Meet the Artist: Toots Zynsky

Corning Museum of Glass, April 17, 2007

That particular day the doors swung wide open. There was an incredible roar of the furnaces coming out, and everyone in the glass department was sort of drawing glass through the air and swirling it around, and I looked at it and went, “This looks really interesting; I think maybe this is what I want to do."
     – Artist, Toots Zynsky

Hello. My name is Tina Oldknow, and I’m the Curator of Modern Glass at the Corning Museum of Glass.  This is the first of an ongoing series of conversations with artists whose works are represented in the Corning Museum’s collection.

The first artist who I’ve chosen to speak with is Toots Zynsky. Her kiln-formed vessels made of multi-colored fused glass threads enjoy a widespread popularity for their often magnificent and always unique explorations in color. 

Born and raised in Massachusetts, Toots received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1973, where she majored in glass and sculpture.  She was one of Dale Chihuly’s first students at RISD, which in Chihuly’s words, was a group with extraordinary energy. 

In the early 1970’s Toots, again working with Chihuly, was instrumental in the %%founding%% and early development of the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State.  She was also involved in the establishment of New York Experimental Glass Workshop in New York City, now known as Urban Glass in Brooklyn. 

Toots, welcome to our series of conversations with artists.  I have some questions that I’d like to ask you, not only about your work today, but about the early years when you first started working in glass.  And, for example, can you remember when you decided as a young sculpture major at RISD… can you remember when you decided to work in glass?

TOOTS: Yes.  It was decided in one moment.  (laughter)  I had actually withdrawn from RISD after my first year, not convinced that I was ready to make a choice about what department I wanted to major in, and felt that maybe a time-out would be important.  And I decided to make one more grand tour of the school to look at everything, and, you know… one after another it was a, “No, not this… not this… not this,” and my very last door that I came to was the budding young glass department, which I didn’t… I knew existed, but it was so small, that it didn’t exist as a program yet, and that particular day the doors swung wide open.  There was an incredible roar of the furnaces coming out, and everyone in the glass department was in crazy drag, (laughter) and they were making very dubious sounds that, you know… with sort of drawing glass through the air and swirling it around, and I looked at it and went… and you know, great music playing …and I just said, “This looks really interesting; I think maybe this is what I want to do.”  And, um… that’s how I got started.

TINA: You mentioned that you fell in love with the material.  What is it about glass that fascinates you?

TOOTS: It moves.  You know… it’s moving, and it’s hot, and you always have to be moving with it, because otherwise it just does what it wants to do.  It’s a very active relationship with that material.

TINA: What is most frustrating about working with glass? 


TINA: Moving?  (laughter)  Its constant movement? (laughter)

TOOTS: That it sort of has a mind of its own.  That it breaks pretty quickly if you don’t do the right thing with it, which is also one of the qualities about glass that’s fascinating, and that I find strangely positive - the fact that it breaks - and it’s really what led to some of my earlier performance pieces and the video, “Time Release”, work that I did with Buster Simpson.  So everything about it has… is a plus and a minus. 

TINA: Actually, I remember looking at some photographs that Buster Simpson showed me of some pieces that you did in the early years, and I guess… was this around 1972?

TOOTS: It was ‘70… late ‘72/early ‘73.

TINA: Um hmm… Where you were laying hot glass on plate glass, and documenting with video how that glass broke, and doing performances.  Was that the kind of work that you were referring to?

TOOTS: What really started that was that I had noticed in working… in learning how to blow glass, that when it broke, it made perfect musical tone, and I’ve always loved music.  It’s been a huge influence on my work, and I wanted explore that further and find out, just more about it.  So that led to the contact mike installation pieces that we did, and performance pieces that we did where we were specifically recording the sounds and the very minute things that were happening inside the glass that weren’t necessarily audible to just your naked ear.

TINA: I think that this kind of experimental work, which really kind of characterized the 70’s, and especially people in programs like RISD, and also at Pilchuck… was really important for the development of glass as a material to explore concerns in contemporary art, and some artists are involved in doing that kind of work, but certainly the Studio Glass Movement tended to evolve in another way, and you were one of a small core group of pioneering artists who made contemporary glass a worldwide phenomenon.  And what was it like to be working in glass?  Besides the experimental pieces in the videos and the performance pieces what… were you making vessels?  What other kinds of pieces were you making?

