The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Joel Philip Myers on May 1, 2007. The interview was conducted by Dan Klein for the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. This interview is part of the Nanette L. Laitman Documentation Project for Craft and Decorative Arts in America.
Joel Philip Myers has reviewed the transcript. His corrections and emendations appear below in brackets with initials. This transcript has been lightly edited for readability by the Archives of American Art. The reader should bear in mind that they are reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.
DAN KLEIN: Joel, tell me a little bit about your early life, where you grew up, and how you finished up going to Parsons [School of Design, New York, NY].
JOEL MYERS: I was born on January 29, 1934, in Patterson, New Jersey. My family was a - well, it was a nice place to grow up, and my parents were decent people who had good values. And I — my father was a disciplinarian, however, and so I grew up in an atmosphere of being good. I think I would see myself as being a good boy —
MR. KLEIN: In New Jersey.
MR. MYERS: In New Jersey. Being a good boy but not being very interesting, or interested, unfortunately. Especially after you can look at yourself in such hindsight. Then I could see that I didn’t — you know, you’ll find ways of excusing certain things. And I compare that with my wife’s background, where people read in the family; they were interested in various things. And my parents didn’t seem to have time because they spent their life essentially providing for — for myself and my brother and my sister. So their life was that battle, so to speak. So I grew up in this atmosphere.
We lived essentially for the first — I’d say, before I left, I went to school, for about the first 20 years, within a 10 to 15 mile radius of one town or another around Patterson.
MR. KLEIN: Did you read or look at art?
MR. MYERS: I — yes. At a certain point. As a matter of fact, I think that when I was — I must have been about nine or 10, I think, that I began to draw. And I remember a dog I had drawn, and a charcoal drawing. I don’t know what — I’m sure it wasn’t taken from life, but nevertheless, I remember it as being rather accomplished for — as I remember it, of course, at that time. But I think it was the first time that I really had shown something in the way of interest in art as such.
MR. KLEIN: But you didn’t visit museums or art galleries?
MR. MYERS: No. No, none at all.
MR. KLEIN: So what made you go to Parsons?
MR. MYERS: Well, here I was, a young man about to finish high school. And when they would ask — people would ask me, where are you going to college? What are you going to study? I had no answer. So I said, I’m going to be an engineer. Now, I could no more be an engineer than I could be a space astronaut, and so at that point I had no idea in the world what I was going to do. And throughout high school I had — I took an evening class in painting, for example, some private course in oil painting. And I had courses in art. The final high school that I went to, last two years, had no art program at all, so I couldn’t do anything in that regard.
So here I faced graduation - where to go, what to do? Now, my only knowledge — apparently somewhere in my family, somewhere in my broader family, someone was a commercial artist. I knew that phrase “commercial art,” and when I — by the way, my parents were encouraging me. That is to say, when I made the drawings and things, they were very positive about it. Not to suggest that I should make a career of it, but in any event, they were encouraging.
MR. KLEIN: So did you have a portfolio to present?
MR. MYERS: No. I had no portfolio whatsoever.
MR. KLEIN: Why did Parsons take you?
MR. MYERS: Good question. The fact was that I did some research to find out where I could go to school, and it seemed to be that advertising design was a career. It was a career. I had no concept, no idea, not in the slightest, to be an artist because — I think I was mostly concerned about being able to make a good living, to have a career with something that could provide. And so I did research on the Pratt Institute [Brooklyn, NY], Cooper Union [for the Advancement of Science and Arts] in New York, and came upon Parsons. I suspect I went to Parsons because they had the minimal requirements. I had no portfolio, and I made a few drawings for them for their entrance requirements. It was, as I remember, even at the time, it was reasonable in terms of cost, and I could live at home and commute.
So I made a choice, and this was the beginning of what I consider to be [one of the –JPM] fortuitous events in my life that have shaped so much, up even to this point of time, at this point in my life, that it’s extraordinary how, by luck, I made the right choices. So I went to Parsons.
Now, I was so totally ill-equipped for Parsons; you could not imagine. But I was like a blank board, a blank blackboard with nothing on it, and you could write everything. I was so prepped to learn, and enthusiastic about it. So when I compared myself to my colleagues and my classmates and the whole student body at Parsons, I realized that, wow, I’m like totally — I should hide in the corner, because these people are so seemingly accomplished and experienced, and extremely sophisticated people. I would show up, when I finally went, I’d show up at lunch with my cream cheese and jelly sandwiches on white bread, because I couldn’t afford to go out to eat.
However, so I went through three years of Parsons. The first year, I was totally nondescript student. I would say a very average student, C student. The second year, I began to understand what was happening, and I began to excel. And by the third year, I was probably one of the leading students in the class, and a competition in — in a metropolitan New York competition for the Police Athletic League, I won the poster competition, which gave me the Society of Illustrators, New York Society of Illustrators’ medal, as well as a cash award, which practically paid for a whole semester of schooling at Parsons.
MR. KLEIN: Can you remember the winning design?
MR. MYERS: Oh, yes. I have a picture of it, as a matter of fact. Yes, it’s someone, a young man, reaching up to catch a baseball, and nothing extraordinary, I felt, but in any event, it was a competition for a whole metropolitan New York, and I won it without ever, ever thinking I had a chance.
But as I look back at Parsons, I believe that Parsons — I don’t think I was trained as well as I could have been trained, and I don’t think I was educated as well as I could be educated. But it so shaped my life, the richness of Parsons experience, the contact with their thoughts and the teachers. I had one or two teachers, but no one that really inspired me, people that — students that — teachers that helped me, but not in a way that I consider to be mentors, but I learned.
And one thing I learned from my father was to work hard. And so whereas I might have had the raw talent of some of my classmates, who started out much farther ahead than I did, rather flamboyant, I went about my job to learn and to excel. And I did drawings at home that always were put on the board for their excellence, which was another thing to reinforce my own confidence.
Remember, I had, I felt, so little confidence in myself, I think, that — and I was very shy, bashful, and a rather happy person in a way, but still quite reserved. But in my second year, I had a teacher in drawing, which was life drawing, and there was something about, connected with her way of drawing. The first instructor I had of drawing was a linear draftsman, and I couldn’t get that. The second teacher showed me drawings of [Jacopo Comin] Tintoretto and [Jean-Antoine] Watteau, and I really caught that. I really began to understand something about drawing that really inspired me.
MR. KLEIN: So in a sense Parsons unlocked the latent talent and showed you that you had it.
MR. MYERS: It seemed to be that case. Certainly it provided me with it. I mean, I graduated with honors. So for the first time in my life - although I was a decent student at school, I never really excelled as some of my classmates did. But yes, I think Parsons — and it was quite a haul. I mean, I had to go back and forth from New Jersey and commute all the way to Long Island City, because Parsons was not in the city. But Parsons really shaped me. It really molded that raw clay into something.
So when I — the last year, I spent developing a portfolio to — for which I could use to get a job in the field. I didn’t have any idea where I was going. Advertising design in itself, I was more interested in graphic design than I was in advertising design, which then — I didn’t quite understand what that meant, either. But so — and I had a rich experience at Parsons. I had professional photographers teach me photography. I had a smattering of art history, and I must say that — and some contact at that point, certainly, with museums.
So here I was at — ready to graduate in 19 — I went to Parsons starting in 1951. It was a three-year course, so I graduated in 1954 with a portfolio.
MR. KLEIN: What was in your portfolio?
MR. MYERS: Well, the portfolio consisted of — very interesting. It’s very funny to talk about this. I proposed — I developed a logotype called Spectra. This Spectra was a camera. This was in 1954. This camera could do everything. In what it now seems to me that I had the idea for, only in terms of developing a portfolio, for the kind of digital cameras that exist today. I mean, it’s extraordinary; that’s my image of what this camera would do.
So I built a whole campaign. I did advertising layouts for ads, and all the drawings that were in it. I did all the drawings, and I still have that portfolio, as a matter of fact, practically intact.
MR. KLEIN: But you didn’t have the digital camera to make the —
MR. MYERS: I certainly had no — hardly had a digital camera, let alone a computer or anything like that. But here I was. And it was called Spectra, and it could do — it developed — it was better than Polaroid; it could do everything. And I didn’t imagine or think about the chip, of course, but nevertheless. So this whole portfolio was based on promoting this product.
So I just — well, obviously sought help through Parsons’s placement service, and I went — I do believe I went to one interview to a former — to Donald Deskey Associates, a design — industrial design consultants —
MR. KLEIN: Very famous one.
MR. MYERS: I didn’t realize how famous it was at the time. I knew that he was — I didn’t know exactly where he stood in the history of industrial design. But the person that interviewed me was a former Parsons graduate, Robert Vuillemonot [partner, Director of Packaging Design for Deskey –JPM]. And he hired me. He asked me, you know, show him the portfolio and so forth and so on, and I was hired essentially — I would imagine, if you look at it today, I was virtually an apprentice. I mean, I received at that time $50 a week. Fifty dollars a week, and I commuted back and forth to New Jersey, living with my parents during that time.
MR. KLEIN: How many years were you at Donald Deskey?
MR. MYERS: I was at Deskey for two and a half years.
MR. KLEIN: And what did you do?
MR. MYERS: I worked on various kinds of packaging projects. I mean, packaging design as such was just in its infancy, and I was in the right place at the right time. Of course, not knowing that at all at the time.
MR. KLEIN: What were you packaging?
MR. MYERS: Packaging.
MR. KLEIN: Yes, but what kind?
MR. MYERS: Okay. One of the packages that I assisted on and worked on was Crest toothpaste. What is now the same package — that is to say, the logotype is basically the same as it was. I didn’t develop it, but I worked on it. And so essentially my position called for working on — in the whole design office you became an arm. You worked on a project that other people had developed, and you did various parts. You may have refined something; you may do a pasteup. But you were learning the trade.
And so I would work on whiskey packaging, like — I forget the name of it now, but I would work on Kool cigarette packages and Glenmore liquor packages and all kinds — well, a lot of products with Proctor & Gamble, because Proctor & Gamble was one of our main clients. It was a big office. Even when I was at Rockefeller Center, 30th floor in Rockefeller Center. So I went about doing things and learning things and watching.
Then after — it was a nice job in a way. I mean, there was no pressure. They were very lax. After a while I began taking hour-and-a-half lunches. And I mean, I was prompt, I was there in the morning, and I left, of course, at five o’clock. But it began to feel a little bit like you belonged, and so you became a little more confident about your position there. The longer I was there, the more I felt confident. However — and I met, you know, other designers, and so — the — the idea of belonging somewhere for the first time hit me —
MR. KLEIN: And yet after two and a half years you left.
MR. MYERS: Well, that was a long — that was not an abrupt decision at all. In the course of the time — and when you think back, when you try to recollect exactly what you were thinking so many years ago, you question whether — exactly how you developed your ideas about things. That is to say, how I made my decision to leave Deskey. Well, that came about through, like, osmosis. I was living — I was working every day, five days a week, in the heart of Manhattan, in midst of some wonderful stores like Georg Jensen, Bonniers, where, at that time, what we know as Scandinavian design had its infancy. It was being shown in these stores. Modern, the modern furniture, ceramics, glass, textiles. [Bonniers at 605 Madison Avenue (near 58th Street) earned its reputation from 1950 on under the presidency of Goran Holmquist. The pace-setting selections of Scandinavian, Bauhaus-influenced and Italian modern tablewares furnishings, crafts, and lighting introduced under the aegis of Mr. Holmquist and later under Robert Meyers (now a Bloomingdale’s vice president) were usually snapped up by stores across the nation. –JPM]
And I would go during lunch, or after lunch or whatever, and wander through these places. And somehow or other that had a great impression on me. There was something about it that touched me.
MR. KLEIN: You mentioned Georg Jensen and Scandinavian. Was it particularly that that made you think of going to Scandinavia?
MR. MYERS: Well, it was precisely that. So I began to — I began to think about — and again, how this idea came about, as I recollect, it began sort of like that maybe I realized that the kind of job that I had at the moment was not fulfilling, because you never really carried out one idea through. You may have worked on a design, and then the senior designers would be the ones who always got the jobs to do the original design. So you may get it after it’s been originally — the concept and the layout’s been made. You may be given it to work on further in some other minor detail. So you never originated anything totally yourself.
So I began to think that, you know, that as a creative person, would this be something that I would want to do for the rest of my life? But at the same time, this was only one experience that I was undergoing, you might say. My view at that time was, maybe, limited. I could have, you know, thought of myself as when I work through this job, after a number of years, I’ll find something else where I could become more of a senior designer and do more interesting work. But it didn’t happen that way.
I just said, okay, what can I do? And so, well, all right. Why don’t I go to a country and live there, learn something about a different country and its people, and then learn the language? Now where all this came from, nobody — I’ve done everything by myself. I mean, except to a certain point. Before I married, but anyway. This idea somehow or other developed in me. So I thought, okay, this is something. Before I get married and have children and can’t do that, why don’t I do something like this in my life? I hadn’t ever been anywhere. The only place I’d been was once to drive down to Florida with my brother. But never had been anywhere. Never did anything, essentially. And never lived by myself. And I thought this was an ideal thing.
But I wanted — didn’t want to do what seemed — that a lot of people seemed to be doing. That is, to take a nice summer vacation of a couple of months, have a ball, have a great time, and then just come home and not profit by it.
MR. KLEIN: So you went to Denmark. And how old were you?
MR. MYERS: I think I was about 21.
MR. KLEIN: And the year was?
MR. MYERS: Nineteen fifty-seven.
MR. KLEIN: You arrived in Denmark as a student at -
MR. MYERS: At what was then called Kunsthaandvaerkerskolen [Copenhagen]. I had spent the last years — last year at Deskey was spent saving money, as much as I could save out of my salary in order to live in Denmark. The irony, of course, is that I applied to three schools, one in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. And the replies to all schools were positive. The one in Denmark was so short that it was offensive. The one in Sweden was absolutely marvelous. It was the Konstfack Skolen [University College of Arts, Crafts, and Design, Stockholm, Sweden]. A marvelous school, I’ve since learned, of course. But they were building a new school, and I would have to wait a year. I didn’t want to wait.
So I chose Denmark because people spoke so highly of the Danes, that they were friendly, nice people, and they weren’t quite as Americanized as I thought the Swedes were. So here I am; I took a freighter in the summer of 1957. I took a freighter, sailed to Denmark, 14 days on a boat eating nothing but Danish food. Arrived in Copenhagen with a big footlocker, stuck it somewhere in storage, went to the student hostel. I had already been accepted at Kunsthaandvaerkerskolen for ceramics. I had decided that I wanted to study ceramics because, I don’t know, it just seemed to be a wonderful material. I had never had much experience with it whatsoever. Took a course at the Greenwich House in New York City where I was working, which certainly was not an inspiring course.
But in any event, I wanted to go and learn how they taught ceramics in Denmark. So I came in as a beginning student. And the school was — the school was an atmosphere of the late 19th century, schooled with the principle, essentially the principle of functional ceramic, or functional anything. Metals or weaving. It was a school based on technology. It belonged to the Techya-ne-set-scap [ph] school, which is the Technical Society Schools. And their focus was on providing education of a vocational — essentially vocational nature. [For clarification, Kunsthaandvaerkerskolen was administered by the Det Tekniske Selskabs Skole whose mission was the technical development of craft disciplines. The school building had a rather gloomy, ancient edifice, which gave me the impression that I was back in the 19th century. In some ways I was proven correct. –JPM]
MR. KLEIN: Did you learn anything there, or was it more important that you met your future wife, Birthe?
