grounds of the Toledo Museum of Art in March 1962 triggered art’s equivalent of a chemical reaction. Fifty years later, we are still feeling its effects.
The man behind the workshop and a second that followed in June was Harvey Littleton. Today he is an icon; back then he was a potter, husband, father, teacher, dreamer and indefatigable searcher. The son of the head of research at Corning Glass Works, Littleton took his father’s word for it that you couldn’t work glass alone, according to Littleton’s biographer and former student Joan Falconer Byrd. The prevailing hypothesis was that you could throw a pot and fire it in your studio, but to make something from glass you needed the kind of furnace and teamwork that only an industrial setting could provide. When it came time to enroll at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Littleton chose ceramics.
But there is “a romance to glass,” to borrow from Byrd, and for years Littleton carried a torch for it. In 1958, on a break from teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he traveled to Venice. Watching the glassblowers of Murano, he started to believe he could work glass solo. Back home, he melted glass in his kiln, blew some “bubbles,” and improvised a furnace and an annealing chamber—not Murano caliber, but the results were credible enough that word got around the craft community and glass emerged as a hot topic at the 1961 national conference of the American Craftsmen’s Council.
Still, there was a long way to go. As Corning Museum of Glass director Paul Perrot cautioned conference attendees, “The true potential of this fascinating material will only burst forth with the entry of many more craftsmen into the field.”
To read the rest of the story, pick up a copy of the Winter 2011-2012 issue of AmericanStyle today!