TOOTS: I had quickly moved away from making vessels at that point.  But it was wide open; it was this material that hadn’t really been explored as an individual artist’s medium.  So everything was possible, and there was so much to be discovered.  Other mediums had been, you know… even just looking at the 20th century, had gone through, you know… Impressionism, you know… Cubism, Dada, you know… you name it… Arte Povera.  But glass hadn’t… had been absent in all of that.  So it kind of was this extraordinary time of concentration where people were playing catch-up with the medium, to bring it up into the latter-20th century.  And… so there were no rules.  There were no… there were really very few great artists sitting on top of our heads as young artists.  There was just everything to do, and I think that was probably one of the things that drew so many people to it - it was this wide-open field.

TINA: Well now, when you were, you know… a student at RISD, and beginning to work with glass, and kind of looking at the art world around you, were there artists whose work particularly influenced you?  Now, at this time, in the late 60’s and early 70’s, there were artists like Larry Bell, who was doing the very Illusionistic sculptures with mirror, and Chris Wilmarth…


TINA: …who was doing the combination steel and glass pieces.

TOOTS: Yeah, and Laddie John Dill.

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: He designed out in California.  Sure.  Those were really exciting, and were another door opening of enormous possibilities.

TINA: What was it about their work that excited you?  Was it the scale?

TOOTS: I think it was scale.  It was the use of both plate glass and, in Chris Wilmarth’s case, the use of a combination of plate glass, steel, and some blown glass.

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: So it was this obvious crossover between, you know… what was traditionally considered “fine art”, and what had been relegated to “craft”. Um…

TINA: So you’re looking at all this kind of really interesting sculpture and also looking at, I’m assuming, other contemporary artists of the period; did you ever look at glass… historical glass?  Was there any artists…


TINA: …or designer?

TOOTS: …we looked at a lot of historical glass, of course.  Dale was, you know… really active showing us everything that, you know… that… every slide and image that he could come up with to just sort of pump us with information.  And it was really all that information plus them, the contemporary artists, that were doing new things with it, that gave us this sort of wealth of, you know… this huge vocabulary to… to start working on top of.

He would go down to the Whitney Annual, and come back with slides from the Whitney Annual.  And, you know… we were always looking at everything, and that was… the department was so alive.  You know, we were looking at architecture, we were looking at art, we were looking at glass in architecture, we were looking at, you know… a lot of contemporary stuff, you know… Dennis Oppenheimer…

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: …Vito Acconci.  We were looking at everything, and I think that was really the strength of what was happening then… was that, um… and there was no overriding idea that, you know… “This is what the department should be doing” … “This was… is… as a student, you should be exploring.” … “You shouldn’t be blowing glass.” … “You shouldn’t be investigating traditional vessels.” … “You should only be doing, you know… exploring conceptual work with glass.”  You could do anything you wanted.  The only rule was that you had to really do it, and that was the excitement and the energy of the department then.  And the vitality of it, was all of these different students, you know… working at the same time and exploring very, very different avenues, and Dale was open to all of that.

TINA: Well, you know it’s funny because Chihuly is so well known, but he is not that well known for his teaching.  And I think kind of in the longer historical view, his teaching and the founding of the programs that he did, is what’s really gonna be very significant.

TOOTS: Dale was a great teacher.  He wasn’t a hands-on teacher like, you know… “This is how you blow your first bubble.”  That was kind of… you had to figure it out by yourself or with the help of some of the other students.  But I think what was really great about him was his open-mindedness, and the fact that he was just so busy doing his own work, and with such energy and full-time added.  It was the… it was a huge influence to all of us.  But really it was his open-mindedness, and I think that some glass programs today suffer from being more narrow in their view of what students should be doing.  And I think really still one of the best ways to learn about that material, and really start to have a deep understanding of it, is by blowing it.

TINA: Mm hmm.  Even if it… even if vessels aren’t what you want to be making, but just in a way that you can understand and learn about the material?

TOOTS: Yeah.

TINA: Mm hmm.


TINA: Why do you think that?  I’m interested to know… I’m not… not being a maker, it’s not immediately clear to me why blowing rather than casting might teach you more.