MR. MYERS: It was important because I convinced them that I was capable, and that I could do something. So they let me become more or less independent. So I designed a line of scent bottles — not scent bottles, but spice. So I designed and learned how to make castings of plasterwork, and it was exhibited in the final exam and everything, and I was — even though at the beginning, when I started school, the Danish director of the school told me, Did you know that you are taking the place of a Dane? Which was not very welcoming, to say the least. But that was the time it was, and that was the school it was.
And my classmates were, like, 16-year-old girls. The entrance requirements for Kunsthandvaerkskolen were total minimum. My future wife, who I met there, was the only student that had a gymnasium exam, which would entitle her to attend a university. These are a bunch of kids, and after three months you had a test. If you didn’t pass the test, then you were thrown out. So I was very fortunate that we both passed the test and that we lasted.
So during that time I learned more about how to throw, and something about glazes and rudimentary — rudimentary knowledge of ceramics. The instructor was quite a harsh man, but I finally proved to him that I could do it and won his, if not friendship, but somewhat his approval. And — but I knew, and at the same time, interestingly enough, Don Deskey had made an association with Acton Bjørn and Sigvard Bernadotte, industrial design consultants, with offices in Copenhagen. And I worked a summer for them doing ceramic plate designs. So that was very nice.
But at the end of that first year I began to realize I couldn’t — I had no longer the finances. And although I was leaning heavily on my future wife’s family - I’d stay with them and so forth, and they were very kind - that I knew that I couldn’t stay in Denmark, and I knew that my future had to be in the States.
MR. KLEIN: So how many years did you stay in Denmark?
MR. MYERS: Actually, a little over a year and a half.
MR. KLEIN: And your wife describes you when she met you as a very intense young man, and, difficult to believe now, that you found it difficult to smile.
MR. MYERS: Well, I showed up at school the first day — the first day of class I showed up in a suit and tie. Well, I mean, that shows a measure of my seriousness. Thereafter, of course, it was quite — quite more casual. I was determined to succeed. I mean, I had this fire in me to do well. And maybe what — maybe the lack of confidence was part of the fire in me, was to do well and to have approval and — but at the same time perhaps some confidence was beginning to develop in me that I didn’t really recognize. I think that’s true because I think it carries over later on in the next several years in different ways.
Also because Birthe’s life was quite different. She came from a different kind of family and was established in a small town. I never belonged anywhere, and I went to so many different schools that I never belonged there either. So I didn’t have a sense of confidence that she had. She had a whole corps of friends that she went to gymnasium [with]. She had a much more settled life in that regard, and happy. She had a wonderful dialogue with her parents and connection which I didn’t have. So I think that to meet someone like me was quite different for her, and fortunately, she was able to see beyond and knew that I could be — perhaps be a different spirit.
But I was focused and have always been focused. Totally focused on what I needed to do. I had set up a time when we were getting ready to leave and had just married, and I knew that, well —
MR. KLEIN: Well, that was quite quick, from meeting Birthe to marrying her.
MR. MYERS: I didn’t take more than a month or so before I really — I mean, she was such — such a joyous person. And fortunately she also spoke very good English, so we had instant contact that way. The first Christmas I spent there, I spent with her family, and by then I was able to speak fairly fluent Danish, so that we could make contact that way. I just knew — and, of course, the fact that she wasn’t Jewish had nothing to do with the fact — with anything as far as I was concerned, although my parents were quite upset about the idea.
But I recognized in her something that I needed, I think. And it was certainly something I did need without — whether consciously or unconsciously. I did need her spirit. And the one thing that I regret to some extent, that I was more of a chain, anchor, to that spirit through a long part of our lives because of my seriousness.
MR. KLEIN: So you arrived back in America —
MR. MYERS: In January of 1958.
MR. KLEIN: With a European wife, a Danish wife, and you were something of a trained potter, and yet you went straight back into the packaging industry.
MR. MYERS: Well, here I arrived — we arrived - having to live with my parents until we had — we had nothing. Not a dime. And so I — Don Deskey re-hired me and doubled my salary, and that was a wonderful thing. I must say that my goal at that time was to earn as much money as I could to go back to Alfred University [Alfred, NY], the leading ceramic education institution in the country and extremely reasonably priced for residents of New York City — I mean, New York State.
So I went to Deskey and then I jumped Deskey. I went to Lippincott & Margulies, one of the other very leading industrial design firms. Packaging design. And then when they fired me, I went to another place where I equally worked as, probably the best job that I had, as a package designer. But this took a year and a half. Birthe was working as a salesperson in Saks Fifth Avenue, of which she was going to be probably the best salesperson they ever had if she could continue, but she couldn’t stand it because she couldn’t — just couldn’t stand being so successful and selling people things that she didn’t like.
We had to make money. That was the issue. We moved finally to Queens, had an apartment in Queens, Long Island, and we commuted to work, each of us. Eventually she went to work for the Coal Age and Mining Journal, a terrible job. And then one day we were skating in Central Park, she fell and broke her leg, and she became retired from working. And so in the September of 1960 we went, both of us, to Alfred University as students.
Birthe, since she had her gymnasium degree, and since there was a Swedish teacher there who helped get her placed, she was in a program, in the ceramics program to get our degree in ceramics, just as I was. The difference was that I was, because I had so much experience, I was given a lot of latitude with regard to my art background and what my requirements were. I had to fulfill two years of academics — English, mathematics - to be able to get my academic degree, my B.F.A. degree.
So I spent first those two years. In two years I got my B.F.A. degree. During that time I was mostly — had independent study courses in ceramics. So from that point I learned how to be independent. I learned that the only way that I could — the way to be creative was to find it in yourself. I wasn’t inspired by any instructors, although I had some of the leading ceramic artists in the country that were my instructors, or were supposed to be my instructors. Maybe the fact that there were leading people and I saw their work was kind of inspiration, but there wasn’t much of that around either.
So I found early on, because I was independent study student, and as such I didn’t belong either. So I was floating around. But again, I mean, here I am paying for my own education and my life is on the line, and my wife, and our future. So I worked with a great deal of intensity and purpose. And my job, I got a job; they gave me a job of making clay for the entire school, which I can tell you was one hell of a job. But I still — but still it was good. I made — we lived on — I made $150 a month. We decided then to have a child, which was crazy, because we should have waited until Birthe had completed her education. But no, we decided to have a child.
So here we are in 1961, I think, yes, in 1961 we had our first child. Sara was born, and Birthe had to stop going to school because we couldn’t afford it. That, of course, was something else. And so we had to borrow money, and we were on — we were getting welfare, actually, government welfare. We would go and get slabs of bacon and stuff every month and stuff. And we lived in university housing, a Quonset hut. Paid very little for it, fortunately, but it was okay. Other people did it.
MR. KLEIN: So that was in 1961. When did you leave Alfred?
MR. MYERS: Well, I graduated as an undergraduate in 1962, and then I began my graduate studies at Alfred. Then I became part of a class, first-year graduate course. And then I did, you know, good work in that first year of graduate study. Again, pretty much all on my own. But the first — the year I completed was over, and I believe it was over some time in June, whenever it was, or late May. The semester had ended, and I was walking down, going to the post office, and I was stopped by the chairman of the art department, Ted Randall. And he said to me, how would you like to work at Blenko Glass Company [Milton, WV]?
Well, the previous year at Alfred, the then-designer, Wayne Husted, who was an Alfred graduate, gave a lecture at Alfred, which I attended. And this — I remembered some — the gist of the lecture. And I remember being impressed with something about what he said. That is to say, something about his freedom. And so in the back of my head I had this recall of him giving a talk about his experiences at Blenko. And then in the course of that last year at Alfred, I recall now that in the summer of 1962 I had been asked by Ted Randall to attend the workshop event in Toledo [Toledo Museum of Art, OH] being given by Harvey Littleton, which, of course, became the first real glass workshop that Harvey Littleton conducted, in 1962, with [Dominick] Nick Labino in Toledo.
I couldn’t attend that because I had to make money, so I had to go and I went to work in New York during that time. This is, of course, something that I remembered after the fact. Then in ‘63 — during ‘62 there had been some publicity about what Harvey was doing. I saw it in Craft Horizons. I read an article about him, and I read an article about Erwin Eisch, German, saw some of the work they were doing. So somewhere there was this seed that someone else had sown that I had memories of.
I had never — I had only been in one glass factory. That was once, a visit in Denmark when I was there. Went to a glass factory, Kastrup/Holmegaard glass factory. So I had no background, no knowledge of glass whatsoever. Ted Randall asks me if I want to go become design director of Blenko Glass Company. He chose me because Ted had a lot of confidence in me. And I think he saw me as a kind of golden boy. I hate to say that, but I think subsequently I’ll tell you about it, the reason I think so. He recommended me because I had had background in industry — because he had confidence in my artistic ability. And I had — I didn’t know what to say.
MR. KLEIN: Talking about this in 2007, one is surprised that somebody with no experience of glass is chosen as head of design at a glass factory.
MR. MYERS: Well, if you knew the history of Blenko, you’d understand that the first two designers, Wayne — Winslow Anderson — Winslow Anderson and Wayne Husted, who are both graduates of Alfred, both in the ceramic program, they had no experience whatsoever. So they went to Blenko simply because it was a job that was offered to them that maybe seemed to be interesting to them. Of course, eager to be employed, as well. Win stayed there for about seven years, six years, and then became design director of Lenox [China and Crystal, Trenton, NJ] pottery, where he remained until he retired.
MR. KLEIN: So you accepted the job?
MR. MYERS: So I — but, but I wasn’t going to just arbitrarily accept the job. I had to go down, and I wanted to — so I brought — they paid for me and my wife to go down and look at the factory. I wasn’t stupid, in the sense that — first of all, I went down because I’d said I didn’t want to go down just for the job. I went down to see if I could teach myself how to blow glass and to see if I could become a craftsman, craftsman in a way that I would have become a craftsman after Alfred.
MR. KLEIN: Well, that was a slightly unusual thing, because normally as a designer you wouldn’t be expected to learn how to blow glass, would you?
MR. MYERS: Well, the factory never expected anyone to blow glass, nor did they want them to. I mean, Winslow and Wayne never bothered or never were concerned, were never interested and never required to learn about blowing glass at all. That wasn’t their job. Their job was to design the glass. But my vision at Blenko, and the only reason I went to Blenko, was because of the fact that I wanted to see whether it was a factory where I could learn to blow glass.
Now, subsequently I learned that if I had gone to several other factories, I would never have learned how to blow glass the right way, because there was too much machinery involved and not enough handcraftsmanship. And at Blenko, when I went there and experienced that activity, that drama, in this small glass factory where everything was made by hand, in the old-fashioned way, so to speak, with puntes and hand-finishing, I recognized the fact that I could learn the whole process, and that someway I would find a way of teaching myself and of learning how to make glass, just as I learned how to make pottery.
That was the image I had. I would never have gone to Blenko for the job alone. Never would have done it, because that would have — my career was laid out. I was going to graduate Alfred; I was going to take a teaching job. I was going to be a teacher, because I felt that, for my temperament, it was the only direction that made sense. I didn’t — I didn’t want to be a studio potter, for example.
MR. KLEIN: Did you reveal all this at the interview at Blenko before accepting the job?
MR. MYERS: The only thing that I revealed, if I remember correctly, was that I was interested in learning how to blow glass.
MR. KLEIN: And they welcomed that?
MR. MYERS: I could have told them that I was going to build the pyramid, for all they could care about what I was going to do personally. I mean, you cannot understand what these people didn’t know. First of all, it was a time which no one knew, so nobody could be expected, especially them, because they are super, hyper-conservative people, the Blenkos. So it was, you know, it was absolutely — it had no impact or meaning whatsoever to them.
MR. KLEIN: At that time - we’re talking of 1963 - you were vaguely aware of Toledo and what was happening there, but were they?
MR. MYERS: Were they?
MR. KLEIN: Aware.
MR. MYERS: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. Heavens no. They had no — I can tell you right now, it probably took them 20 years before they became aware of what was going on, and that was long after I had left, and long after somehow or other they were drawn into the studio experience in some way. For example, Bill Blenko, Jr., became — was given an honorary membership in GAS [Glass Art Society], which, of course, brought him into it. Into the fold.
But no, they weren’t interested — they weren’t interested in that. I did the job that the two previous designers did. As I say, I would never have gone there. Now it gave me — what happened was that I completed all coursework. So Ted Randall said, Look, I want you to go there; I want you to see if it can be done. He had no idea whether it was a viable idea to set up a glass program in a university. And I was the guinea pig. He said, Look, we’ll let you do your graduate — do all the rest of the requirements in glass. You can — and send us with a final exhibition with work in glass and complete independent study, a journal, et cetera. So he said, That’s what we’ll allow you to do, in five years. So that was a great opportunity because I was able to avoid the expense of my second graduate year and I was already earning money.
So I went to Blenko, never knowing anything about West Virginia, and discovering that it couldn’t be further away from anything. And so, at the same time, it provided me with no distractions and a complete commitment to discovering what there was about glass that I wanted to learn and what its potential could represent, what I could do with it.
MR. KLEIN: Were you welcomed, as an apprentice in a factory learning to do glass while other people were earning their living?
MR. MYERS: This took awhile before I really began. I mean, I first had to earn my keep. My first challenge was to design the first line of glassware when I arrived there, probably in June or July of 1963. So I, you know, I was faced with — Mr. Blenko, Sr., who was alive at the time, was a very stern man, and he promised me a new studio. And I didn’t believe him because I just didn’t believe that. I thought he was just — said that. But in fact, he provided me with a whole new building, that I designed. He gave me a metal building, and I designed a space, and that was a great, great — so it took me out of the factory into a separate building of my own, which I designed and which was entirely mine. So he was a man of his word.
When I arrived, I remember him saying almost — well, I’m going away on vacation, or going away for some months. Get on with it.
MR. KLEIN: What did you design there?
MR. MYERS: Well, essentially, the glass — Blenko glass was a line of handmade colored glass, colored glass, which was sold in major department stores throughout the country, and fine gift shops. And it consisted of pseudo-functional work. By that I meant the line consisted of vases and pitchers and decanters, all of which theoretically could be used, but were more decorative than anything. All lines of very brash colors — reds, yellows, blues, turquoise. As a matter of fact, over time I began to avoid the showroom, the stock room, because of the color; all of that mass of color turned me off. But in any event, that was my job, was to essentially design a whole new line of work.
So I had — when I arrived, I try to remember, I had all summer to design a whole group of work. Wayne Husted had left before I got there, so I don’t know whether we presented any of his designs or not. I doubt it. So I had the whole summer to work, to develop new ideas and new work. Now that meant that I had — in the fall Blenko has a meeting with all their sales representatives, from California to Texas to New York. They descend in Milton on the Mud and have one big meeting for a couple of days. And that’s the only contact that I have with them practically all year.
So I designed, and by designing, I mean the objects. The objects were made. I designed them, they were made by the workers, and when it came to making the presentation, they were all actual glass objects. So I’d have 30, 40, 50 pieces.
MR. KLEIN: Are we talking of wine glasses?
MR. MYERS: Oh, no, not wine glasses. We’re talking of vases, bowls, decanters, bookends, a whole series of different decorative objects.
MR. KLEIN: Designs you look back on with pleasure, with pride?
MR. MYERS: A number of them, yes, indeed. I think that — I went there also with the idea, with a kind of mission. The mission wasn’t just to learn how to blow glass myself. I went there with a mission — I say it sounds rather presumptuous — to improve American glass design.
