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CAUTION! Fragile: Forging a New Tradition in Irish Glass

What happens to workers when a centuries-old artistic tradition starts sputtering to a close? It’s a question that glass artisans are asking across Europe as that continent’s traditional industrial glass factories downsize drastically or even shut down entirely, as was the case with Ireland’s Waterford Crystal factory in 2009. (This was actually the second closing of the factory: the original produced work 1783-1851, reopening in 1947 thanks to a Czech entrepreneur.) This tension between tradition and change is at the heart of the exhibit CAUTION! Fragile: Irish Glass Tradition in Transition, now on view at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington.

Sited along a picturesque stretch of Puget Sound, the Museum of Glass celebrates America’s young(ish) but thriving fine art glass movement. Open since July 2002, the Arthur Erickson-designed, 75,000-square foot building boasts a range of spaces, including indoor and outside exhibition areas, a small theater, and the Hot Shop Amphitheater where visitors can look on as glass artists practice their craft. The museum embraces “a two-fold curatorial vision that emphasizes the history of the studio glass movement in the Pacific Northwest but also how that’s changing in the contemporary world and the contemporary environment,” explained curator David Francis. As part of that focus, the museum annually hosts 30-40 artists-in-residence from the U.S. and abroad. (The NEA has previously supported the artist-in-residence program as well as arts education activities.) 

Photo by Philip Lauterbach

Soft Rain series ‘Intent on a good Holiday,' Róisín de Buitléar and Greg Sullivan. Photo by Philip Lauterbach

CAUTION! Fragile is a particularly good fit for the Museum of Glass, not just because of its mission but because Róisín de Buitléar, an Irish glass artist, educator, and writer, germinated the idea for the exhibit during her own 2010 residency there. While the closing of the Waterford complex was devastating to the city from which it takes its name, de Buitléar, who’d often taken her art classes on site visits to the factory, saw an opportunity to collaborate with several of Waterford’s master artists—Fred Curtis, Eamonn Hartley, and Greg Sullivan—as they transitioned from the factory floor to the fine arts studio. As de Buitléar described in the exhibit catalog, “It was to be the first opportunity in their lives for these men to make a series of pieces that were expressions of their own experiences and personal aesthetic, working under their own names in their own studios.”

Some of the objects in CAUTION! Fragile reference Ireland’s ancient past as told by the Viking axes, spears, and swords collected in the National Museum of Ireland. Other works are autobiographical, capturing moments in the artists' lives before and after the factory's closing. The exhibit also features translucent bells, glass musical horns, and two large wheels called drones, which, according to Francis, reference machinery inside the factory. “Very vivid for me is [Róisín’s] description of walking through that factory when it was running at full speed. It was just a cacophony of wheels turning and industrial machinery and making this unique sound that she wanted to represent in the exhibition,” said Francis.

As part of the project, Curtis, a master in cutting and sculpting, and Hartley and Sullivan, masters in copper wheel engraving, also held residencies at the Museum of Glass. To create the artworks, the artists worked in tandem, with Hartley and Sullivan, for example, engraving pieces that were cast by de Buitléar, and Curtis doing the cutting on her blown objects. De Buitléar described the process as “a collective narrative, a collaborative action, creating a point of reference from which to drive forward.”

Pennanular Reflections Production, a copper wheel engraved circular glass disc by Roisin de Buitlear and Eamonn Hartley

"Pennanular Reflections Production" by Róisín de Buitléar and Eamonn Hartley. Photo by Philip Lauterbach

The exhibit is an aural as well as visual experience. Speakers throughout the gallery broadcast interviews with the participating artists as well as recordings of Irish musician Liam Ó Maonlaoí playing de Buitléar’s glass instruments and singing music composed specifically for the show. Speaking to the interplay of the various objects in the exhibition de Buitléar noted, “Ours is a culture in constant evolution, our connection to our land, music, and language is an essential part of this identity.”

It should be noted that the exhibit’s title reflects not just the objects on display, but also the spirit of the artists. As Francis said, “[CAUTION! Fragile represents] the perceived fragile nature of glass, which a lot of glass people will tell you can be a misleading perception of the material cause it can also be really hard and hard to break.”

Ultimately, the exhibit affirms that traditions don’t have to become extinct, they can instead evolve and, indeed, thrive. Or as succintly expressed in the exhibit catalog, “This work is about the celebration of skill that still exists in Ireland, not a lament for its loss.”

This is the final piece in our blog series on international arts and artists in celebration of Opening Up the World, our next issue of NEA Arts magazine. The issue hits the virtual newstand on arts.gov in early April! Don't forget to check out the first two posts in the series: Art Talks with theater artist Thoko Ntshinga and visual artist Ciprian Muresan.

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