The wonder in capturing light
Scandinavian glass artists on display at the Schantz Galleries
Just a few minutes from Main Street in Stockbridge, Mass., (a town made iconic by local illustrator Norman Rockwell) lies a wonderful surprise, the Schantz Galleries. They feature glass artists from around the world in two light-filled rooms, connected by a lovely spiral staircase. It is the perfect environment to show off the kaleidoscopic wonders created by the many glass artists represented.
I was first drawn to the gallery when I was planning a trip to Stockbridge and came upon an article mentioning their exhibit of Dale Chihuly, the renowned Pacific Northwest glass artist, who has roots in Scandinavia. And, indeed, this gallery does represent him. A complex Chihuly chandelier with clinging tentacles, shells, and sea urchins hangs prominently between the floors of the galleries.
Upstairs, a lovely and substantially smaller piece called “Seagrass, Seaform” is an eruption of bright green and blue sea and plant shapes, edged in red to further accentuate their undulating silhouettes. These three pieces are a perfectly balanced composition, yet precariously balanced in terms of their physicality. Chihuly, however, is not the only glass artist with a Scandinavian connection represented here.
Jim Schantz, the gallery owner, took me on a tour to see the other artists. We discussed the gallery focusing on the Scandinavian artists and their works. I asked how the gallery began and why he chose Stockbridge as its location, as well as about the diversity of glass techniques represented here.
“Our gallery was founded over 30 years ago as a multimedia craft gallery,” said Schantz. “The reason we are located in the Berkshires is due to the cultural attractions in music, art, and theater. Tanglewood, the summer home to the Boston Symphony, is perhaps the primary destination.
“In the ’90s, when Dale Chihuly started making the larger glass installations, we expanded the gallery to accommodate his chandeliers. As his career took off, the glass art scene went along with it. Our gallery then focused on the glass medium specially from the mid-1990s on. We are now considered one of the primary glass galleries in the United States.
“There is a wealth of technique and approaches in glass. This makes the medium so fascinating and offers such a range of work in our gallery.”
Here are five glass artists with Scandinavian connections who are represented in this gallery.
Sonja Blomdahl hails from Massachusetts, where she earned her Master of Fine Arts at the College of Art and Design in Boston. She trained at Orrefors Glassworks in Nybro, Sweden, and has a Scandinavian aesthetic in her clean lines. She also trained as an assistant at the famous Pilchuck Glass School founded by Chihuly north of Seattle in Stanwood, Wash. Her technique is called “incalmo,” described as “the joining together of multiple bubbles of glass.”
Two of her vessels on display, both perfect in form and imbued with beauty derived from her use of subtle color amalgamations.
“You need to be a very accomplished glassblower to create these perfect forms,” Schantz explained. While the vessel? For her, it is “a symbol of wholeness and balance. It holds the space. In a sense, the vessel is a history of my breath, it contains the volume within.”
Blomdahl was a featured artist during the Clinton administration’s Year of American Craft in 1993. Later in 2001, one of her works was gifted to Prime Minister Göran Persson of Sweden by President George W. Bush.
The artist and well-respected educator William Carlson earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Cleveland Institute of Art, and he instituted their glass program. He has served as a professor of art, art history, crafts, and sculpture, exercising a huge influence on the students and faculty at two universities, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the University of Florida in Miami. The James Renwick Alliance of the Smithsonian Institution of the National Galleries of American Art awarded him the Distinguished Craft Education Award.
“Nodus” is an intriguing piece for all of its maritime elements: the rigging, the utilitarian use of sailors’ knots, the ocean color of the glass, the wavy background and the replication of light and sea play. Each element has a singular beauty. Another layer is added, as these elements are synthesized into these aqueous environs.
His more recent work has a fascinating juxtaposition between the elements he incorporates into each piece, using not only glass, but also granite and metal. It has intricacies in the textures and colors of the glass components.
The size of these works is also impressive: they are expansive architectural installations.
In “Vetro Muralis” (glass mural) from 2016, jagged edged metal frames are countered with metallic sheened swirls. These, as well as the application of the panels slightly overlapping and stacked like clapboard, create a dynamic and startling effect and demonstrate a high level of technical skill. This piece was on display at Chesterwood in the Berkshires at their 2019 sculpture exhibit. Today, Carlson lives and works in the Berkshires in Massachusetts.
Richard Royal shared: “Both my grandparents on my mom and dad’s side were Swedish immigrants. When I had my DNA tested, I was 86% Scandinavian descent!”