MR. KLEIN: Did you?
MR. MYERS: Did I? I think I did. As a matter of fact, a number of my designs were included in several English journals that highlighted best designs of the year. And I’m not saying that all of them, because there was just too much volume and too many limitations on what I could do to be consistent. But there were many, many, many pieces that I designed that I felt terribly strong about and could hold their own even — I mean, certainly today. So I felt that I had done — that I had met that goal in many, many, many ways.
I had fantastic freedom. I had more freedom of design than I think anyone could possibly have. I remember, because in order to develop an idea, I would go out on the floor and work — either I had molds made, wooden molds made, or I would do freehand things, and I’d have them made by — I’d go out and work with the team for a couple, three hours, whatever amount of time I wanted. I remember Mr. Blenko walking out one day and saying, you know, This is costing me money. He knew, of course, it did. I mean, I knew it. And I said to him, if you want designs, this is the only way to do it.
And in all of his life, while he was alive, about four years there, never asked me again. This was from ‘63 to ‘70 I was there. They were selling more glass than they could possibly make, practically.
MR. KLEIN: Do you have any idea of how many designs, approximately, per year?
MR. MYERS: I would probably make — I would have designs in the range of, in variations thereof, but 50, 60, 70 designs.
MR. KLEIN: Per year?
MR. MYERS: Per year. But —
MR. KLEIN: So there’s a lot of Joel Philip Myers-designed glass out there.
MR. MYERS: Oh, there is. Yes, there is. What happened was that, what we would do is we’d look at the line, then Blenko, Jr., would give us figures on the profit level, so we would end up dropping maybe 20, 30 pieces, and then bringing in 20, 30 new ones. And that’s how it went every year. I was never — I would never stand for, never had to face them saying, Joel, would you please modify this design? We like this; would you do this? It was, what they got is what they got. Mr. Blenko — Blenkos never gave me an idea, Joel, we would like you to try this. Their attitude, you’re a designer; we pay you to be a designer. You do the design. And it was a fantastic concept because I took on — because I was trained as a graphic designer, I took on all graphic design.
I even designed their catalogues, which I enjoyed because I made wonderful photographs. As a matter of fact, what I did, without realizing it, that I had documented Blenko at a time — photography, with slides — I documented Blenko in such a profound way at a time when they had probably their best workers there.
MR. KLEIN: Were the designs from that period documented anywhere? Are they in magazines, or —
MR. MYERS: Catalogues. The Blenko catalogues themselves. Also there were several books on Blenko that have been published in recent years. And, of course, I have my own archives of work. They have not been as such — as a matter of fact, probably what I will be doing in the future is probably sending the collection of Blenko catalogues that identify my work to the Corning [Museum of Glass, Corning, NY] archives. I’ve already sent a lot of slides of working events at Blenko to the Corning archive, as well as sending a lot of them back to Blenko themselves, to document their own history, to have their own history, because it doesn’t make sense that I keep it any more. But it was a great opportunity that I took advantage of.
But to get back to your earlier question. When I started to learn, I went out there and I started to do it. I mean, I don’t know how I could stand the heat, but I did. I went out and learned how to gather glass on my own. Gradually I gained confidence, and I watched, and I did, and I watched, and they would be working. I’d come in, and I’d join them in some way. And I wasn’t even sure that the — I wasn’t even sure that Blenkos even know I was doing it. Knew partly what I was doing.
The workers never expressed any attitude about what I was doing. They certainly played a lot of pranks on me, put cigarettes on my seat and put oil on my blocks and put bricks in my block barrel, block bucket, where I’ve got my block. So they did a lot of minor mischievous things. But no one ever sat down and said, Joel, do it this way, because they’d never learned how to do it either. No one ever taught them. They watched, and they learned by watching, and I learned by watching.
Gradually — remember, my time to be able to work was so limited, because I could only work when they were working. The glory hole was on, and so I could only work, like, during lunch hour, somehow squeeze myself in in some way, which I shouldn’t have been allowed to do. So it took time. Took a long time before I really began to feel that I had some proficiency.
I firmly believed in the idea that I had to develop a technique. I could not make something - it’s like, I think if you want to be — masters have shown that [Pablo] Picasso, for example, was a wonderful draftsman long before he started to be an abstract artist. And I think you need a basis, a foundation. And I felt that I had to become — especially since I saw all the work that was being made by Harvey Littleton’s students, which I thought was totally without technique. And, of course, that was what — that was the genius of what they were doing, was the fact that it was so spontaneous and so devoid of any technique that they were able to arrive at forms that didn’t require technique. Or any great mastery, so to speak.
But I wanted mastery. I wanted to be able to master it, to be good, not in a way — I knew that I could never master it the way that the workers at Blenko, because they worked in a different way. They worked in speed. They had to work within a framework of a production system. I realized that I would never have to do that. But it was difficult to learn in a space that was so loud, full of workers, and so noisy and so hot. Incredibly difficult. I would come home after one hour of working and be finished for the rest of the day. I would be sick and have a headache. I’d lie down. And I was completely — because the temperatures got well over 100 degrees.
But I stuck it, out and I did it through the summer, and gradually, gradually got to the point where I began to feel confident that I was in the position to do something really original.
[END MD 01 TR 04. BEGIN MD 01 TR 05.]
MR. KLEIN: Joel, we’ve talked about your career at Blenko as a designer, but while you were at Blenko, you also started out as an independent artist, which became the most significant part of your life. Whilst you were at Blenko and you began making, how involved were you in the emerging, nascent studio glass movement that was initiated by its founding father, Harvey Littleton?
MR. MYERS: Well, first of all, I would say that Milton, West Virginia, was a completely isolated community and thereby my contact with what was going on outside, particularly at the University of Wisconsin, where most of these things were occurring, was very little. And I had no community. I was so alone, if you will, by myself, with — I did have a sense of what was going on outside because I went to the first World Crafts Council meeting, a conference held in Columbia University in 1964. As a matter of fact, the irony of it is that I was invited to this conference, the first World Crafts Council conference, a massive affair, prestigious, in Columbia University, New York City.
I was invited because all of my designs, many of the experimental pieces that I had designed at Blenko, were sitting in the window of America House, the premier showcase of American crafts, in New York City, because I had been discovered by Paul Smith, who included me in a large event called the “Craftsmith’s Approach,” in which he selected a number of designers who had craftsman’s background in metals and fiber and other materials. I was the only one available in glass. He came to visit me and immediately I had an article in Craft Horizons, and already somebody knew who I was.
So I went to Columbia, and I saw the horrible stuff that Harvey’s students were making, but I met other people involved in glass. So I began to get already in touch with the field. And while I was at Blenko, I encouraged everyone to come visit, to see what a glass factory was like and to meet the people that were doing what I was doing, and to share, even if essentially only for a day or two.
I was invited by Harvey in about 1964, ‘65 to give a workshop in Madison, and I eagerly went there to meet Harvey for the first time and to meet his students, who were a bunch of young guys who really thought they knew a lot about glass. It was my first experience working with the material that they called glass, which was fiberglass, because what I had been working with was real glass. I could never work with it.
MR. KLEIN: Are we talking about people like Dale Chihuly and Marvin Lipofsky, who were among the students you saw?
MR. MYERS: No, Dale wasn’t there. But Marvin was, and Fritz Dreisbach was there, and Bill Boyson was there, some of those people that eventually went out to become glass educators. Marvin went to CCAC [California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland] and to University of California, Berkeley, and Fritz went to Toledo [Museum School of Art, OH]. And they all came — they came to visit.
MR. KLEIN: And what did you think of the technically naïve glass that they were all making?
MR. MYERS: I think that I recognized what it was like, like a child that is first given something to be creative, and how they were completely enraptured with a great sense of freedom, without thinking about any consequences. A lot of it was, to me, just pure awful. Pure awful stuff that was based on no technique.
MR. KLEIN: And a pride in their technique.
MR. MYERS: Beg pardon?
MR. KLEIN: And a sort of pride in their technique.
MR. MYERS: Oh, actually, yes, indeed. It was — because the focus for Harvey wasn’t — really wasn’t to develop a technique, to make specific forms, like a bowl accurately made, or a goblet accurately made. That wasn’t the criteria. The criteria essentially, in the broader sense, was to make sculpture.
MR. KLEIN: But looking back now on the work of those artists during the 1960s, how do you evaluate it? Has it stood any test of time?
MR. MYERS: It’s hard to generalize about a large body of people’s work. I think we have to look at it more from the historical point of view and accept it for the vibrance of the time, and not necessarily evaluate it, I think, on the kind of criteria that we assume to be the case today, at least I do. I don’t — at the time, I found it inept, but when I look back at it at this point, I think that ineptitude created forms that were valuable and were necessary.
I think, as a matter of fact, that what they became was more influential, for example to Europeans, in many ways. It showed a way, perhaps an expressiveness, that went beyond or fell short of being perfectly technique-oriented. It became to me, as I see it now, something genuinely, typically American attitude. Don’t worry about the technique; think about the idea, and let the one thing work, and the other thing will happen.
MR. KLEIN: Be yourself, be free.
MR. MYERS: Be free, and eventually things will occur that will take care of themselves. And I think what you see today is that anybody, any young glassblower today, looks at work, just laughs to think that that was valued work. Here it is in museums. It’s awful. Any beginning student — I said that to my students - any beginning student could do better. But you know, again, it’s a question of timing; it’s a question of what — what they were doing and the enthusiasm, the joy, and the experimentation, what that led to. Only that movement, if we call it a movement, could only have happened in a country like America.
I think — I’m not a chauvinistic person, but I truly believe it’s an American kind of ideal. I don’t think it could have started at all in Europe, where everything is strongly foundation-oriented and technically, vocationally oriented, like the Fachschule [technical school] in Germany and vocational schools elsewhere, particularly in glass, but in other fields, as well. So I think that it was absolutely an American phenomenon.
MR. KLEIN: But it’s also played a very important role in the history of glass, because that immensely technique-free freedom that was established in those years really started a new beginning of the whole art of glass.
MR. MYERS: It did. It really did, because Harvey didn’t start out with the idea that function played a part in anything. And when I think of the idea of function, I think of technique, because you need — one needs the other. In order to make a beautiful goblet that works, you need to know how to make it to put it together. A nice bowl, you need to know how to blow it to blow it evenly. There are a whole bunch of criteria that were eliminated. And I think that’s one of the reasons why the young people, who were for the most part studying ceramics at the time, who were Harvey’s first students, took to glass. It was so instant, so dramatic. And at the end of a day, next morning, you’d have a bunch of stuff.
MR. KLEIN: Of course, it was happening in ceramics, too, with Peter Voulkos, but not to the same extent. And I think there was something that has been described as a sonic boom and a revolution.
But I’d like to come back to you, because you were rather outside of all that. You continued doing your own thing, now as an independent artist. How did you begin? What were your first pieces where you thought, I might be exhibiting this. This is a piece of art, not a piece of design.
MR. MYERS: Well, I think it actually began when I began to feel strongly about my ability to make what I wanted to make, and in a broad sense. Not necessarily very specifically, because when I started — when I reached that point, it got to the point where I’d be making a whole series of unique pieces. It was never a question of making two alike at all. And so I went out and played.
And I think this is a concept, or an ideal, for myself that has followed through my entire life, that I relied on my own judgment, my own aesthetic sensibility. So when I made something, I could judge it as to whether it was worthwhile. And I say this fully realizing how enamored you are with what you make yourself, especially at that point in time when so little criteria seemed to present itself, other than the strict criteria of craftsmanship and precision and symmetry and evenness. But I recognized —
MR. KLEIN: Were you making those pieces with a view to exhibiting them, or just because of the joy of making?
MR. MYERS: No, no, I had, certainly, ambitions to exhibit the work, because I knew that the only way to achieve a reputation and to lead eventually to a way out of Blenko was to establish a reputation. And as I said, I already had some amount of publicity in Craft Horizons. There had been a few venues, very few venues, available to exhibit your work. There were a couple of — I’m not even sure whether Heller [Gallery, New York, NY] had started — I think there was nowhere to exhibit.
MR. KLEIN: What were you exhibiting that drew attention?
MR. MYERS: There were simple vessel forms. I mean, they were blown, heavy vessels, some of them. But strong form, essentially.
MR. KLEIN: With color?
MR. MYERS: Actually, I tried to avoid color. I never liked the Blenko color. I didn’t feel that it had enough depth, and I reacted against it. So my pieces were mostly clear glass. They were not colored, with some exceptions that I found viable. But I started out making a bunch of — I suppose the work had some relationship to ceramics. I mean, I was interested in strong form, pretty tight to a certain extent, but always elements of spontaneity and of life, so to speak.
MR. KLEIN: So what was it in the ‘60s that attracted the favorable comments from the likes of Paul Smith about those pieces?
MR. MYERS: Well, I think it was the newness of it, I mean, the fact that they hadn’t ever seen this kind of work before. And there was still a good deal of skepticism about the possibility of that. I didn’t say that, in 1965, I was offered the professorship at Alfred. They offered me a job at Alfred to, in fact, to take over and run the art — the glass department. I didn’t feel I was ready, and I said no. So Andy Billeci then took the job over.
But in any event, I did a body of work for my exhibition, for my M.F.A. exhibition. And there was where the time when I began to think about developing work which was more individual, more original. And I dealt with it in terms of very severe spherical forms with penetration, with —
MR. KLEIN: In what material?
MR. MYERS: In glass. And I felt that they were quite strong pieces. My exposure to what was happening in the glass world was very limited. I mean, outside of studio. I’m talking about what the Czechs were doing. They were the most viable glass producers at that time.
MR. KLEIN: Just going back to your M.F.A., you completed your M.F.A. while you were working at Blenko.
MR. MYERS: I completed it — I was the first legitimate M.F.A. graduate in glass at Alfred, in 1968. So I brought up a whole body of work for my show, and it consisted of that body of work which was penetrated and other vessel forms.
MR. KLEIN: Can you say something about those penetration pieces? Did you feel that you were making those in order to establish some technical base for new work?
MR. MYERS: No, that’s the interesting thing about it, was that it was quite the opposite, that what I was trying to do was make sculpture, and — or at least not sculpture as such, as I’d see it, but sculptural forms.
MR. KLEIN: Is that because everybody else was doing that?
MR. MYERS: No. No, I don’t think so. I think only because it was — it touched me. It grabbed me. It was exciting, and the whole process of making them was an exciting process. Remember, I’m in Milton, West Virginia. How do I know what anybody else is doing? How do I see it? There is very little media attention to what people are doing. I haven’t traveled anywhere. So I don’t know what they’re doing.
Now, I say that up to a certain point. In 1968 Marvin Lipofsky invited me to give a workshop at Berkeley, right in the middle of all what was happening in hippie-land, so to speak, or out where everything was going on. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to get out for the first time in my life and see what was going on in the ‘60s, because we were honestly never a part of what took place. Milton was so isolated and sheltered from what was going on in the rest of the country, even in some ways, I suppose, the Vietnam War. That, for me - I have marvelous photographs at the time with Marvin’s students, who were some very, very well-known students. Dick Marquis, John Lewis, Bob Ness, a whole slew of people that eventually established themselves in the field.
And I did a workshop there, and I saw what they were doing. And then I saw what the kids were doing, and I saw what other people were doing, practically for the first time in any kind of depth. And it was a revelation to me, because here I was, what did I know about glass except what I could read, or pick up in Craft Horizons, or be fortunate enough to see in a workshop or two? So I didn’t know. And I didn’t know how they did things. I mean, when I did things at the factory, I had to do them differently. I had nobody helping me.
