2014 Essay | Building Bridges with Glass at the Pittsburgh Glass Center

2014 Essay | Building Bridges with Glass at the Pittsburgh Glass Center

Building Bridges with Glass at the Pittsburgh Glass Center

By Savannah Schroll Guz

  Jason Forck and Chris Ross at PGC

Within the last decade, Pittsburgh has emerged as a burgeoning creative center, as artists, writers, and craftspeople have begun migrating to the city now widely recognized for both its affordability and innovation. Pittsburgh Glass Center (PGC) has been a vital part of this cultural sea-change. “Since opening in 2001,” says Executive Director Heather McElwee, “over 40 glass artists have moved to Pittsburgh to live and work at PGC, and over 25,000 students have taken classes from internationally renowned glass artists, such as John Kiley, Dante Marioni, Susan Taylor Glasgow, and Cesare Toffolo, among many others.”

PGC was originally established with community revitalization in mind. In the early 1990s, co-founders Kathleen Mulcahy and Ron Desmett, both glass artists, envisioned a center that would offer public access and spur economic recovery, which the city, then in decline, sorely needed. By 1998, when glass enthusiast and Post-Gazette Community Affairs Director Karen Block Johnese secured the center’s non-profit status and installed the first board of directors, the movement towards community development through the arts began. PGC has since become a vital force in the Pittsburgh cultural community, particularly in the East End. “PGC is an anchor tenant for the arts initiative,” says McElwee, “and it provides support to the efforts of neighboring arts groups, youth programs, social service agencies and community development initiatives.”

Work by Venessa German


PGC’s Idea Furnace has been part of this community-building enterprise. Originally, Idea Furnace was a one-day program that occurred for a three-hour period on the second Friday of each month. Artists with no glass-working experience were chosen based on project proposals. Over the course of the program, it became clear that the synergy between PGC’s glass artists and the artists unfamiliar with the glass medium held more than just creative potential. The process of collaboration and exchange became every bit as important as the creative outcome. And for this reason, PGC made Idea Furnace a six-month residency for glass and non-glass artists. This year, in anticipation of the Pittsburgh Biennial, which opened in early August 2014, PGC actively selected the 12 participating artists based not on project submissions, but on their known creative activity. “We wanted to be proactive,” says glass artist Jason Forck, who helps to oversee the Idea Furnace program, “and invite artists who don’t work in glass to help execute their ideas.”

Through Idea Furnace, PGC seeks to further enhance its outreach and contribute to the growth of Pittsburgh’s art culture. “The glass community tends to be fairly insular,” continues Forck. “We want to break down those barriers.”

Forck worked with Vanessa German, a visual and performance artist and founder of Art House, an art center that serves Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood and seeks to eradicate violence by offering children a creative outlet. Her own assemblages are provocative, bear a ceremonial aura, and could even be considered archeological, as she layers her sculptures with found objects and elements from Homewood’s excavation and dump sites.  Forck created pieces for three of German’s assemblages. “Vanessa was so excited by each and every thing we made,” says Forck, who has worked with glass since 2002. “It’s great to see that excitement again, to experience that sense of discovery we had when we first started working with glass.”

By using Forck’s handmade glass elements, as well as wooden tools from the hot shop, German created works in which PGC figures as part of the implicit subject. “I make work that is specific to place, to a whole spectrum of experiences,” says German, “and the experience is the content.” The fact that Forck hand-crafted pieces was important to German on a number of levels, particularly the spiritual. “He made the work, so he is in the work because his past is in the work,” she explains.

Idea Furnace has also facilitated a level of exchange that moves beyond creative collaboration, as German describes in her response to watching PGC’s artists creating her pieces. “It was beautiful watching them,” she says. “When Jason was blowing glass, Chris [another glass artist] anticipated what he needed and mirrored that movement. It was like watching a dance. I come from a place where men don’t relate in that way.”

