Meet the Artist: Michael Rogers

Corning Museum of Glass, March 29, 2007

Tina Oldknow: Michael is currently professor and head of the glass program at the School for American Crafts of the Rochester Institute of Technology, R.I.T.

Prior to moving up the road, he spent 11 years in Japan where he was head of the glass department at the Aichi University of Education near Nagoya. In 1998, he was co-chair of the Glass Art Society Conference in Seto, Japan. And he has also served as a board member and as past president as the Glass Art Society. In 2004, the Museum acquired one of his sculptures, “Thirteen Crows,” which you can see in the sculpture gallery. What impresses me about Michael’s artwork is his investigation and presentation of esoteric ideas and theories that are not only difficult to represent visually but are also hard to define. His work has a pronounced literary character which reflects his interest in language and the complex process of describing thought and feeling. Symbols in the forms of words and found objects appear throughout his work, as do ideas about transmission and transparency for which glass is a perfect conduit. Michael enjoys intellectual challenges and in his work he never takes the easy way out. He says, (quote) “I am interested in artists whose commitment to ideas has led them to the use of glass. I am most concerned with what animating force or personal impetus draws artists to glass and, ultimately, what glass can draw from the individual.” Please welcome Michael Rogers.

Michael Rogers: Thank you very much. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is for me to be here. I remember my first trip to Corning was in 1983, soon after I graduated from graduate school. And I can’t really express how much the museum collections have opened my eyes to a whole new world of thought and ideas and visual images and, it’s just such a great honor, because I’d never dreamed—at that point—that I might someday be actually be speaking in this grand museum, so thank you very much for having me here.

I’d like to go ahead with the slides now and if the screen can become activated here, I will begin. Okay! All right. . . so. . . I will just begin. And I start—I like to start out my lectures with these two images. They’re of Gustav Mesmer who—he’s in France. He’s at the age of 87. And, he was referred to as the Icarus of this particular area. One of the things I love about Gustav is just the spirit of what these images indicate: this idea that one can do the impossible. I’m very interested in what I might call the kind of idea of hopeless optimism. That is that, even though people will try to convince you that things are impossible, that you keep doing them anyway because you think someday it just might work out. And even though Gustav had never probably left the ground for maybe a couple of seconds, or a couple of inches off the ground at a time, he believed he could fly. And he was quite the inventor as well. I know that—I believe that also, I was fortunate enough to go to Sullivan Park and meet some of the scientists there a couple of years ago. And I think that spirit of invention and kind of believing that the impossible can be accomplished is still very much alive here today.

I believe that place is very important. It’s very important to know where you’ve come from and I think it has so much to do with who you are and. . . I originally came from a small town called Wyoming, Illinois, which is somewhere in between Peoria and Kewanee, if you’ve ever heard of those two cities. I’m very much someone who has come from this area of a vast horizon and wide open spaces, and in some ways, there’s a kind of desolate, lonely feeling but incredibly beautiful. . . effect one gets from the landscape of these areas. Now, after I’d gone to school—Western Illinois University—and then to the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, where I got my graduate degree, my wife Bette and I had moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where I was a technical assistant at the Rhode Island School of Design. I think I worked about a year and a half with another artist there until I got that position. I worked one week and they went on strike. And I was just in so much debt that I had to move back to my home area where I could find a job. And I actually—Bette and I moved south of Chicago, outside a small town called Beecher, Illinois. This is Route 1, heading towards Kankakee, and that old barn, which I would have loved to have saved, actually I had to tear down and that became the site of my studio. We spent ten really quite wonderful years there where I worked as an independent artist eventually in my own studio after working in the mills.

And after. . . I had my studio running and I had several exhibitions I was preparing for, I was given a call asking me if I’d be interested in teaching in Japan. And I said, “Yes, of course, that sounds interesting” and I put down the phone and thought I’d never hear from this person again. But I did. And then I said to my wife, “Bette,” I said, “how would you like to move to Japan and live in Japan and work and teach there?” And she said, “Well, that sounds interesting” and I thought that to be “yes.” So, I accepted the position—it all happened very fast. And then I said, “Bette, we’re going to Japan.” She goes “What?!” And I said “Well, but dear, you said ‘that sounds very interesting.’” And she said, “Well, that means we were going to discuss it.” Then, I turned down the job and you know, we had more discussions, and I accepted it again, a day later! We ended up going from the prairies, this kind of infinite flatness of the landscape in Illinois, to Japan, which is a very mountainous country. And, I had always wanted to live in a different country and learn their language and assimilate their culture. My oldest brother went to Taiwan—he was in the Air Force and he came back with a Taiwanese wife—and he was speaking Mandarin Chinese and had mastered a martial art, and it was a big influence on me. And so, I always wanted to go somewhere else, outside of Wyoming, Illinois. Further than Peoria or perhaps even Kewanee.