MR. KLEIN: But then you must have felt, when you met all these people and became aware of the new glass movement, well, I want to go in that direction, but you wanted your own way of doing it.
MR. MYERS: Well, I felt that — I recognized right away, I don’t know how far back, the fact that the only way to become successful, among the other criteria, was originality. And that coupled with, obviously, with creativity. But to be original and to be yourself, to be your own — to be yourself. That was a way of establishing your own identity, because no one wanted to see repetition of the same ideas. That was not the way to be an artist. So I instinctively recognized that the way to achieve, at least hopefully, some recognition was to really push yourself in a way that, you know, not seeking originality for originality’s sake, but, hopefully, recognizing your own vision and pursuing it.
And toward the end of those years at Blenko, I think I did — I did some very significant work, and they were very important to me. Towards that ‘68, ‘69, ‘70, I started — I didn’t like the idea that I had to be finishing — that when I finished blowing a piece, I was finished with it. I wanted the quiet, peaceful surrounding and atmosphere of getting close to the work and touching it. So I began to do cold-working techniques, and drawing, diamond drawings. I’d take the piece after it was done and brought it home. And that began a whole series of work that was closely, intimately involved with the surface of the glass.
And it was a need I have, and it’s a need that I’ve carried through my whole life in various bodies of work that I have done over the years, that need to not be satisfied with what that one hour or 15 minutes was able to achieve, but what I could bring on the basis of my experience as a graphic designer, as an understanding of space, three-dimensional space, and of placement and texture and all those rich aspects of what makes art, partly to utilize my background.
MR. KLEIN: But the pieces you made at Alfred with the penetrations did not really involve the cold work.
MR. MYERS: No, they didn’t.
MR. KLEIN: So where did the cold work begin? There’s a series of scent bottles and there’s a series of hands; how did they fit?
MR. MYERS: Those occurred when I left Blenko. Those pieces occurred when I left Blenko.
MR. KLEIN: So let’s concentrate for the moment on the pieces that you made while you were still at Blenko.
MR. MYERS: I would say that the pieces that I made at Blenko were, for example, reinforcement. I received reinforcement by purchases from the Toledo Museum, which had a couple of nationals. So they bought a couple of pieces for their collection. And one of them called Bottle Boogie [1968, Toledo Museum of Art Purchase Award –JPM], which involved drawing and diamond - and was one of the first pieces I was ever acquired by a museum. And also I didn’t mention that the Mint Museum [of Art, Charlotte, NC] had purchased — given me a best in show for a competition that they held, craft competition they held earlier on in the middle of the ‘60s [Best of Show Purchase Award, “Fourth Annual Piedmont Craft Exhibition,” 1966]. So — for one of the interior forms, one of the interior penetration forms. So that was another kind of reinforcement of what I was doing, and it gave me more confidence.
So I began to do painting with — and drawing - with lusters. I did a whole small group of series of work. And then I got into the Dr. Zharkov pieces. One of the things that struck me when I saw people’s work in glass was the scale. There was no scale. Everything was about 12 inches tall, and I said, how shall I go about making — and I think this is characteristic. I have a vision about something, see a problem, like a designer would see a problem and then try to solve it. I saw the idea of scale. How do I accomplish scale? And I began to think of it in terms of modules. And so I developed the series, an idea of building these blown forms with concave bottoms that could sit on top of each other.
I began to visualize a form, of large, large forms that were glued together, at a time when gluing was like anathema, when people certainly were not considering gluing things together. But I wanted it to be more than that. And it gradually got to the point of combining painting with the lusters, gold and silver and platinum on bands, and I created probably around 12 to 15 over the years, over about a year and a half. And I would go into the factory at night, without a glory hole, and blow the units, blow these units at night when nobody was there and I could use the furnace itself as a glory hole.
So I developed these whole series of glued forms.
MR. KLEIN: Which had to be rather accurately blown because they had to sit on one another.
MR. MYERS: They had to sit on one another. And I had a small kiln that I did the lusters in. And so I did the whole group of this work that eventually was traveled around by some agency of the government. It was part of a major invitational exhibition at the Toledo Museum. I believe that was in ‘71 to ‘72, in which 10 studio glass artists were invited to exhibit at the museum, and I had a large installation of these Zharkov — I called them Dr. Zharkov because one day I had a visit from some advertising people from Chicago who said, oh, it reminds me somewhat of Flash Gordon kind of things. And I said, well, I’ll call it “Dr. Zharkov.” So it stuck, and over the years those pieces have only found their way into major museums in Europe and the United States. I don’t believe at this point any private person owns any of them. I have still two left.
So that was the last body of work that I made at Blenko. And then in 1970 I had the option. I was offered two jobs, one at the University of California, Los Angeles, and one at Normal, Illinois, at Illinois State University. It was a difficult decision to arrive in the Midwest in February, the most dismal-looking landscape you ever could see. And then arriving in LA, which was quite different. They offered me a good position at Illinois State University, not as favorable a one at UCLA, but I could never see bringing my family out in Los Angeles anyway. I could see that Bloomington, Illinois — or Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, could be a place where I could. We had very little money to buy a house.
And so I decided to go to Illinois State University in 1970, which had no glass program at all, and I was — the university accepted me, gave me a position of — actually they hired me as an associate professor. This took place several months before I was to show up, and in the meantime, I had to order things; I had some money to order things. And so I arrived to order some equipment for this large space they gave me, and I arrived in Normal, Illinois, out in a cornfield, with a large metal building with a dirt floor and nothing else. To make a long story short, I didn’t stay there very long, because it was not a viable place to start a studio.
We ended up in a building that was the storage building for the university golf course, to store their golf carts. That’s where I started in 1970, in this little shack of a building located around a mile and a half from the center of campus. To build a program whilst teaching a beginning class in glass, while also teaching a beginning class in ceramics at the same time. Two classes in ceramics.
MR. KLEIN: I’d like to come back to your teaching and the whole idea of the importance of you in glass education in America in a separate category. So what I’d like to ask you, really, now is how your work progressed during the first years of your stay at — which lasted 27 years, after all - at Bloomington.
MR. MYERS: Well, it was very interesting. Totally — a total change. It was an intimate space. The studio was an intimate space, relatively quiet, relatively comfortable. The proximity for me to the furnace was a human distance, so totally different than the glass factory that it was a marvel to me to be able to — and it changed my whole way of looking at things. And when I first came, I was sort of lost, in a way, to find a focus. I find that focus by looking at my hands, seeing that I had lost [part of –JPM] my finger [as a result of a factory accident –JPM]. I thought, well, let’s start out with the idea of hands. It’s not an uncommon theme, I’ve since found, but I started to work experimenting on the idea of how to shape a hand.
When I was out in California, I’d seen how some other students had begun to cut glass with shears, and I thought, well, maybe I could figure out a way of doing this. And so I started making a whole series of hand forms. And, as a habit, I always felt that the way to explore — and I did it in ceramics, as well - was to begin with an idea and to carry that idea out for as long as you’re interested in the idea, you were excited about it, and as long as you could find forms to keep on growing. Because each step was a way of growing, a way of seeing what you’ve done and then improving on it. So it started the same way with the hand forms.
And remember, at this time I had very little idea about exhibiting. Any, you might say, pressure to exhibit was hardly there because there was nowhere to exhibit at all. So I just made stuff. I made a lot of hand forms. And then —
MR. KLEIN: One of those is in the Corning Museum.
MR. MYERS: Yes, it is. A group of them, as a matter of fact. And one is in — I think there are several in museums in Europe, in Germany particularly.
MR. KLEIN: So they did attract attention.
MR. MYERS: Oh, they did attract attention. And I must also say that a series of goblets I had made became a part of the Johnson Wax Collection, “Objects: USA” , which became a very big and traveled exhibition. But nevertheless —
MR. KLEIN: So you were making goblets as well?
MR. MYERS: As well, when I was at Blenko. Yes, I enjoyed making those things. And when I look back at them now, I see them as totally inept, that I couldn’t even drink out of probably. But I was — you know, that was another time. And they were more like the idea of goblets than they were totally functional goblets.
MR. KLEIN: So the goblets pre-date the hands.
MR. MYERS: Yes, they do.
MR. KLEIN: And I even made some goblets for a while when I was at — in the early years at Normal. So I made a lot of things. And one of the things that I began to focus on was the garden that I was growing. And so I did a series that I called my Garden series, and probably people don’t know about it, but it was with opal glass. I enjoyed the fact that I didn’t have to deal with transparency any more. I wanted to deal with opacity, solids. I didn’t want to deal with the idea of seeing through things. I wanted solid. So I did a series of forms that were inspired by my garden that we were growing.
This was a change of life for me and my family. We lived in this small little farmhouse in the country, and I became an organic gardener. I had chickens, and I planted a vegetable garden. It was a great joy, a wonderful time of opening up for all of us, away from, somewhat, from the isolation of West Virginia, and from somewhat the kind of hillbilly aspect of living there, as well. So it was a whole change of life and spirit. A tremendous demand on my — on teaching, as well. A whole new profession, so to speak. I had never been trained in pedagogy, but as an artist and as a craftsman. So I had to find a way of teaching.
It was rather easy because you taught technique. Essentially what you taught for those years was about how to blow glass, and then gradually, as time grew and you had advanced students, you began to carry it much further, but still and all it was about the early pieces, were — I made goblets; I made hand forms; I made — I made a whole series of these garden-inspired pieces, some of which, I mean, hardly exist anymore. They’re hardly there. I destroyed a lot of them because I didn’t like a lot of them when I moved from Illinois to where I live now. But was important to me to do. I felt it to do it, and I wasn’t so concerned about — had no concept or concern about — about their commercial value. It was simply doing what I wanted to do as a free spirit and with no restraints, constraints, actually at all.
But then I began to discover color. That’s when, 1972, I went abroad for the first time, went back to Europe for the first time since I left in 1958. And I visited Klaus Kugler, who owned this glass factory making glass rods. And it was there I discovered how — I discovered the color palette. And I used some of that color making the Garden pieces, and then I — see, when you jump from one idea to the other, you don’t know whether you jump from an idea to another or whether it was a slow process.
MR. KLEIN: So just describe the technical process of the Garden pieces.
MR. MYERS: Well, I mean, they were — I had someone assisting me, where I would be — all freely made, by the way. They were all totally made by building up these forms. Essentially out of white glass or black glass. And there were bits and gathers that were brought and were shaped into some — some lyrical botanical form of some kind, or some kind of natural-appearing form that I had in my imagination. And I’ve always drawn a lot from imagination and from within me.
So they were about these impressions I have. And I have one or two still left. They were extremely fragile, and many, many broke when I tried to send —
MR. KLEIN: Were they blown with lusters or —
MR. MYERS: Not blown. They weren’t blown at all. The bits were brought to me, the colored bits, the color — I would have a whole series of the puntes with colors on them in the pipe-warming area, and someone would bring each individual color, and I would build this form up by adding - if I were building a flower form up, then I would add it up over, you know, an hour or two to build this whole thing up. So it was this — no blowing involved with this. Just solid —
MR. KLEIN: These were hot-formed, like the hands basically.
MR. MYERS: Yes, exactly. But they were blown. They were partially blown. But these other forms were — some of the forms, Garden forms, were blown, and then bits were added, cold-worked; solid works were added to the blown forms. But some were totally solid-cast, hand-formed.
MR. KLEIN: So they’re still a bit sculptural?
MR. MYERS: They were more sculptural than anything. And actually — I mean, they were totally sculptural. There was no vessel content involved at all, essentially. In that sense they were quite vessel-less, whereas the hand forms still had suggestion of volume, still open and had cavities, so to speak. And they changed over the years, as well, with other things.
But the idea of intimacy came to me. And so that’s when scent bottles came in. And I had a wonderful rich palette to work with of color, and what I started was to work with the puntes that had color. Those puntes with color were like my paintbrush, and I would work with one or two of my students. They would bring the colors, and I would work on these small, intimate forms. I had a whole idea about the feeling of scent.
MR. KLEIN: But were the colors monochrome, or were they already mixed?
MR. MYERS: No, they were individual colors like pink and green or orange, and they were built into a vessel form. The whole thing was built up while it was hot. Everything was done while it was hot. While it was on a punte, or it was on a blow pipe, essentially the blown vessel was created, and the dot, the colors were added on by dabbing on and drawing. It was like three-dimensional drawing with hot glass.
MR. KLEIN: How many people were involved?
MR. MYERS: Oh, just two. Or one even. You know, remember, I had very little skilled people, but I had — they were skilled enough to help me.
MR. KLEIN: So we’re talking about basic form that was blown.
MR. MYERS: Basic form that was blown, the color was added, and then once the color was added, it was shaped into and formed into a vessel that could — that would accept a stopper. And they were fumed to really enrich — I saw this as a way of thinking about scent, smelling it, and that pieces almost would have that aura about them that they would contain some vial — some wonderful liquid. And this is how I thought about these scent bottles. I didn’t think of them in a commercial sense. I thought of them simply as a part of my love for, particularly, lavender, and I could visualize these as I was making it.
So it was a combination of those things that brought me — and the idea of intimacy, because I could really get — with that scale I could get terribly intimate with what I was making. And instead of drawing with — when it was cold, drawing on it, I drew on it when it was hot. And that led me finally, it led me to a cylinder series that I did, a piece of which was accepted for the Corning exhibition of the late ‘70s.
MR. KLEIN: “New Glass.” [“New Glass: A Worldwide Survey.” Corning Museum. Traveled 1979-83.]
MR. MYERS: “New Glass.” I began to be more involved with drawing and wanting to get larger areas of color, very free, painterly — I use that term because I think of it that way, of broad strokes with color. And to use - in this case, it was a series of white opal glass, so that these became canvases. Three dimensional canvases, circular.
MR. KLEIN: But they’re still scent bottles, aren’t they?
MR. MYERS: No, scent bottles were one thing, and the cylinders became another, so they came out of — the spherical — the cylinder forms came out of the scent bottles. And again, partly to give me more space to do the drawing, and partly another three-dimensional surface, arena to work on. I did a number of those pieces and — at which point I think they lasted until I had a sabbatical to Austria in 1977.
MR. KLEIN: Baden.
MR. MYERS: Baden. I kind of had a semester — a semester’s sabbatical, and it was to spend — there a studio opened up in Baden, Austria, by the Lobmeyr people, the owners of J. & L. Lobmeyr, who are a very prestigious, venerable glass establishment in Vienna. Wonderful glass purveyors, you might say.
MR. KLEIN: Who had the good fortune of having Peter Rath, who was interested in the studio glass movement.
MR. MYERS: Who was interested in the studio glass movement. So they arranged to purchase the studio and set it up — it was an old bathhouse - and set up a studio where people could come and blow glass. They would pay for the studio and the upkeep, so to speak.
So I decided that I would go and take my family to Austria in 1977. And it was a time — when I went there, I had — again, very typical - I had said to myself before I went that I would go there with the idea that I would find some source of inspiration that would become the theme for a body of work that I would do there. I didn’t want to carry what I was doing at home to Austria. I wanted to find something that would inspire me there because it made — so traditional in a way. Painters go — I mean, [Paul] Gauguin went to the South Pacific and found great inspiration. That I thought was a wonderful idea, and it made sense.