TOOTS: Because your handling of it is so much more direct…

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: …and learning to, um… you learn that you have to work with it; that you can’t just impose on it, because it’s always doing something on its own.  And what it does by itself just requires that you have to start understanding the behavior of this remarkable medium.  And then, you know… we all quickly moved on to trying out casting of it.  You know we tried everything, and with equal enthusiasm.  You know by the time I had finished RISD, I had blown glass, cast glass, done some pâte de verre, and started then working with slumped plate glass because I wanted… I started feeling really confined by working on a blowpipe and making, you know… having to always be sort of… be on center.  And I wanted to work on a larger scale, and I had other ideas that didn’t have anything to do with vessels, and that’s when I started doing what was actually the first slumped glass sculpture being done in the country.

TINA: We have a piece… the earliest piece that the Museum has by you is called “Water Spout No. 13”…

TOOTS: Mm hmm.

TINA: …and I remember talking to you about this piece, and you were saying, well it was something that you had envisioned in 1979, but you really couldn’t actually have it made until 1994.  And can you tell me a little bit about how the series… now am I right in assuming this is related to your barbed-wire series, is it not?

TOOTS: That’s right.  It was the next step after my barbed-wire series.  I had stopped… in 1973 after I left school, and then went out to Pilchuck and finished my degree project there, I, you know… moved back to the east coast I… and I just really started wondering what I was doing with glass and why.  And there were other materials that I… that fascinated me, and I started working with some very… much more ephemeral materials like cloth, wire, barbed-wire, um… barb-wire because of its incredible symbolism and because I think it’s, you know… the most powerful symbol of the failure of humanity… that we had to come up with this material, you know… to keep each other apart.

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: So I stopped, and I did a lot of other work.  And then I wanted to make this vessel that was a perfect, really heavy glass crystalline, simple object that was just enveloped in barbed wire, and those pieces… that piece led to then wrapping it just with glass, and this strange contrast between what looked like an extraordinarily fragile piece that really wasn’t because it was surrounding this very solid structure inside, but at the same time remained very fragile on the outside, so… and you couldn’t really clean it, and that’s where the “dust collectors” started to… someone looked at me and said, “Why… are these vessels functional?” and I looked at him and said, “Actually the only thing they function to do is collect dust.” (laughter)  So then I set about, you know… pieces that would collect as much dust as possible… and be as hard to clean as possible, which was kind of a reference to a book that a friend of mine had handed to me when he knew that I was really wanting to totally get back in to my work.  And he handed me a book on Duchamp, and Duchamp had a fascination with dust.  So, you know… there was a direct influence there…

TINA: And what…

TOOTS: …but to get back….  I actually did make those spun glass pieces in 1979.  They were…

TINA: Oh, you did?

TOOTS:  …they were really what got me back into doing glass.  I didn’t make the piece you have at the Museum until ’94, simply because… why?  I had gone on to… I was, you know… working with threads, and then I started separating the thread from the blown vessel and just working with threads because of the possibility of making volumes… if they were just fused at the right moment the volume of thread would stay as a volume instead of melting down into a slab, and I could make, you know… pieces with volume out of it, and I was fascinated by that.

TINA: Well this becomes really clear when you look at “Waterspout No. 13” for example, and one of your early fused thread pieces, which is “Clipped Grass”…

TOOTS: Mm hmm… Mm hmm…

TINA: …from 1982 to…

TOOTS: Right.

TINA: Is that kind of… you were talking about that you took those strands of glass, kind of off the vessel, and just started working with them, the threads themselves, to create different kinds of volumes.  I find that really fascinating, because I would never have been able to make that connection really.

TOOTS: Then in ‘94 I had the opportunity to work with Ben Moore and, you know… the gang out there, who I had done some of the pieces earlier on with at Pilchuck, and in 1979 no one was blowing on that scale…

TINA: Right, right.

TOOTS: …and that’s kind of an important thing to think about.  You know… when you look at the scale of the pieces that were being blown, you know… up until the early ‘80’s and even mid-80’s, no one was blowing that big.  It was, you know… the marvering technique that Jamie Carpenter brought back, and Dick Marquis brought back from their experiences in Italy, and suddenly everyone didn’t have to just use wooden blocks anymore.  They could make these much larger pieces by marvering.