This is in Seto, near Nagoya, in Japan. And it has a 5,000-year history of ceramics production in that area. And, at one time, 70% of all the material for making glass in Japan came from this area. My studio was out in this area. It was near Kaisho Forest, and this is where we had the Glass Art Society Conference. In this area—not exactly this spot. And, another thing that I found incredibly interesting about Japan was its history: to be surrounded by the incredible castles—I think that’s Nagoya castle. Also, on your left, is an image from Sanjūsangendō in Kyoto, which means, like, 33,000 images of Buddha, and they’re all hand carved and they all have a little bit different expression. I remember when I first went to the University, and there’s a small Shinto shrine there, and I asked the ceramics professor, “Well, how old is this shrine?” He says, “Not very old,” he says, “it was built in the 1700s.” Old for me was like a barn that was maybe a hundred years old. So it really had given me a different perspective on history. Also, Japan is so fascinating in terms of the contrast between the very old and the very new. On my way to Seto, I would stop in Toyota, where the cars are made, and, they have this incredible art museum, the Toyota Contemporary Art Museum, where I had exhibited before. It’s just a very beautiful piece of contemporary architecture. And then also, right next to it, they have a teahouse. And have tea ceremonies. So there’s this kind of feeling of the old and the new coming together.

This is an installation I did in Nagoya at a gallery called Gallery Planet. There’s this concrete stairwell that goes all the way up. On your left, you can see the bottles—cast-glass bottles—which is actually—each one has a word engraved on it and all together you can read it somewhat like a poem. You can see on either side of the hallway going up the stairs, perhaps a little hard to see, but here are the crows. That was the first time that they were exhibited. And, they’re hanging on the walls there. And then there are puddles of glass that you can see, perhaps, somewhat bending over the stairs coming down. I was very interested in creating an entrance into my exhibit, which was at the top of these stairs, but also creating a kind of space of transformation that those puddles of glass, which are cool, actually look like they’re moving. So, you begin to feel, like, perhaps anything could happen in this space.

There’s a close-up of the Crows. And I guess I’ll tell you a little bit about this piece because I’m so proud to have it in this museum. And it’s a piece that came from. . . None of my ideas necessarily come from one particular place. It’s kind of a culmination of different ideas that I happen to be thinking of at one time. Something I perhaps am reading, something I am looking at and am interested in. And then a piece begins to come together rather intuitively. And, in Japan, in the rice fields that they have, they will hang effigies of crows upside down in the fields, and this is to keep other crows out. So, in a sense, it’s kind of a warning. I laminated Japanese newspaper around the crow and, I don’t want to explain too much about the piece, but I think we all have this feeling sometimes. . . Every once in a while, I have to take a hiatus from reading the newspaper. I believe we live in very interesting, quite wonderful times but also troubling times, as well. And this piece is something to me that personally symbolizes just having an awareness of what’s going on around us, confronting the things—even the bad news as well as the good news.

I work with found objects, and these are actually coat hangers, and they would have hung with school uniforms draped over them in a store window in Japan. And you can see where the sun has affected and darkened part of them. I’d never worn a uniform going to school. Teaching in Japan is quite different from teaching here. And this particular piece is called gakusei, which means ‘students.’ They’re cast-glass lenses and there’s forged steel text behind them. So, the kind of bust of these figures acts as a kind of magnifying glass or lense for the text behind them. Now, it’s all in Japanese and it took me years to get to the point where I felt like I could work visually and address a Japanese audience. Ironically, this piece took so long that by the time I exhibited it for the first time, it was Richmond, Virginia. So, there is no attempt to be obscure with the text. I actually had taken, kind of, almost like a cut-and-paste, of sections of a Japanese assistant’s childhood theme papers. And they were on the themes of war and bullying, or ijime in Japan. It’s a big issue there. I think it’s a big issue in the United States in our schools, as well. And they seem to still be things that our students are thinking about today in some way. And so, I think this was about teaching in Japan.

This is a quite large casting based on Italian votive motifs. Now, these would have been effigies that are hung in the altars of Catholic Churches: if there was some problem, some medical problem, you might hang one of these in the altar of the church as a kind of prayer and hoping that you might get better. I’m very interested in any kinds of rituals that involve hope and faith.