So I went to Austria without any concept of what I was going to make. I had no idea what I was going to make. I had no idea what kind of studio I was going to be with. I didn’t have any idea if anybody was able to help me. So it was kind of, again, another one of those leaps of faith. And it was very difficult, because they weren’t really prepared for me. The studio was not a great studio to work. Much of the equipment that I needed, which was really simple, was not there.
So I ended up having an assistant who knew very little about glass, was only new to it, and that was person was Steven Proctor.
MR. KLEIN: How lucky.
MR. MYERS: A wonderful person. Temperament entirely different than mine. Difficult for me to work with him because he’s slow, deliberate, and I’m so mercurial and so fast and so forth. So it was an interesting experiment, I suppose, for both of us. We got on very well.
And so after some time, after driving around the countryside, I became absolutely, absolutely focused on the vineyards. This was, of course, in the winter I was there, in late January, early February. And you looked at that pattern, and you looked at that terribly wonderful, graphic image of these bare fields with these grapevines on wires strung out over acres over the hills. And I thought, wow, that is a source. This is going to inspire me to a whole series of drawings on glass. Simple vessel forms, open vessel forms on a white background, using cane that I would make, thin cane that I would draw, actually, on the surface of the glass while it was being made.
In a way, again, similar in theory to how I made the scent bottles and the subsequent cylindrical forms. But this time it would be actually with glass rods.
MR. KLEIN: But it’s a kind of glass marquetry, isn’t it already?
MR. MYERS: Well, these were — you have to visualize: they were cane, and with a hand torch. They were individually applied to the surface of the glass. So it’s a combination of cold-working process using the hot furnace and the hot process. And with a torch.
MR. KLEIN: What was Steven’s role in this?
MR. MYERS: He was the one that would hold the piece while I was doing the drawing. [Laughs.] He would hold it on the bench while I would be doing the drawing. Of course, the piece would be on the bench, so I’d be drawing reverse, actually, because I’d be — it wasn’t actually reverse. But I’d do the drawing. And so it was a process of doing the drawing, re-heating, and I’d pick up a cane that would be kept warm and the glass in the annealing kiln, and all of that was kind of hokeypokey stuff, as well, because the kilns were very inaccurate. So I never knew whether I could, you know, whether things were going to be annealed or not. But fortunately, that worked out.
So I did what I — a whole series of — a body of work that utilized the imagery of vineyards. But as an abstract artist, that these drawings were always, to me, they were always referred to in an abstract sense.
MR. KLEIN: But again, you were referring to something that was very close to something that you’ve always drawn inspiration from. It’s not a garden, but it’s almost a garden.
MR. MYERS: The natural world. The natural world.
MR. KLEIN: Well, it’s not really the natural world. It’s a human arrangement within the natural world.
MR. MYERS: [Laughs] Yes, in that sense, it’s quite true. I hadn’t thought about that in that sense, but, of course, that’s actually true. Very true. And maybe that’s also very consistent with subsequent interest and how I’ve used that aspect of my work, as well. But — so that the — very similar to many artists’ lives that drew from that resource in one way or the other, whether it be Monet in his own way or the other Impressionists and so forth had used that part of their environment in their work.
So it was that I settled in during that period of time to do that body of work, which ended with an exhibition at the Lobmeyr store in downtown Vienna. It was a completely successful exhibition, to the extent that most of the work seemed to — was purchased. And I remember at the time that the prices were — for the Lobmeyr’s people, for us were very expensive.
MR. KLEIN: Like? Do you remember?
MR. MYERS: Three or four hundred dollars. And — which was, of course, at that time for them rather expensive.
MR. KLEIN: Do you know who bought them?
MR. MYERS: I have no idea who bought them. I have no idea. They’re probably sitting in a number of homes in Vienna and around Austria, because obviously for the — for the concept. I mean, what could be more appropriate to own than an object that was inspired by something that is so close and familiar and in one form or another as a liquid they enjoy.
MR. KLEIN: Except that it wasn’t really recognizable because it was — a lot of them were just pure abstraction.
MR. MYERS: Well, that’s true, but the sense of it was there, and the written dialogue about it was there, and those that had the vision to buy it for that reason could see it. And for that reason, I suspect that’s why they were gone. I know that one [Baden Forest, 1977] was donated to the Smithsonian [American Art Museum, Washington, DC] by the Wiikens [Carol and Don Wiiken], and I have one, and I know that you have one. And I don’t know of too many people that have — any Americans that have them. And at the same time, that was a six — from about January, late January or February to early summer.
MR. KLEIN: Seventy-seven.
MR. MYERS: Seventy-seven we were in Baden-bei-Wien, and that exhibition occurred at the end of that time. And then we packed up and we went to Denmark.
[END MD 01 TR 05. BEGIN MD 02 TR 01.]
MR. KLEIN: After Baden, you came back to the United States, and you continued teaching and making work as an independent artist, and I’d like to go back to your work as an artist from 1978 onwards. You had finished with the Vineyard series, and coming back to America, you began on a new kind of work.
MR. MYERS: Well, it was an idea that was germinating, you might say, over the time while I was in Baden, and eventually also the time that I was in — I spent a couple of weeks at a glass factory [Kastrup/Homegaard] in Denmark, after Baden, doing a body of work that — which most people don’t know about, but which is a nice body of work.
In any event, that is, how to be able to create large spaces of color, large planes of color so that I could expand my palette, always thinking about ways of using color, because, I mean, I just adapted. I became so captured by the whole element of color that that’s how I saw things. And so I tried to concentrate on ways in which I could create large color planes, so that I had a whole potential drawing capability. If you think of a painter, what they can do, they can take a brush and paint large volumes of space and color, and linear aspects and textural aspects. And so I wanted to have that.
But I, you know, I never could sit down and do that on paper. I had to do that on glass. And I had to do it immediately in front of me.
MR. KLEIN: Had you ever done any drawing?
MR. MYERS: Very little. Very little that I felt — because I didn’t want to, you know, make a drawing and then do it in glass. I wanted to — I would rather do it the other way. I’d rather draw it on glass than draw it on paper, but I never did that, of course. But my drawing and that output was really what I did in glass. And so I began to see if I blew these bubbles, blew large bubbles of glass up to a certain thickness that perhaps I could use those sections of blown with a hand torch, which I had already begun to use very extensively in the Garden series and in the Perfume Bottle series, particularly, because they — they were able to — I was able to pinpoint exactly where I wanted to put color.
So it was again a question of building up a palette or an image or space, using a certain space that was confined to the vessel forms, and everything was intuitive.
MR. KLEIN: Just elaborate a little bit on the hand torch intervention, and what you did with the hand torch.
MR. MYERS: Well, with the hand torch, it was, when I used it - for example, the cane drawing in Baden - when I used it with small cane elements, it was, pick them out, place them in an annealing kiln, and have a long pair of tweezers that I would pick out of the kiln and individually with a hand torch in my hand, while someone was holding the piece, my assistant, and I would apply that element to the surface of the blown form while it was on the blow pipe.
MR. KLEIN: And the function of the hand torch was to warm the glass up?
MR. MYERS: Was to warm the glass so it would stick to the surface, the next step of which would be to heat the piece up very carefully and then marver that element back into the surface of the glass. And so it was a question, then, of each time I did that, it was like building up a painting or a drawing. And, of course, the only difference was I couldn’t erase it.
MR. KLEIN: So it is a kind of marquetry process.
MR. MYERS: Well, in a way it is. But a quite different way of approaching it. Again, this was all intuitive. What I had to organize was what elements I was going to start with. What were the intentions in terms of color. So you had to have a color palette available of some kind, or a color idea. And it was a time before I began to realize that what I needed to do was take these large shard elements, which were blown from large spheres, and flatten them into flat sheets, because then I could cut them.
MR. KLEIN: How did you do the flattening?
MR. MYERS: I would put them in an annealing kiln and gradually heat them up and slump them out so they became flat. Now, at the time I was using small sections, it was easy to flatten them. But as time grew on, then it became much more difficult to flatten very large sheets, because they would fold back on themselves. But that’s what I had to do.
MR. KLEIN: So really, you were breaking up a vessel and flattening out the bits.
MR. MYERS: Exactly. And so this was all part of the process, and what I discovered over time was the way to make it more interesting by having a dual shard. That is to say, to have two colors — an inside case color, so that when you blew the shard out, you’d have a color inside and a color outside. But that gave you the possibility of sandblasting through one layer to the other. So you’re beginning to create a whole color, textural, whole graphic possibility by removing after you’ve built. And that idea really appealed to me, because I could take these, what amounted to sketches, home, in my own private space, and contemplate how I would approach, and each one was an irrevocable decision. You made that decision, you looked at it, you may remove some more, but you could never add. Nothing could be added.
So it was a question of making decision. Each piece was unique. Some were more successful than others, and some were discarded because they were not successful. My interest in form, as always in the history of my work, if you would look at the work within a certain framework, always relied on rather simple forms, strong — what I call strong, elemental forms, to bear what imagery - how I was to attack the surface, how I was to enrich that surface, to build it up, to make it alive. So the forms were subservient, so to speak. But very strong form.
MR. KLEIN: As yet, we’re not talking about the Contiguous Fragment series.
MR. MYERS: No, but it’s the beginning of the Contiguous Fragment because they grew out of the series that I did with the black pieces and the white pieces, in which the shards were built up.
MR. KLEIN: Did they have already a name, the black and the white pieces?
MR. MYERS: No, they did not.
MR. KLEIN: They were just black and white vessels?
MR. MYERS: They were just black and white vessels that —
MR. KLEIN: With shards.
MR. MYERS: With shards. But the shards were more or less anonymous. When they became full-blown shard pieces, such as the ones I began in ‘82 and ‘83, and then from then on relied almost entirely on that whole process to build up the color fields and the imagery, the graphic quality of it and that aspect of it.
MR. KLEIN: What do you mean by anonymous?
MR. MYERS: I’m sorry, I already lost the connection.
MR. KLEIN: You said that in the beginning the shards were anonymous on the black and white pieces —
MR. MYERS: What I mean by that is that when you look at them, I think you don’t see them quite the same way as you do in the later works. They became muted and — but in some ways they are really an early, early form — I probably could have called them the Contiguous Fragment even at that time, but I guess I wasn’t astute enough to identify. I mean, the idea of being — of cataloguing your own work, I suppose Dr. Zharkov was really a good step in that direction, but after that I didn’t choose to identify the work with any — in any historical sense, so that was a mistake.
MR. KLEIN: In those early pieces, the black and white pieces we’re talking about, was the application of shards much more informal and perhaps less thought out?
MR. MYERS: No, I don’t think so. I think, as a matter of fact, they were probably more intense, because they were so — things were so intimate that — and the elements that we were using were so fine and small that I was relying on that kind of intensity and that — I mean, I would build up — I would lay five and six shards on top of each other, so it was a long process. As the pieces became bigger and the shards were larger, there wasn’t that much need for that total intimacy. And I achieved that intimacy by another way later, by actually making complicated shards that I then applied to the piece in a different way.
And the last body of works which represent things in the later ‘80s, just the very early ‘90s, were done in a little different way with the experience of what I had done before, in ways that made it easier for me to do something, because I had pre-planned it to a certain extent. Only to a certain extent.
MR. KLEIN: Making the shards must have been quite a time-consuming —
MR. MYERS: You see, I’m slow in many ways. And it took me a long time to understand how to make a volume of them, and I did everything myself. I mean, I got someone to help me do them, but I would make them in the studios, the school studio. I would make them, I’d transport them home, and I would slump them in my own studio at home, and then I would take them back to school again. And when I worked, I would load up the annealing kilns with them, with how I planned to start, how I was going to start, because those were in my mind. Or had made suggestions on my sketchbook about how to start, what colors I would work with, what approach I would take as the color framework. So that was partly pre-planned. But the rest was all intuitive.
MR. KLEIN: What was it about the shape of the shards? Did you shape them before —
MR. MYERS: Well, the thing is that to a certain extent I shaped them by cutting them, and by using a diamond point and doing kinds of shaping in that manner. Some of them were also sandblasted before they were put on, so there was another process of preliminary judgment, you might say. The shards became more complicated as I became — it’s like everything that I did. When I started doing it and saw the possibilities, then I grew on it. And sometimes I all of a sudden discover something, and I would leave something, one color scheme, and go to another color scheme because I became interested in it.
So the shards became almost art in themselves, if you will. It became exciting to make them. And what I now know I should have done was probably to have spent much more time to make them more — make them larger in scale than I did, so I would have more material to work with. But I finally got to that point to a certain extent. It was unbelievable. I would lay color on these in such a way so that I would cover it with an opaque color, so I never knew what was going to happen on the inside until it had expanded five times its size. And then I would break it off the pipe. And it was quite a job to be able to blow them accurately and to get the most material out of them.
I mean, we’re talking about large spheres, you know, 24 inches in diameter.
MR. KLEIN: Just a detail: how did you grip them up?
MR. MYERS: Well, here’s how it happened. First of all, if I was very good, and I got very good at it, I could break it off right at the edge of the blowpipe and it was evenly blown. But that was very hard to do. There it was; I could knock it off, and I put it on the floor or put it in a box, and it could very well just sit that way. But very often they cracked on their own. And there you are, all of a sudden, this was like, all of a sudden these opened up and, wow, look what it looked like inside. Fantastic! And I learned how to get the kind of density that I needed.
It was like another — a whole other problem I had to solve, how to make good shards, or how to make them exciting or interesting in themselves, so they could contribute to whatever else I did. So that was an exciting process.
And then I take them home, and then it was the hard part, getting them — I could cut them in several ways. I had a hot wire that I had on a transformer that I could accurately lay on the piece and have it crack accurately, hopefully, although there were some problems with the compatibility with some colors. Then from there I would — I could slump them and then cut them with a diamond point, provided that they were the right thickness. They were too thin, which is what I didn’t want, they became — obviously, I couldn’t use them, because they would break, too fragile.
And then there was always the question of how to use the torch on them. I had to be very careful about how to use the torch, because if the shards got too hot, they would just melt. So it was a lot of things involved in making it all work.
It is part of what one understands when you watch somebody work, that it all looks very, very easy, but you have no idea what it took to get there. And it’s like the idea of when a person goes to a gallery, and they look at that work, and it looks all easy, or it looks like — but that work is the culmination of how many years, maybe, of selection and of rejection, and of loss and of selection, to get there. You know, so — but we do that. We go there and accept things as the way they are. You may watch someone work. You say, oh, that’s all very neat, and they’ve got it all down, but try to do it yourself.
But it was exciting, and it was part of what — I mean, the thing that motivated me was motivation, was the fact that I was excited about what I was doing. I was into it.
And you mentioned the fact that, why did I stay with glass? What was it that made me continue a career in glass? It was the material. It said enough to me, and that I adopted it in a way that it became a part of me. And that I was satisfied creatively as an artist, that I could do and relate to it. I mean, sure, you accept that there are limitations of the medium, as you do with any medium you work with. And you work around it, and you make it work for you, because that’s how you — that’s how you do it.
MR. KLEIN: But at this point the vessels that you were applying your shards onto, you hadn’t begun to cold-work the vessels, had you?
MR. MYERS: Well, yes — yes, I discovered very early on that the ones that I had — for example, I would try — I mean, you have to realize that at this point even my technical knowledge was somewhat limited, or somewhat — so I tried to flatten these in a particular sort of way, and I wasn’t satisfied with how I flattened them.