TINA: Mm hmm.  (laughter)

TOOTS: And that increased the scale.  If you look at the scale of the pieces in the Museum from… of contemporary glass you see the scale increasing, increasing, increasing…

TINA: It was dramatic.

TOOTS: Yeah.

TINA: It’s incredible.

TOOTS: As skill and knowledge increased… and I had always wanted to make them bigger, but just couldn’t.  I had made them as big as I could myself, which was about… probably about a foot high.

TINA: Mm hmm.


TINA: That’s not bad.

TOOTS: Yeah, no one was working with teams then either.  It was the evolution of people working with teams, and the idea that you didn’t have to be this individual craftsman making it all by yourself.  You know… that it was totally legitimate to haul in as many people as you needed to, to make these pieces and that… it takes eight people to make that piece.

TINA: Really.  Now you work primarily alone, don’t you?

TOOTS: On each piece?  Yeah.

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: With exception of the new big pieces, like “Maestrale”, that Ben Heineman has donated to the museum.  I need people just to help me, you know… get it in out of the kiln.  And because I work in and out of the kiln while the piece is hot, I need people just to, you know… to help me haul it out, ‘cause it’s big for me.

TINA: So how do you… I’m looking at pieces like “Clipped Glass” or the wonderful Rakow Commission you made for us, “Pajaritos en la Cabeza” and “Cabellos de Angel”.  These, you know… “Clipped Grass” being a very simple, monochromatic kind of very primitive fused threads, and then the Rakow Commission, the “Pajaritos en la Cabeza”, and it being such a, you know… violently colored, almost like a bird of paradise… all these different colors of threads of these really interesting, kind of three-dimensional forms, that you… I know that you actually create when the object is hot in the kiln, and it would be great if you could just give maybe an explanation of what the process is that you do.

TOOTS: How did I get from “Clipped Grass” to there?

TINA: Yeah.  Or, you know… is “Clipped Grass” even the same process that you use later on?

TOOTS: It’s actually different.  “Clipped Grass”, and all of the pieces that were in that first sellout show at the Theo Portnoy Gallery in New York, were a combination… most of the pieces were a combination of blown glass combined with fused volumes of glass.

TINA: Mm hmm.  

TOOTS: And “Clipped Grass” was the first piece that I made entirely with threads, but it was all hand-pulled thread, and thicker, and more uneven.

TINA: What do you mean by hand-pulled thread?

TOOTS: We were pulling thread in the traditional manner, which is, you know… two people… you get two, you know… globs of glass and stick them together, and run in opposite directions across the studio.  (laughter)  And, actually, it was at that moment that a friend of a friend came from Europe and wanted to go up and see my show.  And he was curious about how I had made them, because he had never seen glass treated that way and didn’t really know that much about glass anyway, and asked to come down to New York’s Experimental Glass Workshop and see how they were made.  I said fine, and he came down, and, you know… I had happened to have two teams of people just pulling thread all afternoon for me, and he took one look at it and shook his head, and went, “This is medieval!”  (laughter)  And that was Mathijs Teunissen Van Manen and within twenty-four hours, he had constructed this crazy contraption that actually fed a glass rod through a flame, and was pulling it to thread.  And it looked like a Rube Goldberg invention, but that was the, you know… that was the beauty of a place like Pilchuck, New York’s Experimental Glass Workshop because we had a neon facility there, we had, you know… ovens, all kinds of kilns, hot glass in the furnace.  You could do anything, and you could combine all those things, and it made those pieces possible.  So that was a whole new thing then.  I had this, you know… these huge amounts of straight, even thread, and it just led to other experimentation.  And then when I went to Europe… I’d gotten a small NEA Grant, Emerging Artist Grant, and Gianni Toso was our guest at New York’s Experimental Workshop at that point, and he showed me all these beautiful colored rods that he’d had, colored cane from Murano and his gold…

TINA: Is this the Moretti glass canes…

TOOTS: Mm hmm.

TINA: … that are all compatible, all the colors…

TOOTS: Right, right.

TINA: Because that must have been a big problem for you…

TOOTS: It’s huge!

TINA: …color compatibility.