This particular piece on your right is called “In the Wake.” It was first shown in the Toyota Museum and then just this last year again, recreated in the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester. Each one of these bottles is engraved all the way around with text from “Finnegan’s Wake.” “In the Wake” refers to being in the wake of somebody really great, which I feel like when I’m reading James Joyce. I can’t pretend to understand all of “Finnegan’s Wake” but I love reading it and it’s—there’s a—something—there’s a certain cadence to it. I believe the way he put words together is somewhat similar to the way he put objects. . . artists put objects together. You put one object next to another object, and next to another one, and it becomes a kind of new invention in terms of the way these objects interplay off each other. Also at the Toyota Museum were the works and vitrines of Joseph Beuys. He was very influenced by Joyce, as well. And there’s actually. . . our neighbors that lived in the apartment below us in Japan, a Japanese man who taught at the university, was a James Joyce scholar. And he showed this slide at a James Joyce Convention in Switzerland. The curator from Dublin contacted me—it took her two years to find me, but she did—and then she included several of the bottles from this work in an exhibition on art inspired by James Joyce at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin.

What we have here on your right is a work by an artist from the Hans—it’s one of Hans Prinzhorn’s collection. One of his patient’s, actually. Hans Prinzhorn was a pre-World War II psychiatrist who amassed over 5,000 drawings by who they call ‘the insane,’ you know. And Emma Hauck has written over and over again “sweetheart come.” And it. . . so many times that the language, it kind of obliterated the language. And this elicited a great empathy from me. I believe the power of. . . there’s a great power of visual imagery, or art, or music, or literature of any kind to elicit empathy from people. And I believe that’s perhaps one of the most valuable aspects of the medium.

On your left is a witch bottle, and it was found in, I think it was found in the early 1800s, but was probably put there long before. This was found in a chimney in England. And, there’s fluid on the interior and there’s bent nails. There’s this interest in bottles as being containers of powerful and invisible forces and that, that interested me a great deal, as well. And was an influence on some of these later pieces that I’ve done.

So, I’m blowing glass, I’m casting glass. The piece on your right is a cast-glass figure that’s set inside this vessel. And then, there’s engraving around it. That’s titled “Sea of Words.” It’s just somehow how I feel when I’m reading. I can get. . . I think we all get lost in books and we can be reading and somebody’s talking to us and we don’t hear what they’re saying. . . Also, on the left is a bottle inside a bottle inside a bottle. And there’s a clock, a pocket watch, on the interior and it’s sitting on a magnet with iron filings around it. I’m interested in, in stopped watches. I’m interested in time. I think that it’s good to be aware of time. I think each moment we have is incredibly precious. I try to remind myself of that constantly. So, I made this work intuitively but for me it symbolizes something like that.

I’d also kind of come across the word, “palimpsest,” which is a kind of document—I think pre-paper. A kind of, perhaps, animal skin which was used almost like a blackboard. I read in the newspaper they had found “Archimedes’ Palimpsest” and I thought, “What is a palimpsest?” And anyway, you whitewash this animal skin and you write on it. Then you whitewash over the writing and you turn it and you write on it again. . . With new imaging techniques, you can read the writing behind the writing behind the writing and gain valuable historical, scientific information from such documents. Now, just as an idea for making art, and involving glass, you can see how you can read the writing from one bottle to the next. And it’s, it’s somewhat how I feel about reading, how the words start to wash over the words. You remember what you’ve read, you anticipate what you’re going to read, and you know what you’re reading at the moment, and it all blends together.

Kind of a test tube shape. What you see on the bottom is solid glass and then blown glass on top. It’s attached together. There’s a cast glass in the center, set on top of a magnet with iron filings and steel letters.

This is actually kind of a drunken bottle. And it refers to a famous pub crawl in “Ulysses” by James Joyce.

And this was sort of a self-portrait, in a way. There’s wadded-up text from my books and that all goes into a funnel that’s kind of going into my head.

The picture on the right is myself and several works that I made over a two-week period in Riga in Latvia. I tend to travel a lot, travel is important to me. I first met my Latvian friends at a Symposium in L’viv in the Ukraine. I’ve been to Riga twice. And there’s a picture of the city and the Daugava River, beyond. I look forward to going there again next October, and meeting my friends, and perhaps going to Estonia and then to the Ukraine to a symposium again. This is the art academy in Riga and on your left you see, in the corner, is an 18th century German merchant’s house called the Mensendorf House, that was turned into a museum. I have a little room that they allow me to keep in the attic. Then, their studio is in this catacomb-like basement and. . . I get to wander the halls in this empty museum, on my way down to the studio in the evenings. And, this past September, I’d exhibited at the Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts, which is just a block a way from there. It’s a very beautiful city if you ever get a chance to visit it.