And another one of these technical discoveries, I mean, one of these little technical things that come into play, that have come into play in my creative life, and are very important, but minor things but very important: I discovered graphite cloth. I forget how I came by it. One of the colleagues told me about it. But is a high-temperature cloth, actually a graphite cloth used in the space industry, which I could flatten the glass on. And as a result, it gave me a great possibility of a surface that in itself was an enriching element because you could see the texture. So it was a joy to find this little technical innovation that I used. And I had to make paddles and find out how to apply this technology so I could make it work.
Pure and simple, the flattened series that developed out of the more spherical, traditional blown forms, circular vessel forms, was really simple and neat to gain more space. And so those flattened surfaces — they also gave me a different kind of sense of transparency, about how one plane could be worked against the other, and how one form could work against the other through the surface of that —
MR. KLEIN: When did the flattening process begin?
MR. MYERS: I think that I even started as early as ‘83 and ‘84, much smaller scale. And those are also the ones that — by the way, the whole key to these — the real key to making this work, and it’s very vital, was that it was very heavy, very heavy glass that at a certain point was never blown again. I did not want the balloon effect. I did not want — if I wanted the line to be a sharp line, I knew if I blew that balloon up five times, I wouldn’t have the sharp line any more.
So the scale was determined by volume and by the necessity to stop expansion at a certain point in the forming process. Could no longer be blown. And that eventually limited what — the total scale, because we could only handle so much glass on the end of a blow pipe. And I had about three or four of my students working with me, and one particular person, Janusz Walentynowicz, one of my students, that we were handling up to 35 or 40 pounds on the end of a blowpipe and doing very difficult things while the glass was very hot, to keep it in the right shape. So it was hard.
You know, I know a lot of people make very big glass, but there are aspects of making this that were crucial to the overall visual quality of the piece that limited the eventual scale. And when I really went all out, was only minorly successful in achieving maybe half a dozen pieces, because again, the images began to be smeared, and I didn’t like that quality of it. It just didn’t have the sharpness that I required and that I felt were really the strong aspects of the work.
MR. KLEIN: Were all the pieces free-blown at this time, or were you using —
MR. MYERS: Everything. Everything was free-blown. It was all free-blown and done in the glass studio, and using Kugler or using glass that we had made ourselves in crucibles. We had a wonderful color palette to work with. So — but again, the shard process, there was another — it was an evolutionary process, because as much as I’d done in my life creatively, I grew from watching what I had done and observing it, and trying to understand what would be the next step, how could I improve on it.
Granted, very slow sometimes to grasp, but that’s the way I was.
MR. KLEIN: But the blowing was done by you and your assistants.
MR. MYERS: Actually, I did all the blowing and all the gathering. I mean, up until the very end I did all — I didn’t have to do that because by that time everybody was working with a gaffer or there were — they wouldn’t have to — it was sitting at a bench. No, I just wanted my physical involvement. I mean, if there was one thing that brought me to the vessel in blowing, was that process. Was the process. I enjoyed the physical activity, that sense of participation in the whole creative process as being totally involved in it. I enjoyed it. I felt great after working. Tired, but as if, you know, that need, physical need was met.
I know that many, many people that enjoy the process, enjoy it for that very same reason. They enjoy that aspect of it. And I must also say that, in terms of basic skills, that these bodies, this body of work, didn’t require the kind of skill to make extraordinary, skillful Italian or latticino work or whatever. It didn’t require that. And it wasn’t part of, you know, it wasn’t part of the aesthetic either. Solid, strong form, and how to achieve it was reasonably simple enough, I felt, and we did. So there was that — that’s how far my technical expertise was pushed.
MR. KLEIN: Were you already using black glass?
MR. MYERS: This was much earlier. The black glass was in the ‘70s, late ‘70s. And, of course, the reaction to black glass was very negative, although eventually it came to be the most sought after, one of the most sought after bodies of work that I made. Obviously, they were saying, this is not glass. This is more like clay or something else. But I think there was something about that body of work that really had a great appeal.
Never, never worked essentially with opaque glass again until much later in the blowing process, although some of it was certainly involved in the Contiguous Fragment, but more as case — using as casing, because that’s where it showed up more as translucent. But I wanted more of the light to work, more that light to work within the piece, to give more vibrancy to the color and the transparency, working from one plane to the other, behind the other. So that was my consideration.
MR. KLEIN: There was a definite breakthrough at some point in the whole Contiguous Fragment process, and I think you mentioned something about going to Pilchuck [School of Glass, Stanwood, WA].
MR. MYERS: Well, that was when — it was in ‘82 when I was teaching there, and I was working on the Black series, and I could provide black at my own studio at Normal, but they couldn’t provide black for me in Pilchuck, so I went to using cased glass, clear. You can start out with color underneath it and encase it. And then I really built that up and dealt with, for the first few years of that series, with simply, very simple, blown cased forms, with a certain amount of luminosity to them, with a great deal of surface involvement using shards and sandblasting.
MR. KLEIN: But what is the time scale of the Contiguous Fragments, because we’re now talking of 1984. But when did you really think of yourself as starting on that process?
MR. MYERS: It was probably around ‘84, ‘85, and ‘86. You know, I really honestly can’t say.
MR. KLEIN: So what were the pieces — how did you refer to the pieces that led up to that?
MR. MYERS: They were actually probably never named. As a matter of fact, I think that rather than identify them, I identify them — no, I take that back. I referred [to] them more as in a system of — using the system of letters. Like CFOW. And I think I remember looking at my pieces that are signed or identified, that it would be Contiguous Fragment Open White, HG, Heller Gallery. Or Heller Gallery, Michigan, something, so that they had only an identification in that manner, which was rather silly. But that’s how I did it.
So they began to be identified, even at that time, especially, I suppose, that the ones that had that identity were the ones that were started in ‘82. The black I don’t think — I know the black were not. They were identified as Black 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11.
MR. KLEIN: And what about the forms in the early pieces that we’re talking about?
MR. MYERS: They were very simple, semi- — very simple shapes, probably no more than 14 inches. Very solid, very heavy work.
MR. KLEIN: All void?
MR. MYERS: No, not all void at all. Just semi-cylindrical, soft forms that often curved toward the bottom with very small bases. No — nothing sitting very — I always felt the vessel had to be lifted from the surface. I felt that the vessel had to almost be non-bottomed. It had to float, and that’s what I carried forward, almost to the point where people would react to the work and say, you know, it hardly sits. I’m worried about it falling. [Laughs.] That was one of the criticisms — not criticisms, but fears that, my heavens, your bases are hardly bases. The thing is just, the curves are so flowing that they, when they hit the flat plane, it’s almost as if they continue. That’s my ideal.
MR. KLEIN: You began at some point to do some cold-working on the shape of the vessel.
MR. MYERS: Well, it got to the point when — that the only way to make the work without blowing it further, they could not be puntied. Could not punty them. Because first of all, I could not work with the form as drastically flattened as they were to create the kind of conclusion that I wanted. Couldn’t punty them up. There would have been too much distortion of the form.
So I had to be content with the refinement that was necessary once they were off the blow pipe. So they had to then be re-formed, so to speak, or concluded in a specific way that only could be done — and, of course, there were years that I never conceived of that. Until I realized that, when I saw a European work and I realized that, well, this is not done hot. This is done cold.
And so I then said, fine, this is what we’re going to do. It was totally successful, totally served exactly my purpose. And they became — there is a word in Danish called fuldendte. It means like totally completed, as if they were destined to be that way, and that’s exactly the way I wanted them. And it took awhile for me to really realize that that’s what I had to do. Again, it was a part of this slow quality of things that I do. But I did recognize it.
MR. KLEIN: What date are we talking about now?
MR. MYERS: Eighty-five, ‘86, and from there everything was cold-worked. All of it was cold-worked. It was all completed that way. Either in that series — and remember, during this time not only were these flattened forms that were once spherical, blown bubbles, if you will, totally flattened — not totally flattened because it was very key that they remained hollow. But it was also when I began to do a series of work which really were elongation of those forms. And I did a body of work off and on during — up until the very last time, which often I referred to as Anchor pieces, because they’re long, extended forms that are quite dramatic in their shape.
When I thought about them as forms, I thought them in a way — as a kind of sense of expansion, a kind of great freedom of shape, and I thought of them as water in the river. I thought of them as fish, because of their extension and stretching and the kind of feeling I had of them. And many of them were called Fish in the end, the last series I did.
MR. KLEIN: And Water.
MR. MYERS: And Water, yes.
MR. KLEIN: But tracing the history of these Contiguous Fragment pieces, which I guess started - did they start after you came back from Baden?
MR. MYERS: They started then. Even though they may not have been identified in their titles as such. I only began that, I suspect, in ‘82, after I returned from Pilchuck and did that body of work. I have a piece, interesting, a very, very nice piece, a good example of a piece, the best piece I made at Pilchuck during that. The other thing was that I didn’t go to Pilchuck to make production either, like so many artists do. I went there just to show what I was doing and how I could do it. I wasn’t sure whether I could make anything worthwhile.
But I made a piece, completed it, and I thought, this is — I think I’d like to ask somebody here to see if there’s a way in which they could add something to it. And I asked Ludwig Schaffrath to see if there was something that he may want to do to this piece that — participate, do a collaboration. I had completed the piece. I had done everything else. And so he did a series of vertical and horizontal lines that were sandblasted. It’s the one ever collaborative piece I’ve ever made with anyone.
MR. KLEIN: But I see the Contiguous Fragment series as beginning quite small, small vessels, and in that small vessel period you did some quite strong and definitive and definite shapes. And then they started getting flatter, and then they started getting bigger and longer, and during that process you starting cutting and opening them. Is that the correct, sort of, procedure throughout?
MR. MYERS: Yes. I think there was a period of time when they were being cut, and then where that series, or that idea, was dropped. I know that, whether it was deliberate or not, but I know that toward the end of ‘91, ‘92, I began to think about concluding the series. And it was also at that same time that the work had reached a point of development and understanding on my part that I began to, probably, make some of the best work.
MR. KLEIN: I feel that — they, of course, I refer to as vessels, and they were vessels, but I think that you thought of a vessel as something that was really a three-dimensional canvas.
MR. MYERS: That’s the way I’ve always thought of it. Certainly the idea of function has never played a part, never played a part in my thought about it. And they have been canvases. They have all been, in a way, an outlet for that aspect of myself. Personality, training, experience from way back, to my training at Parsons, to my experience with clay. All of that has been the — the stepping stones, the building blocks of myself, and that’s what was important for me to bring into the work.
So — I lost the train of thought in terms of where we started. Where did we start again?
MR. KLEIN: We were talking about how the shapes expanded and became canvases.
MR. MYERS: The thing that I have to admit to was that even though — when these flattened shapes — they weren’t all alike. They were not all alike. There were variations in that, and subtle, beautiful variations in form. But I just could not find forms, with my restrictions about expansion and volume and weight, that were satisfactory. So I almost like — you almost might say that I came to a dead end, that if I were to continue doing that, that it would mean that I’d have to do a lot more searching and a lot more experimenting. And I don’t know if that was possible, or whether I think that I wanted to do that.
MR. KLEIN: Well, all good things come to an end.
MR. MYERS: All good things come to an end, some people say.
MR. KLEIN: But during the first — during that whole period of your artistic making, there was a lot of imagery that is hinted at by the titles. I mean, there were poppies; there was your garden at Ording; there were kimonos; there was kaleidoscope; there was fish; there was water. So all these things, they almost seem like ideas that you worked through; you got an idea —
MR. MYERS: It’s an idea vocabulary. It’s like a dictionary of ideas. Not necessarily terribly profound in the sense of a philosophical idea, but nevertheless, yes, I think that those aspects have been the influences, without question. And later on, when we talk about some other, later work, which has a different force and a different thematic issue, that — I think that I drew on what I knew best and how I responded to things. Rather than being influenced by other intellectual avenues and — so that, as in Baden, the natural — the planned organization of space by someone in the vineyards — the years that we haven’t talked about.
I think a lot of it early on was just my reaction to placement and color and design and space and all of that. Pure abstraction. It’s like sitting down and just painting and saying, well, these are my references. I love color and I’m a colorist or whatever. And then planning, and then finally seeing the color that came out of the garden. I mean, I had a garden, very minor garden, nothing really, in Illinois, at all. And when we moved and bought a home in Denmark in 1982, and I had a garden that I could grow and felt strongly about and loved, then that became a reference, because it was in front of me all the time. I mean, I enjoyed a wonderful — couldn’t wait to get to Denmark at school’s end to see the poppies.
They are this wonderful field of red poppies with this wonderful intense black center. And I thought, oh, this is what I’m going to use, this idea. So I did a whole series called the Valmuen series, which means the poppy. Poppy means valmuen; valmuen in Danish is poppy. And I called it the Valmuen series, and I did a whole series of wonderful red, intense red forms, with shards in some cases, with a duplication, just a hint of that black center, and a wonderful abstraction, because I never wanted to be a representational artist.
I only saw things abstractly because I wanted — you know, what I wanted to avoid, I didn’t want to be a decorative artist. It’s a kind of contradiction in terms in some ways. I wanted the work to have power, and I saw that the way to get power — not sweet, but power - was through abstraction.
MR. KLEIN: And color and form.
MR. MYERS: Yes. I mean, to use that kind of imagery to create a dynamic. Rather than a sweet representation of a flower in its own form, and however technically achievable it was, or how wonderfully rendered it was, in some ways you might say in some people’s rendering, in some of the paperweights that people make that are very accurate little drawings of botanical forms. I wasn’t interested in that. I wanted to take it all to make it a powerful — in a way that I saw abstract expression, and in the way that I saw some of Franz Kline’s stroke work and some of the German Expressionists’ power - that appealed to me, that kind of power.
MR. KLEIN: There were things which were very important to you in your life, and that have found their way into your artistic output, and I would think that the gardens and the way gardens are arranged is one of those things, and we haven’t really mentioned your passion for fishing.
MR. MYERS: We haven’t talked about that, no.
MR. KLEIN: And I think that fish and water appears so often. We’ve mentioned a little bit about gardens, but perhaps you should say, before we break for the next episode, a little bit about your passion for fishing.
MR. MYERS: Yes, that’s very important. Every summer, when we bought the summer home in Denmark in ‘82, I had colleagues in Sweden who were fishermen, fly fishermen. Only fly fishermen. And they would take me to the — either above the Arctic Circle or just below it, and we would fish in the Swedish wilds. And up there it was fantastic because — it was fantastic because of the environment. The sense of space, and also remarkably so, when we took a helicopter up to the high fields, the high mountains that separate Norway and Sweden. Very far in the northland. This was empty space, of lakes and of rock and of sky, and of expanse, and of kind of light that was fantastic.
And all of that I absorbed like a blotter, and I felt that whole expression of feeling and water, because I love running water. I fish in only running water. The wonderful beauty of a moving mountain stream, and to be there and experience it. And the fish as a part of that activity that brought you — most fly fishermen, when they talk about fishing, almost don’t talk about the fish as much as they talk about the environment and sense of solitude, and the sense of challenge of the catching of a fish, because we always threw the fish back. Kept only those that we ate. So it wasn’t so much about that aspect. But there’s a science to fishing, but fly fishing itself is a whole different topic.
But the fact is it brought me to this kind of quietude and space that was never a part, in a way, that was significant to me living in Illinois, where there was a great deal of space in terms of sky space. The space below that was not very interesting. But up there in Scandinavia, in which my family used to talk about it — used to hate Sweden because I used to come back talking so wonderfully about Sweden that they hated it. [Laughs.] But the lakes and the water, it just touched me, something in my soul, that really related back to myself as a kid.
