Brilliance + Clarity
Examples of Toots Zynsky’s signature filet de verre vessels made from fused and thermo-formed colored glass threads.
Earlier this year glass artist Toots Zynsky 73 GL was pleased to accept the 2015 Smithsonian Visionary Award and serve as honorary chair of the much-anticipated Smithsonian Craft Show in Washington, DC. Now the Providence-based artist is working in her studio frantically preparing for three important end-of-year exhibitions – one at Themes & Variations gallery in London and two in China.
With a studio glass practice spanning four decades, Zynsky has established an international reputation for making impossibly delicate and richly colored vessels that appear to have grown organically. She is represented by multiple galleries across the US and in such far-flung countries as Japan, Germany and Canada, and her work is included in more than 70 international museum collections, including the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, PA; the Cooper-Hewitt in New York City; the Musée des Arts Décoratifs du Louvre in Paris and Australia’s National Gallery of Victoria.
Zynsky is known around the world for stretching the limits of the medium in order to realize her artistic vision – devising new methods and processes, even designing her own kilns and co-inventing a unique machine that digitally fabricates the glass threads she fuses together in a signature technique known as filet de verre.
“I develop technology as I need it to make the work I want to make,” says Zynsky, “not the other way around. Glass is an incredibly flexible material. You can pour it, pull it, carve it, blow it, make buildings out of it. It sticks to itself, which is a critical factor. And it can be opaque, transparent or translucent.”
Zynsky’s fascination with the medium began at RISD in the early 1970s when she started experimenting with it under the guidance of fellow glass pioneer Dale Chihuly MFA 68 CR, who was in the process of establishing RISD’s Glass department. After graduation she went on to help him develop the renowned Pilchuck Glass School, which he founded in 1971 just north of Seattle.
“Dale was a great teacher in that he himself was always learning, always gobbling up information,” Zynsky recalls. “And he’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met. I remember him saying that the world is full of talented people and that [making it as an artist] is all about working hard.”
Zynsky has always shared this intense work ethic, helping to get Pilchuck up and running, experimenting with barbed wire and other unexpected materials and subsequently heading up the New York Experimental Glass Workshop (now UrbanGlass) before relocating to Amsterdam in 1983. While based in Europe for the next 16 years, she continued to push and take risks with her work.
“Sometimes there are disasters along the way,” Zynsky admits with a smile. “If you push it too far – if you miscalculate – it’s done. Game over. But you get used to the idea that things break, and you learn that those ‘failures’ teach you the most. It’s like skiing. You can’t be afraid to fall.”
How has Zynsky managed to maintain a world-class studio practice for more than 40 years? “Sometimes the biggest challenge is stepping aside and taking the time to develop a new idea,” she says. And “dipping into other mediums” –drawing, music, dance – helps to shake things up and create space for her subconscious to transition into whatever might come next.
A couple of years ago, for example, after returning to Providence to be closer to family, Zynsky got involved with the local Festival Ballet company. Working with choreographer Viktor Plotnikov, composer Sonya Belousova and set designer Alan Pickart, she helped create Orchis, a multimedia performance piece inspired by Cemal Ekin’s orchid photographs.
“I turned my whole studio into a costume design shop,” Zynsky recalls. “It’s not like designing costumes for theater. Dancers have to move and interact with one another.”
Zynsky hand-painted dance leotards, incorporating pulverized glass and mica into the paint to catch the light and accentuate the movement of dancers’ bodies on stage. “It was a great learning experience,” she says. “It’s always good to take a break from your medium and then assimilate what you’ve learned into your own work.” Among the take-aways that have found their way into her work are an enhanced “motion and fluidity,” along with a desire “to work larger – to increase the scale” of her pieces.
Zynsky also thrives on collaboration, which she says is “part of the pleasure of [her] practice – working with a team.” This summer she has been working intensely with a team of seven in her Providence studio preparing for the upcoming shows in London, Taipei and Shanghai.
“There’s a growing interest in China in art from the Western world,” says Zynsky, “and I’ve been interested in showing my work there for years. The end of the year will be intense here in the studio, but it’s an exciting opportunity.”
While she’s focused on making new work for the three back-to-back shows, Zynsky will also take time out to do two artist residencies in September – at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, VA and at the Pittsburgh Glass Center in Pittsburgh, PA. Since her filet de verre process relies on fusing strands of glass in electric kilns rather than using a blowpipe, she’s excited about working more spontaneously with molten glass again. “I’m really looking forward to the flexibility of working in the hot shop,” she says, “where you can change direction at a moment’s notice.”