Wednesday, July 23, 2014
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In the world of functional glass art, Philadelphia is a leader

There is something amazing happening tonight in Philadelphia, but the owners of Front Street Gallery in Kensington don't necessarily want many people to know about it. A shame, really, being as it's been a cultural development years in the making with Philadelphia dead in the center of the whole movement.

In the world of functional glass art, Philadelphia is a leader

There is something amazing happening tonight in Philadelphia, but the owners of Front Street Gallery in Kensington don’t necessarily want you to know about it—at least not just yet. It's a shame, really, being as it’s been a cultural development years in the making with Philadelphia in the dead center of the whole movement.

The gallery’s owners are so wary, in fact, that they refused to be interviewed for the purposes of this article. Which, in a way, is a problem, considering that those owners are Josh Opdenaker and Elbo—two of the world’s foremost functional glass artists. Not only have they built names for themselves in the art of glass making and other counter cultures, but they’ve helped put Philadelphia on the map as a destination for the ever-growing glassblowing movement. In terms of our city’s arts culture, we will come to owe them big time.

Dubbed Aphillyated, Front Street Gallery’s event aims to bring together the city’s most influential, beloved glass artists for a few nights of admiration of their newest work. It is essentially a who’s-who of modern flameworking, featuring pieces from Philly artists like Zach Puchowitz, Snic Barnes, Marble Slinger (of Degenerate Art fame), Just Another Glassblower, and more. As you might guess, the Aphillyated show has been a massive success online, selling out in just hours for the first round of tickets—seconds for the next set.

Still, though, a desire to discuss Aphillyated—Front Street’s first show since their recent founding—is limited. Which, admittedly, is understandable: pipe makers have historically not been treated kindly in Philadelphia or America at large.

“I would think any of that reluctance comes from being afraid that the storm troopers are going to come down and kick the door in,” says Wayne McDermott, owner of Kensington’s Rockstar Glassworks. “And it’s because they can.”

McDermott, a longtime flameworker from Mayfair who produces everything from pendants to functional water pieces, speaks the truth. In fact, Philadelphia’s first foray into functional glassblowing as an industry in 2003, the Philadelphia Glass Works art studio, began the same day as Operation Pipe Dreams, which squarely put the functional glass market on notice as a potentially criminal industry by indicting 27 people for trafficking "illegal drug paraphernalia." The result of that particular event has saddled us with the “gray area” problem functional art faces on a regular basis, and also explains the need for the pseudonyms artists now use.

“I didn’t make pipes for two years after Operation Pipe Dreams,” says PGW co-founder JAG. “It was only after hitting rock bottom that I started piping again.”

JAG’s rock bottom actually ended up being fortuitous, serving as the event that started Philly’s journey to being a hot spot in the functional art world. For years following PGW’s founding, JAG produced high quality art that attracted a number of other high-profile artists to the city to collaborate on projects and raise Philadelphia’s profile.

“[Philly Glass Works] represented the first time we could show off this type of work,” JAG says. But, in some ways, it was more than that—especially considering that PGW not only fostered some of glassblowing’s biggest stars, but allowed up-and-comers to rent space and get started. That is, until it closed in 2010, with JAG and co-owner Ian Kerr focusing their efforts on their Brooklyn glass space, Easy Street Gallery.

JAG eventually took off for San Diego, joining a host of Philadelphia glass artists who have left the city in recent years, but it would seem—judging by the vibrant scene that remains here in his wake—that the damage, so to speak, had been done.

As a result of JAG’s time here with PGW, a whole new generation of functional artists appeared, including names like Coyle Condenser, Glass Munky, Germ, Elbo, and others. That group ultimately went on to start the short-lived Future Labs—a glass studio in South Philly in the same vein as PGW—and, following that, Mt. Krushmore in 2012, Philadelphia’s current glassblowing hotspot. Search the name online, and you’ll find a laundry list of collaborations, industry advancement, and testaments to its inspirational power in the counter culture today. Not to mention the fact that the studio is moving and expanding rather than withering, as in the case of PGW and Future Labs.