When I was a kid, I would be out in the field playing baseball, and I’d be looking for turtles. So there’s some real early connection with the natural world and with those things that touched me that I never knew of, that I never even related to that aspect of myself. Because I came from something so totally different, with no frame of reference to this kind of life or from this kind of interest. No frame of reference, no one that I could refer to, or even to look to as a model example.
So it also reinforces the whole importance of living, of marrying a Danish woman, of living in a country and loving a country for what it was, for what it is, and what it meant to us and our family and our interconnection with our children, with my wife’s family, with the Danish culture, with the Danish landscape. I mean, when I came to Denmark, when we came to Denmark in the middle of May, the rape fields were in total bloom. Yellow, wonderful, bright yellow fields, and I took that to my work, and I did a whole series of work that really related to that kind of use of color and that kind of imagery. I was inspired by all of it, and I saw it. And it was something that, you know, was a part of your everyday life, but it was one of the things that — that was important because I think sometimes we overlook the things that are close to us as being mundane and being uninteresting. But having discovered it, to realize how important it is and how you almost overlooked it.
MR. KLEIN: Another title that springs out which relates to life experiences is Kimono . I know that you have some affinity with Japan.
MR. MYERS: Yes, and one of my students was — one of my students was a Japanese couple who were with me for about two and a half years, and they went back to Japan and were fortunate enough to become directors of a glassblowing center on a small island south of Tokyo, a wonderful facility. And I was invited for the inaugural opening of this event, of this studio, this center. And I was — well, actually — I have to take that back. It was not the first time I was in Japan.
The first time I was in Japan was 1978, at the World Crafts Council meeting. World Crafts Council’s conference in Kyoto, Japan, where I was coordinator of the glass program, along with Kyohei Fujita. And it was there that the first time I saw the Japanese — first time I was in Japan, and it was the first time that glass was ever really introduced to studio glass, although there was a program at Tama University [Tokyo], and they were demonstrating.
It was a time that I see as the all-important time for Japanese glass in a contemporary sense, because from that time on, glass has grown to what we know today as having a wonderful programs in universities, of having a whole slew of wonderful artists working in the medium. It came from there. It came from that because it received the seal of approval. Because ceramics has always been the material that has been — one of the materials, of course - that has always been revered. And as a matter of fact, placed in very high esteem in Japan.
So I just loved Japan. I love the textiles. I love the color qualities. And so I took this one piece that I made, and I thought, this is a kimono. And so I named it Kimono because I just thought, this is — and I wish in my life that I had — I could have, I suppose, had the opportunity, but it never worked its way out because of our connection to our children, of spending real time in Japan. And, of course, there are so many things to learn, to really learn. I would have loved to have found — it came too late in my life, I think, to risk what I felt it would have been a risk to - but I would have loved to spend more time and really — to simply have found a place to work and to have done a body of work. It would have totally been like Baden. To find something about it that would have incorporated, for example, packaging, which is so wonderful in Japan. They’re wonderful the way they package things. The whole sense of form. I would have involved myself in that. But I didn’t.
So I had to be satisfied with traveling back and forth from Japan many years. I’ve been back about six or seven times, and I’m going again as a juror this July. And I just find that, you know, the good. What I find is — is really worthwhile, and the rest you can forget about.
MR. KLEIN: Before we leave the Contiguous Fragment part of your life, as it were, I do think that the black pieces stand out very much, and I wonder why they seem very dramatic. They’re all very beautiful pieces, the bigger ones, the smaller ones, the open ones, the flattened ones. The black ones have something very special.
MR. MYERS: I don’t know what — [laughs] these colleagues of mine, I remember one saying to me, you know, I wish you’d go back to that, or something to that effect. You know, when you tell an artist, they like — when you tell an artist they like work you did 10, 15, 20 years ago, it’s flattering in one sense. On the other hand it excludes what you’re doing at the present. And any artist is always involved in what they do in the present. It’s going to be your best work because it represents that level of maturity and insight in your own work.
I don’t know. It may have been that it was so unique at its time, and that it was encompassable [sic], that it was also the kind of thing you could cherish because of its smallness. You put it in the case. And there was the other aspect of it. You could take the work in and really get into it because you could get close to it and see the detail of it. Maybe it had to do with — you know, often collectors value a work on what they see as the work ethic involved. Did it take a lot of time to do? Is it hard to do? Is there a lot of stuff put into it? And that correlates to value. And maybe they saw in that something that was intense and looked like it had a certain value to it. I don’t know. But maybe it was just that the objects themselves were magical.
MR. KLEIN: Do you have a preferred area of the Contiguous Fragments of your own?
MR. MYERS: You know, when people ask you, what are your favorites, you know, and they almost want you to make a decision about one piece or something, I would say that — I look at bodies of work and I love them all. Naturally, I could pick out some that I think — for example, some of the pieces that I now have in my collection, that I have given to my wife, for example, I valued as what I see as wonderful examples. Whether they’re best or not is another matter, but I made that decision to hold them back.
I think that certain bodies of work have more appeal. I look at one particular body of work and say to myself, those elongated forms, the really extended forms, it took a very particular insight from the collector to buy them. They are harder pieces because they’re really more sculptural, totally more sculptural than the other forms, and so I say to myself, any collector who really has that work because they love that work, they have — they have more prestige, or more value to me. I think they’re more insightful. I think they’re a little more sensitive, perhaps.
[END MD 02 TR 01. BEGIN MD 02 TR 02.]
MR. KLEIN: So Joel, what came after you had more or less done with the Contiguous Fragment series? What was the next idea that you began developing?
MR. MYERS: Well, it’s interesting that the end of the Contiguous Fragment series came about by conscious decision that I made to end it. That decision was based on several criteria. One of those criteria was the fact that I wanted to challenge myself as an artist and a creative person to find another direction that would lead to a new body of work. I wouldn’t say outright that it was that I was tired of what I was doing. I was still inspired and really enjoyed what I was doing. It was just I felt it was a time in my life when I had to make a choice about, was I going to carry on this body of work, or was I going to try to reach out into myself to find other avenues of creativity and of interest?
MR. KLEIN: What year are we talking about?
MR. MYERS: We’re talking about ‘93. And then the other point was the fact that, as a teacher, I felt it was an aspect of obligation toward my students to — for those that chose to notice what I was doing, put it that way — that I needed to challenge my own creativity, and I needed to take risks, and that I needed to do things and experiment and to follow the same rules I had laid out for my students. That was another consideration.
And maybe the third, in some ways, was that I was tired of seeing colleagues of mine, from my generation or thereabouts, repeating themselves. I felt that was because they were disinterested in what they were doing and felt they had nothing left in their petrol tank, as you might say, and therefore were riding their success and their position in the field.
So I felt — this I said to myself - so let’s see what I’m worth; let’s see what I can do. I know I’ve done a lot of different things, but the Contiguous Fragment series lasted quite some time. So I decided to stop doing it. Just stop. Which meant that I had no obligations; I had no further exhibition obligations of any new work. I hadn’t set any timetable. I said to myself, I want to use this time, whatever time it was, to do things I haven’t done in years, to have some fun. No seriousness, as you will. So I started making functional things that I wanted to make for my family. Drinking goblets. I made a whole funny bunch of stuff, and bowls and things that I had fun with, and no pressure. I never exhibited. I did that, actually, for a couple of years.
The key thing here is always that even though I had no particular — I had set this stage for myself to not exhibit and not make the work exhibitable, I still needed to work. I still had to be working. I still had to be connected to that material and the process. So stopped making it, started having fun making a whole bunch of stuff, of which I’m very, very happy that I now have available to look at and to use. So I said, what — I said, one kind of — one criteria for whatever body of work that I would do shouldn’t be color. I did it as a kind of discipline and as a kind of — perhaps in a way that a printmaker decides to make a black-and-white print, lithograph out of black and white rather than color. Something about the starkness of it, there’s something about the infectious nature or the opulence of color that draws away. So I tried to set that up as a kind of goal, what it was I was going to do.
So during this time, while I was still blowing glass and making goblets and doing this, I did a lot of reading. It was a contemplative time, which I think was really important for me at that time in my career, in my life actually, more in my life. And I became interested in the First World War. So I read an awful lot about the First World War. And I was deeply touched by the experiences that I read, that occurred during the war, the — I’ve always been interested in history, but not in the same way, of course.
And it was an amazing thing to read about the events of the war. And I don’t know, maybe thought to myself about why it should be the First World War and not, for example, the Second World War, of which I was growing up — I grew up during that time. It might have been some more relevance to the Second World War to me, although not necessarily personally. My father didn’t serve in the war. My uncles didn’t serve in the war. But nevertheless, maybe it was something about the romantic nature of the First World War, if you could say that was romantic. I mean, after all, it was a war of — I mean, when it started out - as a war with horses and men running around with fancy costumes on and something very romantic about it all. But it got to be quickly not romantic when the death toll and the massacres and the whole events of the war, the more that I read. And I read accounts of the lives of individuals who wrote about their experiences and general histories. It was, obviously, the first war of modern war that — modern world war that we have experienced.
So I took reading that more and more, to a point where I began to have ideas about themes that dealt with pain and suffering. And when I talk about it, it’s like all of a sudden you take a rabbit out of the hat, and there it is. It didn’t happen that way. It happened slowly, over a period of time. And actually now we’re talking about a period of time, I think, as I began to think about an idea, about this concept and how I could deal with it. And I thought about it in terms of some kind of installation.
And this is another one of these strange events that occur in your life that seem to have predicted some future event. Years before, while at ISU, I had collected, for my business that was moving, a whole series of fiber-fract cylinders. They were like sleeves. They were about 10 and 11 inches by about five and a half inches in diameter. They were in storage for about 10 years. And they were in storage because I thought, when I took them, that some day these may be useful for something. And then when I began to have this idea and the idea began to form in my own mind about what could be done, those cylinders came to mind, and I began to experiment at ways in which I could make a composition using the cylinder form as a metaphor for the human body, human being, and how I could address the issues of pain and suffering in a way in which I could modify these forms to suggest that — those issues.
But I felt that I also wanted to make these a universal. That is to say, not focusing totally on pain and suffering related to war, but pain and suffering as related to all of us, how we experience pain and suffering in our own personal ways. And then discussing that.
You know, I talk an awful lot with Birthe, who’s been such a wonderful listener all of our married life, and it’s been such a wonderful support always, and wonderful person to be able to talk to. And quite honestly, too, she would tell me when she didn’t like something. So you know, I trust her. Put it that way. I trusted her for everything anyway. So she said that one of the things that you’re — what you’re also talking about, exactly, [W.H.] Auden wrote about in his poem Musée des Beaux Arts . And so I read that poem, and one — I read it — I mean, I understood the interesting part about it, about that poem, was that Birthe came up in her Danish-English exam with that poem as a part of her exam, and it was — and she related — she spoke about it. So it was very close to her, as well. And so I decided that it was just perfect.
So I took lines from that poem and decided that I would make this installation, this idea, this thing that was formulating in my mind, beginning to take three-dimensional form. I’d use some lines from Auden’s poem, because I thought that that was a part of the idea of pain and suffering, how we all have our own personal little pain and nobody knows about it. Your neighbor knows nothing about your own little personal world. And so the line reads, “About suffering they were never wrong, the old masters. How well they understood its human position, how it takes place while someone else is eating, or opening a window or just walking dully along, how when the aged are reverently, patiently waiting for the miraculous birth and must always be children who did not especially want it to happen, skating on a pond at the edge of the wood. They never forgot that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course.”
And here is the title of the poem, the next lines. “Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturous horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.” I thought that was a very — that was a good line, potential title of this.
So the idea began to shape of cylinders that could be modified. And then I discovered with these cylinders, which were — which I could cut open with a knife - that I could be able to create a kind of surface that would represent bullet holes, shrapnel, scars — what other elements were there. There was a series with pins, pin pieces. Anyway, it amounted to seven different — I chose seven different thematic points, times seven. That is to say, there would be seven of each of these. In the end, I ended up with seven times eight, 56 pieces. And it was done in degrees.
It was started in about 1995, ‘96, experimenting, trying to work things out. And then the opportunity came for the “Aperto” in Venice [“Venezia Aperto Vetro.” Museo Correr, Venice. Sponsored by the Commune di Venezia Assessorato alla Cultura and the Ukai Art Museum, Japan], and I sent one group of pieces to that.
MR. KLEIN: That was in 1996?
MR. MYERS: Nineteen ninety-six. And then I continued — I knew I wasn’t finished, because I needed numbers. I wanted numbers. And so I kept on working on it, and then I developed further for an exhibition at the Dowse [Art] Museum in [Lower Hutt,] New Zealand, which was a few years later, still not complete. So I continued working on it until I had completed it as I thought it should be completed, with a total of 56 elements, seven each. Seven pin pieces, seven bullet pieces, seven shrapnel pieces, seven scar pieces, seven with the pins with the top scored open so that you could look inside these closed forms, because they were closed cylindrical forms that were blown hollow. And so there ended up eight times seven, 56.
MR. KLEIN: Were they mold-blown?
MR. MYERS: They were mold-blown, yes. I blew them all. Every one of them. And in black and clear glass. And here comes the — how I was true to my own goal, because they weren’t in color. And the black and white was significant in terms of people of color. So we covered the black and the white. It was also from that point of view. I tried to make everything that I did have a meaning. And eventually — so we have 56 elements, and they were lined up in a parallel, slightly tapered avenue. They were set in plinths, black and white plinths. There were eight plinths, seven on each. And it was like an avenue, and it was suggestive of the kind of military parade, like an avenue or cortege. And I wanted it exhibited in a very — almost in a very reverential way, like in an isolated, large white space so that you could sense something important.
And I found by accident someone from Holland who wanted the exhibit — not that particular piece but — and I went to visit her gallery outside of Rotterdam and it was wonderful. Big, big, big old space that was just wonderful. Completely white and everything. And I thought, wow.
At the same time that I was working on this piece, which I called Musée des Beaux Arts , I was working on another piece, which was called The Ghosts of War . And that series, both based on the same theme, used the same processes, the same molds, but with different results. They came — they were realized, in the end, as being distorted, ghostlike, white forms, and they were, I think about 21, 22 that were a part of the installation that were arranged on one plinth, and which now will be exhibited by WheatonArts [and Cultural Center, Millville, NJ] in the summer of 2007. But those two pieces occupied my time for a long time, from ‘96, ‘97, ‘98. Ninety-nine might have been when I exhibited them.
But there was a wonderful — there is a wonderful convergence of that idea, saving something for something unknown, and I didn’t necessarily save it for myself, those cylinders. I saved them for, perhaps, for a student that could find a use for them. But I found a use for them. And it was wonderful because they were — they created sort of rough, wonderful, almost skinlike surfaces. And not only serving the purpose of being a metaphor for a human, they were in themselves, because we think of glass as fragile, suggestive also of the idea of being fragile, which, of course, we are.
MR. KLEIN: Well, hearing about them now, I’m, of course, absolutely fascinated to hear about what these Beaux Arts pieces were about. But as you know, I was the curator of “Aperto Vetro” in ‘96 and, as a great admirer of yours, I hoped that you would exhibit. And when the pieces arrived, I was very puzzled by them. I didn’t understand what on earth you were doing.
MR. MYERS: I probably should never have sent those.
MR. KLEIN: No, no, no. I was always interested enough to know that there was something there, but something I didn’t understand. Of course, it was only a fragment of the idea, and it came without any explanation.