TOOTS: It was huge, and it, you know… it’s how I wound up working with color in the first place, ‘cause I was never interested in color

TINA: Well your early pieces are all colorless.  I’m very interested to see how you shifted.

TOOTS: I wasn’t even interested in the shine of glass; in fact I didn’t like it.  That was for me it’s biggest negative quality… was that it had this shiny surface.  And so I immediately… my very first blown pieces, I ran down downstairs to the metal department and used their sandblaster (we didn’t even have a sandblaster in a glass department then!), because I wanted to frost the surface so that I could really see the form…

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: …instead of all that shine and reflection, which really annoyed me.  And I made one piece in black and red, and that was the only piece that I really wanted to make because black and red to me is… it’s not that they’re not colors, but they’re the same as no color because they’re such powerful colors.  They’re not pretty colors; you know, they’re not like pink or green or blue.  They’re just really powerful colors.  They’re life and death colors, and the black and red weren’t compatible, and in order to keep working on the form and the idea, I just grabbed whatever colors were available.  In the meantime, while I was searching for a black and red that were compatible, and suddenly I discovered color, you know?

TINA: Uh huh.

TOOTS: I realized that it was fascinating to me, and color meant things.

TINA: Well your fused vessels are incredibly painterly.  I mean did you ever… were you ever a painter?



TOOTS: No.  I went right to sculpture.  Of course in high school, you know… the only thing available is drawing and painting… in high school art programs at that time.  So I did a little painting, but my real interest was sculpture.  But then when I started getting, you know… getting into color, I became really fascinated with it, and it was a whole new education for me, and a whole new journey of exploration, and I began, you know… really looking at paintings in a way that I realized that I had never looked at them before.

TINA: What influenced you in terms of the development of your… or what does influence you even now in terms of the development of your palette of colors?  Because color… also… I mean, I also want to talk about the form, because I think your forms are really amazing and sometimes we might see them as secondary to your color, but I really think that both form and color are equal in your work, at least that’s my feeling.

TOOTS: It’s why I don’t work with flat rods (?).

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: Because having that form, I have inside, outside, back of the inside, the other side of the piece… and you know that you can never see the whole piece at once, and I like that.  Its… there’s always something mysterious no matter what angle or in what light you’re looking at the piece in.  There’s always something else about it that you’re not seeing, and it forces you, like with any sculpture, to move around it.

TINA: What do you think has been your biggest, kind of influence or teacher in terms of learning about color?  Is it an individual painter?  Is it landscape?  I mean what do you think it has been?

TOOTS: Traveling.

TINA: Oh, traveling.

TOOTS: Traveling and being in different cultures where, you know… you never think about a culture… a cultural palette, but there are cultural palettes,

TOOTS: as a result of getting this small NEA grant, it gave me the opportunity to go to Italy and find these beautiful colors that Gianni took… or had showed to me.  And I took my son out of school for three weeks (they thought it was a great idea… a great cultural, you know… expedition), and when we got to Europe it was just such a fabulous place to me.  I’d never been before, and life was so easy there, and it was just charming.  You know… and there was all this art around that you could only see in books over here, and, you know… with the exception of some museums, but it was just the concentration over there is fantastic, and, you know… many of the great, great works that you only see in books here, are there.  And so there was no way that I was coming home, you know?  There was too much to do and see and discover for myself, and, you know… one thing led to another.  We… I came to a point with my work where I went, “Okay, you know… I’ve been here for a year.  I’m doing this work with threads.  What am I doing making vessels?  Why am I making vessels?”  And I really knew that I needed a big confrontation, and being in Europe was by comparison… it was a smaller confrontation.  And I really wanted to be confronted with another culture: people with completely other ideas, another way of life, you know… another climate.  And the music, it was… there was so much African music in Europe at that point, um…

TINA: So you really wanted to just kind of shake up the way you were used to looking at things try something totally different?

TOOTS: Exactly.

TINA: … One of the things I wanted to ask you too, is in your colors… and I noticed on many of the pieces when you handle them… I love the handle your pieces, because my hands just really fit naturally into the holes and the kind of… the areas where you have squeezed those, kind of sides of the vessel together with your hands in the kiln.  It’s really a nice… you know… it’s a great… a lot of people don’t think that your objects may be wonderful to touch, but they are really tactile

TOOTS: Mm hmm.