And relating is essential to German’s Idea Furnace assemblages. In fact, the broader Pittsburgh community’s concerns figure into her pieces. For two of these works, Forck created 200 small, vase-like vessels, some of which are clear and other of which are covered in blue frit. In these vessels, German placed important items, stories, and prayers from people who have lost loved ones. “I have six or seven friends who have lost children to gun violence,” says German. She gave each of these friends a vessel, into which they could place an item or message. Once filled, “those vessels were activated,” German says. Some of them were incorporated into her sculptures, while others were placed in locations significant to the person lost, as a kind of memorial. “I haven’t told people where I put them,” she explains. “You’ll just see a glass vessel at a stop sign. You will find them in unexpected places.”

Jeremy Travis in the PGC Tech Shop


German extends the sense of exchange and community to the viewer in another of her Idea Furnace works, which incorporates an eight-foot ladder usually used to pull hot glass in PGC’s hot shop. The ladder supports more of German’s glass vessels, and people can write personal prayers or hopes onto small slips of recycled paper German has provided. Viewers become part of the work by placing their words inside the vessels. The works she has created through the Idea Furnace program, says German, “carry a community’s worth and concern and grow while being shown.”

Meaning, experimentation, and community are central themes to printmaker Bob Beckman’s work. Beckman, who worked with PGC’s Educational Outreach Coordinator and glass artist Ashley McFarland, is founder of Artist Image Resource (AIR)—an artist-run, nonprofit printmaking studio in Pittsburgh’s Northside neighborhood. Using screen-printing techniques and fine glass dust to capture imagery and words on glass, Beckman fused tiles that carry portraits, color fields, and dictionary pages, which, he says, is the primary source for denotative meaning. He chose specific words to be associated with each portrait, which reflects his ongoing interest in the human inclination to layer meaning and create new context-based identifications. “Exploring glass panels as a vehicle for the creation and subsequent fusing of various layers of images and information has provided an exciting opportunity for me,” says Beckman. “This specific body of work feels very much like it is just scratching the surface of the possibilities to be pursued.”

Like Forck’s work with German, McFarland was similarly excited by the sense of re-discovery that came from working with artists not already familiar with the traditional rules of glassmaking. When McFarland explained to Beckman that cutting the tile edges was necessary before they could be kiln-fused, she says that Beckman asked her, “What would happen if we didn’t cut them?” The resulting bubbles, created by trapped air, became an important aesthetic element in Beckman’s tiles, as were other air pockets that developed during the fusing process and distorted lines of dictionary text. 

Together, McFarland and Beckman did many experiments to determine how best to achieve the effects Beckman sought. Part of their creative inquiry involved fabricating CMYK tests using glass powders, in order to determine how the colors would interact and where each should be placed – whether on or under the tile, on the kiln bed itself – to realize a desired effect. For McFarland – whose background lies in scientific research, who is highly interested in optics, and who often incorporates lenses into her own casting work—this became a perfect opportunity to further explore the medium’s possibilities. “I love doing tests,” says McFarland. “I learned a lot by teaching Bob to work with glass.”

This process of creative inquiry, almost scientific in its nature and methodology, is crucial to Beckman’s mission at AIR, where he, too, works with artists in residence, making tools available to them and creating a printmaking collective that can achieve what the artist, who may or may not have printmaking experience, has envisioned. “I see the artist as a catalyst,” says Beckman. “We facilitate a transference of knowledge.”

The collaborations forged between PGC and the organizations several of the Idea Furnace artists represent will continue beyond the six-month residency. Both German, founder of Art House, and Beckman, founder of AIR, indicated that future programming connections with PGC are in the works. “I am confident,” says Beckman, “that there will be more connectivity that will come between larger groups of artists working with glass at the Glass Center and with print at Artist Image Resource.”

These open channels, which offer public access and often serve younger audiences, reveal that PGC is continuing its mission to build a more vital arts community, which, in turn, strengthens the region’s creative draw and economic potential.


Savannah Schroll Guz is a mixed-media artist and editor based just outside Pittsburgh. Published in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO 2014 Special Exhibit Idea Furnace, presented by the Pittsburgh Glass Center and curated by Heather McElwee, Executive Director at Pittsburgh Glass Center.

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