These are some cast-glass pieces. This particular figure—you can see on the left, where the hands are, just above the surface of the glass, and there’s text on the glass. I’m very interested in this idea of ‘evoking,’ evoking images. There’s actually a historical tradition of evoking images from reflective surfaces—whether that be a crystal ball or the bottom of a teacup or… the Shakers used to hold up a white sheet and people would look into that and I believe that the subconscious imagery would kind of come to the forefront.

This was the exhibition at the Memorial Art Gallery… And, on the left, is one my pieces titled “Neruda Bottle.” I’ve engraved on it text from [Pablo] Neruda’s “Book of Questions.” There’s a cast-glass rabbit holding a key, sitting on top of a magnet, dead, on the inside.

And, this is “The Murmur of Bees.” My family kept bees… my parents both went through the depression and in a small town, at that time, there really wasn’t work, and there really wasn’t money, but if you had land, you could make huge gardens. And my grandfather made wine and had orchards and these gardens. And he also kept bees, and most of family did, except I was the youngest. And by that time, the beehives were just kind of left…the bees still inhabited them, but no one really took care of them. I used to pore over these books as a child and was just fascinated by them.

The story behind this is that, towards the end of my stay in Japan, I had taken about nine months off and I was a sabbatical replacement for Ruth King at Ohio State University, and during that time I went to visit a very good friend, Susan Rossi-Wilcox, who’s the curator of the Blaschka Collection at the Peabody Museum at the Harvard Natural History Museum. She’s giving me this wonderful tour of the museum and I. . .down in the museum, I see Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly collection case inside another case, so there’s already a very palimpsestic idea, and I’m very excited and getting ideas for making work… I didn’t really realize that Nabokov was not only, you know, this incredible author, but he’s also known in the scientific field for his contributions to the study of the Blue Morpho butterfly.

And then she had showed me these cases up in the attic and all the other curious things in the attic. And she said, “Well, these cases housed the Blaschka flowers.” And they… I think, for some reason, they were taking some of the pieces off the main display floor. And these cases were no longer needed and they were going to throw them out, but she couldn’t bear to see them go, so she had them taken to the attic. She says, “I don’t know what to do with them.” So, being the practical man that I am, I said, “I’ll take them all.” I’m going back to Japan in two months. I have six of these. They’re huge. And I. . . I actually went back to Ohio. I couldn’t wait. I had bought another display case, as if the six I had weren’t enough. I couldn’t get ‘em soon enough, so I bought one and I made a piece, which I’ll show you. But I became very interested in what was housed inside these cases, and if these cases could talk, they would tell you what had inhabited them. I started to engrave this bee anatomy around this case. And it took kind of forever. You know, each little image might have taken about, you know, an hour and a half, two hours, to make. And then I decided that I really needed something to cover it. And my lovely wife was really wonderful to make this quilt for the inside… I had actually planned on putting some cast-glass crows that that have a kind of beeswax pattern—almost like bandages around them—on the inside of the case. And that was the plan until I carried it outside and I saw the light go through this case and project perfect images of these engravings on the surface of the quilt. And so, I decided, how wonderful if these cases just housed ephemera, you know, something that’s just kind of there and not there, such as a shadow. And I got to thinking about how objects can kind of speak to us… You know, not in a loud voice, but more in a kind of whisper or perhaps a murmur. And that’s sort of how this case developed, very intuitively. I had actually just received. . . Not too long ago, I’d decided it needed just something else. And I had a jeweler in Latvia take molds off of real bees and cast them in silver.

This case is engraved with text from Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Gift.” And in the lenses on the top of the shelf are images—sectional images—of the Blue Morpho butterfly. There’s a pocket watch with an engraved face hanging from the top shelf, on the left. And the typewriter has about sixteen feet of text typed dry, embossed into the wax paper. And this was, I was thinking, almost like a kind of automatic writing. If Nabokov could speak now, perhaps this might be the way he would do it.

This is the last piece I have to show you today, and it’s entitled “Flock.” And it takes about, wall space, about twenty foot by twenty foot. It’s about three inches thick of cast glass, images of Victorian picture frames. And there are swallows in flight that are engraved on the back of the glass. For me, it’s as simple as taking a walk in the country and seeing these incredible barn swallows flying around, oftentimes near the barns… And just how beautiful that is, and evoking that imagery, and kind of allowing that memory to come back. Thank you very much, that’s it!