Friday, October 19, 2007

Philabaum Glass Studio

Tom Philabaum (pictured left) is a glass artist in Tucson. Originally from the Midwest (Illinois, Wisconsin) he has had his own studio in Tucson since 1975. There is a large gallery exhibiting his, and others’ works, and visitors can go right into the studio to watch craftsmen blow glass (they do a lot more than blow into it, actually). His students and assistants use the studio for their own work on the weekends.

It was plenty hot in the glass studio, but what caught my attention more than anything was the lack of safety gear, not even safety glasses. Human flesh sure looks delicate next to a glowing ball of molten glass. These were weekend studio users, not the master himself, of course. I hope they all signed liability waivers.

I was impressed by the glass art objects I saw at the Philabaum gallery. Here in the northwest, glass is omnipresent, but it is usually from Dale Chihuly, the internationally known glass artist from Tacoma, just down the road from Seattle. Chihuly glass is indeed beautiful but it is vastly overexposed here in the Northwest and one becomes inured to it.

Chihuly glass is grand, swirly, and dramatic. His pieces often take organic forms, like the shell-shaped pieces in the ceiling of the “Glass Bridge” at the Chihuly Museum (yes, his own museum), in Tacoma.

My first reaction to many Chihuly pieces is to wonder how they were made. The objects are so spectacular that you are dazzled by the technology and craftsmanship, which is indeed amazing.

But after a while the novelty wears off. You begin to understand that anything that can be done with glass, has been done. It ceases to be glass and becomes just a set of colorful artifacts without context, unconnected to the ancient craft.

The Philabaum work is not spectacular in the same way, just quietly beautiful. It is a different approach. The forms are often simple, elegant, and compact. You can get an appreciation of glass as glass: its texture, color, refraction, transparency, and so on. And because of that, you also appreciate the artist’s craftsmanship and intentionality. The pieces look like they were made by someone who had something in mind, not like they just arrived from Mars.

Not that Philabaum glass isn’t technically sophisticated work. It is. He is known for his “scavo” technique, in which glass chemicals are applied directly to hot glass, which gives the product an ancient, antique look. His work is varied, and to my eyes, refreshing after having seen too much Chihuly.

If the Chihuly museum is the Disneyland of glass art, the Philabaum studio is the MOMA. They’re both good in their own way, but not comparable. Another difference is that you can own a Philabaum piece like the handsome orange vase above for about $700 (see whereas you need many thousands of dollars to even stand near a Chihuly. Small imitations of Chihuly pieces (not even by Chihuly himself) in his museum store are in the thousands. A fair price, perhaps for artifacts from Mars.

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