TINA: But I’ve noticed on the surface, that some of the threads are maybe, not thicker, but less melted than others.  And does that have to do with color and compatibility?  Or firing?  Or…

TOOTS: It has to do with the different colors, and what’s gone into making them that color actually changes the brittleness.  To put it in really simple lay-terms, it changes the plasticity of the glass.

TINA: Now I know that when you make the work, you work on… I guess it’s a large circular steel plate, and then you just take colored threads and you start layering them on that plate?

TOOTS: Oh, actually the initial making of the piece is actually a very similar thought process to making a painting or a drawing because it’s flat.  Every piece begins completely flat.

TINA: Do you… I’m sorry.  Do you ever draw before you begin working with the threads?

TOOTS: I draw, but I never draw a “piece”.  I draw just to draw.

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: Um, and…

TINA: Because essentially what you’re doing is drawing with the threads so…

TOOTS: Exactly.


TOOTS: It would be… I would lose spontaneity of the original drawing by trying to imitate a drawing I had made.

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: And it’s just drawing with another material.  So I’m the only one that ever gets to see the piece as in its entirety.  You can never see that again, because I’ve changed the… I’ve formed it into a three-dimensional object…

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: …that goes into the oven flat, and then it, you know… step by step, as soon as it’s fused, I transfer it immediately, while it’s still hot, into a preheating steel form.  And each piece goes into, probably anywhere from three to five different forms to make it deeper and rounder.

TINA: So, you slump it repeatedly…

TOOTS: Mm hmm.

TINA: …over these steel forms.  So…

TOOTS: Into.


TOOTS: Into.  And that was a critical difference.  By slumping over, you get a completely different…

TINA: Oh, you slump into.

TOOTS: You don’t have that control.  And I sort of looked at all the early… earlier on, I’d looked at all the pieces that people were doing with fused glass, and they were always simple… either simple shallow, you know… forms, or they were pretty wonky, slumped over something, and with no control.  And I didn’t want that much accident in my work.  I wanted to be able to make the forms that I wanted, so that at some point each piece of mine that you see has been… I knew that I needed to be able to make a perfect deep round bowl before I could start deforming it…

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: …in the way that I wanted to, so that every piece of mine at some point has been a perfectly symmetrical round bowl form.  And from that, I can, you know… I can make what I want to make out of it.

TINA: Well, it’s interesting to hear you talk about these moments… or actually periods of spontaneity in the work, because I was thinking to myself, “Well, what is it about Toots’ work, the very early experimental work…”  Like how do we understand the vessels, and the context of that?  But what your saying to me is, it makes it a lot more understandable that you’re… even though your vessels appear, you know… perfect in their way and very controlled, there’s a lot of moments that you have in your process that are completely spontaneous.

TOOTS: Oh absolutely.

TINA: Yeah.  So it’s a very free kind of thing.

TOOTS: And it’s the…it’s a combination of many different things that play in that moment that I’m forming the piece, and the most important is the hardness or the softness of the combination of colors that I’ve used.  You know… knowing that if the edge is thinner or has more soft colors in it, I’m gonna be able then to make that edge more lively and rippled and, you know… deformed and, you know… torqued and twisted.  So it’s not perfectly an accident, and it’s not perfectly controlled either.  It’s something in between those two things that happened.

TINA: What is your idea of a really good piece?  What qualities would it have?

TOOTS: (laughter)

TINA: I guess it depends on the piece and the colors.  Sometimes it will be color, maybe sometime it’ll be form?

TOOTS: Well I have some… the few pieces that I have in my studio, all have major flaws in them.

TINA: I was just thinking, I was reading in an interview the other day… you were talking to someone, and you said that you think that we learn enormous amounts from our mistakes.  And I was just, kind of… making me laugh because I was thinking, here you are talking about these pieces that have been so important to you that have, you know… what you consider to be technical flaws; probably no one else would even see them, of course.  (laughter)  But what would you think… what do you really mean when you say that you learn… or that we can learn an enormous amount from our mistakes?  We’re so trained to not want to make mistakes.

TOOTS: I think mistakes are the most important things, you know… the most important learning tools that, you know… we have available to us, and it’s great because they happen anyway!

