“Gentlemen,” began the e-mail from Mary Ellen of Salt Lake City, Utah, “I’ve noticed that you have many excellent examples of art glass for sale in the Home Goods section of your website, Dogbotz Boneyard. I love what I’m seeing! Can you guys tell me how you got started collecting these pieces, and why?”
Well, Mary Ellen, first of all, “you guys” is really me. My partner Dan is the collector of Shaker baskets, East Coast and Midwest folk art painted on unique pieces of old wood or metal, and antique colonial earthenware jugs and crocks. As for the art glass, that’s my domain.
My interest in art glass is really quite recent, as opposed to, say, my fascination with vintage board and card games, which began as a teenager, which would be more than 50 years ago. In about 2004, I was asked by two of my friends who served on the Women’s Auxiliary of the then-Evanston Northwestern Hospital in Illinois to be the Computer Chair for the American Crafts Exhibition, for which they served as Chairs of the entire weekend event. As Computer Chair, I helped with assembling the slides of various crafts for jurying — fiber wearables and art, high-end custom-made jewelry, contemporary furniture, wood and ceramic vases and bowls, and, yes, art glass pieces. There’s where it all began! My first year as Computer Chair, I walked away having purchased two contemporary art glass vases, a jar and a sculpture. The beauty of their shapes, the stunning colors within the glass, and a pamphlet of the process of glassmaking did me in, as the saying goes. Since then, I have been collecting not only fine contemporary art glass items but also gorgeous vintage ones.
I won’t go into a history of art glass here, as one can readily research its humble beginnings in ancient Egypt and Syria on the Internet, but I will share with you examples of the art glass I’ve collected throughout the past decade.
The Artisans of Murano
After acquiring a few pieces of contemporary art glass, I found an old Murano art glass jumping fish sculpture that belonged to a relative. Fascinated by its inherent shape and coloring, I decided to investigate the Murano studios and seek out more pieces to add to my collection.
Murano glass is made on the Venetian island of Murano, which has specialized in fancy glassware for centuries. Murano’s glassmakers led Europe for centuries, developing or refining many technologies including crystalline glass, enameled glass (known as smalto), glass with threads of gold (aventurine), multicolored glass (millefiori), milk glass (lattimo), and imitation gemstones made of glass. Today, the artisans of Murano are still employing these centuries-old techniques, crafting everything from contemporary art glass and glass figurines to Murano glass chandeliers and wine stoppers, as well as tourist souvenirs.
Murano is home to a vast number of factories and a few individual artists’ studios making all manner of glass objects from mass-marketed stemware to original sculpture. The Museo del Vetro (or, Glass Museum) in the Palazzo Giustinian houses displays about the history of glassmaking as well as glass samples ranging from the Ancient Egyptian era through the present day.
I’m not much into the functionality of glass stemware, but the play of colors in Murano sculptures and paperweights continues to intrigue me. The millefiori design of a special Menorah paperweight that a Jewish colleague gave me five years ago is just stunning. Because of the exquisite craftsmanship of the artisans of Murano, I’ve become a devotee.
Paden City Glass Manufacturing Company
Then, there’s Depression glass, another one of my favorite art glass categories. Named for the Great Depression of the late 1920s through the 1930s, Depression glass has been connoted with functional plates, bowls, cups, butter dishes, creamers, etc., for any table setting imaginable. From crystal clear to soft rose, from grass green to dark blue, Depression glass comes in a multitude of colors. But again, it’s not the traditional kitchen and dining room dishes that I collect, as I’m more intrigue by home décor pieces that can be placed in any room. And so, that brings me to Paden City.
Paden City Glass Manufacturing Company was established in 1916 at Paden City, West Virginia. The company made over twenty different colors of glass and was known throughout the Great Depression for its glass figurines. The firm sadly closed in 1951. Paden City’s most popular colors are Cheri-Glo (pink) and Ruby, and its most popular patterns include Black Forest, Peacock, and Wild Rose.