“You have people who are not only technically gifted, but they’re talented, inventive, brilliant at marketing themselves, and they’re creating things that are original that a market full of people who are looking for something new and exciting to latch onto,” Wayne McDermott says. “Krushmore is like the Studio 54—it’s where the real visionaries are, in their temple.”

And visionaries, generally speaking, are what the Philly glass crew are—almost by default. Examine the work of any artist mentioned in this piece, and you’ll notice a well-defined, clean style that is unique to that person, in essence serving as their own voice in an already crowded art world. There’s little, if any, style biting, in-fighting, and follow-the-leader type of art coming from that crew, and a whole lot more innovation, new forms, and cleanly executed techniques. From Coyle’s fantastical monkey-themed playthings to Germ’s more abstract water pieces, there’s a whole world of style to explore in Philly’s glass world.

“It’s our motto that we all work together,” JAG says. “That attitude allows you to develop a style that represents you, so there’s no beef between artists.”

But, in some ways, Philadelphia was destined to become one of the county’s leading cities for functional glass art. Educationally speaking, we have Salem Community College just over the bridge, which features the nation’s foremost scientific glassblowing program and counts Germ among its graduates. Temple’s Tyler School of Art has served as the educational base for artists like Elbo, Zach Puchowitz, Coyle, and more. The Crefeld School in Chestnut Hill features a glassblowing program that saw attendance from Snic Barnes, Luca Falso of Illadelph fame, and others.

In essence, we’ve educationally engineered the area to churn out master glass craftsmen. Ultimately, come graduation, though, Philly seems to have served as a great place to find a space to put that degree to use—at least for modern flameworking’s current stars.

“A big factor is that we’re an old, industrial town,” JAG says. “Everyone from the manufacturing era left, and we got perfect buildings for glass blowing. High ceilings, concrete floors, and they’re dirt cheap.”

McDermott, for his part, agrees.

“That’s why Brooklyn is coming,” he says. “You can get giant, cheap warehouses that are sectioned out with electricity and do your thing.”

And indeed, these types of buildings are where Philadelphia Glass Works and Future Labs found a home, and they’re where guys like Wayne McDermott and the Krushmore crew are setting up shop now. What’s more, a shortage on that front doesn’t appear to be on the horizon any time soon.

But, beyond the education and real estate factors, Philadelphia does seem to provide a perfect ideological space for the common perceptions about functional glass art to change. Just as Philadelphia has struggled for years to attain a sense of legitimacy, so too has the functional glass counter culture struggled to be recognized as something more than people who make things out of which to smoke. Increasingly, that seems to be happening.

“Pipes are being recognized as art whether the art world wants it or not,” says Fred Deuschle, Jr., an employee at Primal Glass Gallery in Springfield. “They’ve pushed the limits of pipe making so much that they’re now outside of pipes and [have moved] into art. That’s changing art’s set of rules”

Looking at the National Liberty Museum’s “Lifeforms” exhibit, which features high-art recreations of biological models from some of the art world’s biggest names, that seems to be true. A cursory look at the exhibit’s artists reveals a number of pipers, including Joe Peters, Robert Mickelsen, and Mike Shelbo—all of whom produce highly coveted pipes in the multi-thousand dollar range. In that sense, functional glass art has already gone legit. Shows like Aphillyated are only compounding that fact.

Still, though, even in a city that’s fostered the modern pipe making movement in a world where using a pipe for anything at all is becoming more acceptable, there appears to be cause for alarm. For Wayne McDermott, though, that alarm appears to be fading.

“Philadelphia is becoming a world-class city,” he says. “I grew up on Loring Street in Mayfair and you couldn’t go to Tacony because you’d get beat up. Now we have a Piazza and it seems like everything is changing.”

With any luck, our perception of functional glass is somewhere on the list. Because, really, once we embrace all aspects of art, there’s no stopping that transformation—whether we like it or not.

Nick Vadala Philly.com
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