TINA: Right.

TOOTS: And, you know… for example my first… the first piece when I was just starting these slumped vessel forms, and I was still at a very beginning and simple stage with them… I was actually in Venice doing a special project at Venini with blown glass, but the deal was that I had to be able to use… do my own work on the side.  So I brought my portable kiln, and in my downtime from blowing I, you know… I was making my own pieces.  And a bunch of architects came in, and they were so curious about what I was doing.  And I was really sort of nervous, and the piece just wasn’t going right.  And all of a sudden I just, you know… I reached in the kiln, grabbed it out and gave it a big squeeze, and then I had the form that I wanted.  And I thought well, you know… “Why didn’t I think of this before!”  (laughter)  You know, it was just in a moment of just being fed up with the piece.  It wasn’t working, so I had nothing to lose, and…

TINA: So you just put on some big ol’ asbestos gloves and went into the kiln…


TINA: And started squeezing?

TOOTS: Not asbestos… never asbestos, I never touched that stuff.  But, yeah… heat-proof gloves, and I gave it a big squeeze, and that was great.  It worked, you know… and of course it worked.  And I thought, “Why didn’t I think of this before?”  I knew how to do this; I blew glass!  And I remember the first time I taught at Pilchuck, when I did that, the students literally gasped and jumped back a foot…

TINA: Mm hmm…

TOOTS:  …and, you know… it’s like, “What are you doing?!” …and I… and none of them had ever blown glass.  You know, lots of things happened.  I mean, sometimes a shape going completely wrong because I’ve lost my hold on it, led me to realize that I could also, you know… do these other things to form it, and turn it upside-down, and squeeze it some more, and pull it, and yank it.  I mean, the best pieces I think I’ve ever made are the pieces that started to go really, irrevocable wrong.  And then you have nothing to lose, and that’s an important moment because then you push it much further then you might have because you didn’t want to lose the piece.  It was safe, and it was a nice piece the way it was, so you don’t push it farther, and I think that, you know… if I had my way every, you know… if I could, and I certainly tried to, you know… I’d like to push every piece until it breaks, because then I’ve learned everything about it, you know… that I can.  Yeah, and why do I work with vessels?  I think when I actually went to Africa that was a big question in my mind: What am I doing?  Why am I working with vessels?  What is it about a vessel that, you know… am I confining myself to some limitation that doesn’t make any sense.  And it was actually going to Africa and rediscovering the value of vessel…

TINA: Yeah.

TOOTS: The first time I went to the market, everything was sold in bulk at the marketplace.  So I went to get palm oil, and the lady said, “Where’s your container?”  And then, I didn’t have one.  You can’t carry it home in your hands.

TINA: (laughter) Right.

TOOTS: So, you know… then I had to go to another stall where they sold second-hand, you know… used clean little glass bottles of every shape and size, and I realized how much we’re able to take this for granted in our culture, and how important, historically, to the development of mankind, the ability to form vessels has been.  But I love the metaphor of it too.  I mean, a vessel contains… it’s about containing things, and it’s probably the earliest objects that people made besides tools… the vessel was in the form of… is the form of a tool, and it contains things, and now we have the luxury of them not having to contain anything, but it’s still a beautiful form.

TINA: Mm hmm.

TOOTS: There’s an inherent quality in anything that has the potential to contain something.

TINA: Your pieces are kind of the classic non-functional vessels (laughter)

TOOTS: I don’t think “dysfunctional”.

TINA: No, no, no… not dysfunctional.  But I think that… I don’t even really understand them as containers more than I understand them as kind of three-dimensional canvasses.  Do you really… do you feel that they are kind of meant to be containers?  Would you ever…

TOOTS: No.  No they’re not meant to be containers.  The only thing they contain are my sort of fantasies and dreams and, you know… in very abstract ways.

TINA: Well, Toots, thank you so much…

TOOTS: Well, thank you for listening to my rambling on…

TINA: …for talking with me…

TOOTS: …my rambling on about my work.  (laughter)

TINA: Always fun.  It’s always fun, Toots.

The music you are hearing was performed on a glass udu drum by percussionist and composer Cyro Baptista.
Join us again for “Meet the Artist” from the Corning Museum of Glass.