I acquired a Paden City pony sculpture, and what a delight it is! Standing almost a foot high, the pony makes quite a statement on a West Virginia gate-leg table in our foyer. What I admire about this Depression glass sculpture is the nice “sun purple” cast to the crystalline body of the pony, an occurrence commonly found in Depression glassware from the first half of the 19th century. I found an example of this very pony on page 169 of the book Glass Animals of the Depression Era by Garmon & Spencer.
I continue to hunt for other rare Paden City sculptures.
St. Clair Glass
Prior to her death in 1973, my French grandmother gave me a heavy glass perfume bottle as a memento. Both perfume bottle and stopper were hand-blown from clear glass with turquoise flowers blown into the center of both pieces. The bottle has a few air bubbles from the glass-making process, which only adds to the dynamic glamor of the perfume bottle. I didn’t know anything about St. Clair glass at the time. After all, what teenage boy would? But I do now and enjoy collecting the company’s charming pieces.
In 1888, John and Rosalie St. Clair came to the United States from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. From Crystal-City, Missouri, they moved to Elwood, Indiana with their children John and Rosa. A gentleman named MacBeth Evans opened a large glass facility around the turn of the 20th century. John St. Clair and his sons went to work for Mr. Evans, developing their skills as master gaffers. In most glass manufacturing houses of that era, employees were encouraged to practice, invent, improve and create after regular working hours. John returned night after night to perfect the art that was a part of his native country’s culture. The St. Clair sons went with their father to watch and learn the techniques that have become the time-honored, intricate flower designs.
Today, the descendants of John St. Clair operate the House of Glass, still producing stunning yet affordable art glass items using the Old-World glass techniques handed down to the generations of the St. Clair family.
And like my grandmother before me, I enjoying going to estate sales to seek for the eye-catching art glass of the St. Clair Company.
Kanawha Glass Company
I can’t help it, but I just love glass figurines. Who’d have thought! And for me, one of the art glass studios that produces some of the most fascinating, beautifully colored, marvelously textured and, at times, humorous figurines is the Kanawha Glass Company.
Kanawha Glass Company was an American art glass company that began in 1953 when a few of the artisans from the failed Dunbar Glass Company came together to start a new business. The company grew in popularity in the 1960s and it acquired Hamon Glass Company in 1969. Kanawha continued producing its line of glass products until 1987, when it was acquired by Dereume Glass.
Kanawha Glass offered close to 350 different products at its peak of production. Glass horses, cats, dogs, owls and swans are among the different types of animal figurines Kanawha created. Glass bowls, with the head and neck of a swan, and owl-shaped drinking glasses are some of the more creative designs the glass artists made. Shades of blue, orange, red, amber, green, brown and white are the predominant colors used to make Kanawha glass objects. Most of the colors, except white, are transparent and sometimes combined to add interest to the designs.
One of Kanawha Glass Company’s specialties was the production of crackle glass objects. To make crackle glass, molten glass is blown into a mold, then dipped into water or sawdust before refiring it to seal the cracks. The breakage rate for making crackle glass is high, sometimes as much as 50 percent. Bubble glass is another design style prevalent in Kanawha glass objects. Bubbles are deliberately formed in molten glass by adding certain chemicals or by inserting spikes.
Main Glass Studio
So what, in 2004, were the art glass pieces I purchase at the American Crafts Exhibition? Well, I acquired two vases and a lidded jar came from the Main Glass Studio operated by artist Steven Main. Their designs, colors, shapes, and themes simply captivated me!
His profound interest in the patterns found in nature are the inspiration for Steven Main’s works. According to his website, Steven starts each art glass piece by laying out one small glass cane or rod in a mosaic-like pattern. Placed onto a sheet of heated steel, the cane design is brought closer to the temperature of the glass on the blowpipe. Steven then rolls the blowpipe across the hot steel, picking up the design onto a core of colored glass. After several layers of clear glass are gathered from the furnace, he blows out and forms the piece into its final shape.
And boy, what stunning shapes and colors emerge! Of all the innumerable art glass studios that exist today, Steven Main’s studio remains one of my favorites.
So, there you have it, Mary Ellen! My what and my why of the alluring art glass I collect.
All the best,
Dogbotz Boneyard, LLC