Schantz recalls Royal saying his family were Swedish loggers in the Seattle area, and this is where Royal was born and raised. He was initially interested in ceramics and later studied at the Pilchuck Glass School, where he became an assistant to Chihuly. In the late 1990s, Royal held a prestigious honor as the first artist in residence at the Waterford Crystal Factory in Ireland. In his own words, he considers himself to be “a glass builder.”
Schantz informed me that “Royal’s work tends to be sinuous and lyrical.” He explained Royal’s process in this series “Apropos and Aperture” on display at the gallery. Royal makes the spherical pieces ahead of time and later attaches them together. What I saw were a mesmerizing form and technique, with an amazing use of color. Focusing on the aesthetics and ability, I wondered, how does he make the elements balance?
These pieces are not just abstract creations to the artist, they are much more personal. “Aperture” developed after his first child, a son, was born and he began “seeing things differently.” Royal has commented about the spheres within these pieces: “When you look at them or anything that’s projected through or from behind …. [it] comes at you upside down and backward. And that’s what kids kind of do to your life sometime …. they come into your life and create this kind of beautiful chaos.”
Colorless pieces by Royal are also on display. One was titled “Flux;” a dancing crystal flame or crest of a wave encircling a perfect clear orb. By removing the color, the form is accentuated in this lovely, elegant piece.
Ulrica Hydman Vallien and Bertil Vallien
Ulrica Hydman Vallien and Bertil Vallien are counted among Sweden’s most famous glass artists. Both worked for Åfors Glassworks and Kosta Boda Glassworks in southern Sweden. While they were partners in life, each maintained incredibly distinctive styles and applications.
Sadly, Ulrica died in 2018, but her life’s work and influence on glass art and artists, as well as other art forms, continue. Ulrica began studying both ceramics and glassmaking in school. She also worked as a designer and in a variety of mediums, including textiles.
Her pieces at the gallery were vessels created using two mediums. She first blew the glass and then added images to them using enamel paint. Human faces solo or attached onto avian bodies and snakes dominated. The latter symbol is not a negative. It was reported that Ulrica’s “mom shouted when she held up … snakes, and for [Ulrica] snakes became a strong expression—a scream.” Her urbane characters and symbols, like hieroglyphics, are striking and seductive.
Ulrica helped to create Kosta Boda’s collections and shape the glassworks’ strong design profile. Interestingly, she was selected by British Airways to create designs for aircraft tails, napkins, porcelain, tickets, and stationery for the fleet, and her work is in museum collections in Europe and the United States. She is so revered in Sweden that a street in Åfors has been named in her honor, Ulrica Hydman Valliens gata.
Bertil Vallien’s primary medium is glass, and Schantz emphasized that “he may be one of Sweden’s most famous artists.”
“Boat,” from 2019, fascinates with its smooth sexy contours and secrets inside the hull, a time capsule of the occupant. It reminds one of a Viking burial, an unknown life encased in glass. I thought about how these types of burials involved fire and water, and so does this medium. Suspended by threads attached to a wooden form, like Viking boats in drydock, there is a buoyancy in this landlocked artwork.
The artist has described the boat as his canvas and a good place to tell a story. The boat’s vulnerable skin or hull is all that protects the inhabitants or objects within from all the dangers surrounding it.
Because he likes to feel the materials he works with and this is impossible in the glassblowing process, he sandcasts, adding predetermined objects already created before he pours in the liquid glass. It is quite an exacting and layered process. Labor-intensive casting requires six to seven humans to execute, but it only takes a few minutes. Bertil explains that he is a builder in the process. In 2000, one of his works, “Journey Stone,” went on the Endeavor shuttle expedition to space.
Another series is as intriguing as his boats, “The Watchers.” A moody blue piece from that series at the Schantz consists of a male figure with his arms stuck to his sides, like a sentinel. This piece needs to be experienced from all sides and angles. The pieces in this series are cast and created in the same stratified process as his boats but are free-standing, which triggers a different response. Both Bertil’s “Boats” and “Watchers” series are rooted in the ancient past, yet connected to the present, with a harkening to and for our human touchstones and essence.
Glass is such an interesting art form to experience, whether you are a creator working in this beguiling medium, an observer watching this seductive process, or someone enjoying the wonder found in a finished piece. It’s alchemy. Solids are changed into a liquid, then transmuted back into a solid, but with a completely transformed result from the original. Glass is strong yet fragile. It captures light as nothing else can. The Schantz Galleries are a wonderful place to behold these technically marvelous and aesthetically bewitching delights.
For more information, visit the Schantz Galleries website at schantzgalleries.com.
All photos courtesy of Schantz Galleries
This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.