But what was the general reaction to a complete change of direction in your career?
MR. MYERS: Well, that’s the interesting thing because, first of all, this work was never exhibited in a gallery. It was only exhibited in museums. It had a traveling tour of about three years. It went to museums in Michigan, Wisconsin, and North Carolina — and I can’t think where else, but it went to several venues. I think — I’ll tell you something very interesting. When “Aperto” had concluded, the work went to the museum in Ebeltoft [Glasmuseet Ebeltoft, Denmark], and it was exhibited there. A small group of work. The curator of a museum in Sweden saw it and asked whether he could exhibit it together with another exhibition he was organizing. And the Danish journalists that wrote about the exhibition, of which this “Aperto” piece was in Denmark, didn’t get it. Made no intelligent comment about that particular piece at all. It was totally unsatisfactory. Didn’t understand it, didn’t have any feeling about it.
But when it was in Sweden, I read — they gave me the reviews of that exhibition, and I was totally flabbergasted that they grasped the meaning of that piece. Not necessarily in terms of the war, or the First World War, but they understood what the piece was about. And they were quite amazed that glass could be exposed in that way, because they were used to vessels, and they expressed that. And I was so absolutely — because it was the only time, I think, that that work was really given understanding and written about in the critical way, and a critical analysis of the piece. It wasn’t terribly extensive, but it was good.
Even though the work — the piece has traveled, I have not read a real honest review of the work. And The Ghosts of War, which were exhibited in Holland together with the other piece as one — as two - separate pieces, was never — has never been exhibited in the United States. And the exhibition at WheatonArts, the piece at the WheatonArts will be the only time it’s ever been seen in this country. Those two pieces are so unique in my career that I wonder whether people don’t take it seriously or don’t feel that there’s a connection between the work and myself. It’s the first time in my life that I ever have picked up a political concept, that I have chosen to deal with the political issue. And I call it a political issue. You could also say it’s social, I suppose. But I have always avoided it. I don’t feel that I have the temperament to deal with controversy.
MR. KLEIN: I’m sure it’s an important body of work in your life. I think that it’s also a very courageous body of work, and I think it was just that unfamiliarity breeds contempt. Therefore, it will be a while before it really is appreciated. But it’s also an important moment in your life because, if I’m right, it coincided more or less with a period when you decided to quit teaching and leave your academic career.
MR. MYERS: It turns out, to some extent, to be that way, but that may have been more coincidence than anything else. What happened after those two series, however, is something else, because there’s — bodies of work that follow that - because after this series, I must admit that I had — these were very dark pieces, and I’m not really a very dark person. I’m a much happier person than those pieces would assume to be.
MR. KLEIN: These were followed by things like The Dialogues?
MR. MYERS: The Dialogues.
MR. KLEIN: Very bright harlequins.
MR. MYERS: Yes, and the Enticement pieces and the Color Studies, which were all — which only utilized the cylinder. But in different —
MR. KLEIN: — as a human form. Or as a representative or suggestive.
MR. MYERS: No, I don’t think so. I simply use them in a neutral sense. The Dialogues, totally as humans, yes. That followed. So that was a great close connection. That was true. They were very closely connected to that side because they dealt with us as human beings, our gestures and our possibilities to communicate to each other. Or the ability to communicate or not communicate. So they really dealt with position, gesture, and were rather fun. I mean, if I could use that word “fun,” because they dealt with a kind of kinkiness of ourselves, or the kind of funkiness and so forth, of how we can see ourselves. And so that was directly related to the human aspect of the other installations.
MR. KLEIN: But this is strict - there’s a very strong feeling of body language in those pieces.
MR. MYERS: Yes, exactly. Exactly. And so I did a group of those pieces and there was an article in American Craft magazine about that change, the switch that I had made. It was a very good article, too. But I think that, talking to my wife, who really believes that people don’t like you to change your work - what she really meant was, like, collectors don’t like to see you change your style, or galleries don’t like to see you change your style, because people are used to it. And, you know, don’t — it’s troubling for them. Of course, I’ve never paid any attention to that sort of stuff at all.
So I did a whole series of Dialogue pieces, very little interest. There was not very much interest, and I exhibited them for a few years. At the same time, I was doing pieces that I called Enticements, which were a very basic, similar — very simple forms, cylindrical forms that had various kinds of inclusions. Which made them, seemingly, entice you to acquire something that was not acquirable. And it had to deal with, I think, our acquisitiveness — not acquisitiveness, but our desire to own things, and, sort of, accumulate things.
MR. KLEIN: Some of those had penetrations in them, did they not?
MR. MYERS: Yes, they had penetrations, or they had like — describe one that had a big red disk in the middle of it. So it was like you were tempted to want to take it out but couldn’t get it. So the idea was you couldn’t get it. The idea that it enticed you. It had something to do about our culture of acquisitiveness and ownership. That was another idea.
Then I took the cylinder once again and finally decided that I really wanted to play again with color. And I did the series based — where I altered these mold forms into something quite different. I sculpted it and made it quite different. And used a great deal of color, and very opulent use of color. In some cases I used lusters, and it was a great — how shall I say — time for extravagance in color. So I combined those three. They sort of followed each other. And that lasted until, I would say, in the early 2000s.
MR. KLEIN: And you’d devised a different kind of technical language for this. The cylinders were chopped up, as it were, and glued at angles.
MR. MYERS: Exactly. And pinned together and — in ways in which could never have been made in any other way, I believe. You know, you could have made a metal mold. Would have cost a fortune. But this was the way — it was a perfect way of making it. And it gave me a great deal of freedom. I could make them very quickly, reasonably quickly. And they were kind of hard to make, in a way, but I had a lot of fun making them. I really loved making them, and it was quirkiness. I sold a number of them. There were a number of people that were interested. Especially in groups. They love to have them as groups.
MR. KLEIN: There was a new kind of color vocabulary in this series of work too, having abandoned the Contiguous Fragments —
MR. MYERS: Yes, and it was also simplicity. They became much more simplified.
MR. KLEIN: There were some candy-striped harlequins.
MR. MYERS: Well, those were the latest ones I did because I wanted to use the linear character of the striping on that kind of quirkiness. I wasn’t able to achieve totally what I wanted. Of course, I couldn’t put it together. I didn’t have the right crew to make it. I couldn’t do it. I made a small grouping of them, and that was the end of that.
MR. KLEIN: How was the linearity, in technical terms, achieved?
MR. MYERS: Well, you pick up these canes that you’ve made, and then you fashion as you would a typical Italian piece, and do everything you can to keep it vertical so it doesn’t start wiggling too much, and then you blow it into the mold. And that’s the tough part, because these molds are really hard to get into because they’re open-top molds, and they go one way or the other way. So they are very hard to make.
MR. KLEIN: Were you blowing them yourself?
MR. MYERS: No, I was not. I didn’t blow those myself. I blew some in the beginning, but then I turned it over to people who knew how to do it better, who could do the cane better. And I did one small series of that, one small series, which I still have, as a matter of fact. So we came down now to the — early 2000. And then I said to myself — again, this is very characteristic. I want to get back to the shards, but I want to get back to something that I recognize as contrary to what I’d been doing, what people had been doing in glass.
The first thing I thought of was rectilinear forms. Nobody really bothers with non-soft shapes in glass. I won’t say nobody, but let’s just say that I could see, I began to visualize, a body of forms, rectangular forms, lifted from the ground, from the flat plane up, with planes that would give me not just two surfaces to paint on, but four. And not only that, but to give me that surface to articulate as one by connecting the sides, bringing them together, so that what you’re looking at — if you’re looking at them from one view, you get two sides and you see them as one. If you close your eyes, one side, one plane. And so I said, okay, this is going to be my canvas. I’ll call these Canvas pieces.
MR. KLEIN: I’m quite interested in the form aspect of these pieces and how they evolved in your mind. I presume — it was an intellectual process, not a graphic process. You say you wanted them to be lifted off the ground?
MR. MYERS: That’s right, and that meant that they wouldn’t — they could not just be straight, vertical, rectangular forms that sat flat and rose straight up from the flat plane as a vertical column, as a rectangular column. I felt there was something too familiar with that and that it would not — wouldn’t work the way I wanted it to work. And these are the kinds of decisions you make that are formal decisions you make, based on — by experimenting. I mean, I experimented a lot to find where that line was, where I could work it, what were the right dimensions. And I made models and try to visualize them as cardboard models and so forth. And then I started making the pieces.
I started out actuallysmall, quite — reasonably small — very, very, very hard on everybody that — at that time, I could no longer blow myself. And everybody had a difficult time with me; it looked so easy.
MR. KLEIN: Are these mold-blown pieces?
MR. MYERS: Yes, mold-blown pieces.
MR. KLEIN: With straight edges. That’s very tough.
MR. MYERS: Yes. Exactly straight edges, and I made all the molds. And this is a very, very personal, new invention. I don’t think anybody’s done this. I hate to say it that way, but I think not. Because the way these pieces were made, they were made with board, fiberfax board, into footed forms. The shards were all made, pre-made, slumped, and then glued on. Actually glued on by using a low-fired flux. So you would glue, in a way, glue them onto the shard that you would heat in a kiln to fire them on, so you had this prepared double shard, one shard on top of the other. Drill minute holes in the shard, pin them on the inside of the mold, transport them to the studio, where they were made, where they’d be blown. Put in the kiln overnight to heat up. Take out at the exact moment they’re ready to be blown, carried to where we were, and then blown into it.
MR. KLEIN: So the patches then adhered to what you were blowing into the mold?
MR. MYERS: Exactly. Then once it was cracked off, the end was fire-polished with a torch and then put back in the kiln, in the mold. Then the wonderful thing, or the terrible thing, was when they were cold after the annealing period, you would open it up. And there it was, just, you know, never really as you pictured it, which was nice because you didn’t really want it that way, but close, and exactly where you had really — this is a case of really putting them where you want them. So it was really a compositional thing, a color thing, and — but lost a lot of work because they just couldn’t — it was just hard to do, to get the right weight distributed, because pieces that rise up to a rectangular profile above a mold — on a top of a mold. And I had graphite over the top to be able to create the pressure necessary to fill out that form. You always had problems in corners and across the top plane, which was so thin sometimes that you could — they were flexible.
MR. KLEIN: By this time you were already living in Marietta [PA], I presume.
MR. MYERS: By this time I was living in Marietta, and my work was being made at the studio of Will Dexter, a studio near Philadelphia. I did several bodies of work. They made the shards for me. I helped them make the shards. I showed them how to do that. And I participated in it. That is to say, I was very much involved in the whole process while they were doing it. I mean, putting some things that I really actually didn’t even have to do that I did, to be involved. And made decisions about where to cut it off and where to jack it down and do a bunch of things that I was part of.
MR. KLEIN: How many people were involved in the making of the piece?
MR. MYERS: Four people, not including myself.
MR. KLEIN: What were the separate functions?
MR. MYERS: Well, there are little jobs. That’s the interesting thing. Somebody was working with Will. Will actually made these pieces. As a gaffer, second gaffer. Somebody needed to hold the mold down. Somebody needed to give me the torch. Somebody needed to go and get the molds. Somebody needed to hold the graphite down. Somebody needed to carry it into the kiln again. And this is really very good — very close timing.
The other thing that was very difficult was when to release the mold, to release the pressure from the blowing process, because these molds were insulating, so they held the heat. So there was a danger that they would sink in if there was not enough pressure, and it had to be solid enough that it’s cool enough, but it certainly couldn’t be that cool, so you could keep it out, because the neck was also of a thickness, and we had to torch that.
It was one of those things that required hands for everything. I probably could have used six people; that would have made it easier, but I didn’t. But it worked. And I did a number of those pieces. I started getting bigger and bigger, too, because actually it was easier to make them bigger than it was smaller.
MR. KLEIN: Now you’re continuing with this? Because this is in the recent past.
MR. MYERS: This is up until my last exhibition two years ago at Marx-Saunders [Gallery, Chicago, IL]. Since then, I have ideas about proceeding with the Canvases in a much — in a smaller format again. Again trying to achieve a kind of intimacy. But then also thinking about — and the change in the latest development of the canvas was creating painted imagery. The shards became painted, became little paintings. I began to use glass enamels, not shards. The shards I would make — what I did, actually, was to make clear shards that would be compatible with the body of glass that we were using. So I made sheets of clear glass, and I painted enamels on them. Then I attached those to the insides of the mold —
MR. KLEIN: But you cut them up first?
MR. MYERS: Well, I cut them up first, yes, into certain shapes. And used them accordingly, because what I did was to lay this all out in a drawing so that everything fit where it had to fit, and the mold was laid out so that everything fit where it had to fit. So I had to make tracings and drawings and to be able to — and then the terrible part was cracking the shards trying to put a hole in them. I mean, that was really nerve-wracking. I had to use diamond points, and there were about a dozen where I would just — you know, and I had so carefully to put the holes in them. Then they’d crack, and I’d have to start, you know, find another — it was really quite something else.
So actually, I would drill the holes before I started painting so I would have — at least I didn’t have to lose all that painting. Then I would fire all of these little enamel paintings, and they would be part of the imagery on these surfaces. And they began to be a lot of fun, sort of creating these paintings. And where it’s going from there is a continuation of that, which may even be, at my wife’s suggestion, just into pure canvases without — and I know how you feel about the idea of taking — and I have people saying, wait, taking it off the vessel form? But it’s interesting to think if I can do it, and to really create paintings that will be admired and accepted as paintings by a crowd of people who are not — who are not familiar with such a thing except only in the context of stained glass panels, for example, of which autonomous stained glass panels are not particularly popular either.
So I don’t know. I’m also thinking about it in terms of large castings, of using thick glass castings and creating large panels.
MR. KLEIN: Are you thinking of going back to a sculptural language here?
MR. MYERS: Well, only in a very flat sense. I’m only thinking about it in, really, a two-dimensional sense.
MR. KLEIN: Flat sculpture. [Laughs.]
MR. MYERS: [Laughs] Flat sculpture. I would call it — I don’t know if I want to quite call it sculpture. Whatever it’s going to be, we’ll let somebody else decide what they’re going to call it. But it certainly would have applications in architecture; it could potentially. But I had to find something that I’ve been very bad at doing — collaborators. Finding the right resources to take the nitty-gritty work away from me.
MR. KLEIN: The flat pieces that you are describing make me think of Bullseye [Glass Company, Portland, OR].
MR. MYERS: When I’ve seen that color palette, I’ve never been satisfied with the density of the colors. They look too pastel-y. It’s something that I’m not — has not convinced me that’s a palette that I want to use. The other color rods have a kind of color density and range that — see, maybe I’m not familiar enough with the Bullseye. Maybe I should look at it again. I have to see. It is possible that it might work.
There are other changes in my life, in terms of my own obligations, that have made the idea of going away and doing bodies of work somewhere else distant memories, so to speak, because, of course, of Birthe. I don’t want to go some place alone, and it wouldn’t be fair to take her somewhere where I’m intensely involved in doing something and she’s sort of biding her time. We have to be together. We must be together. And we rely — actually, you know, we’ve always relied on each other but more so now.
So I have this, and because of my leg, and this past six months I have done nothing, and I feel terrible. So I’ll have to get myself together, now that I think I’m physically more able to stand up and do work, that I’ll have to get myself together, because once I start working, that’s what I need. I’m a person who, once you wind up the clock, starts to go. And then I feed on my own work. My own work is my own inspiration. I used to be affronted. When I would complete a piece, I would be like a little child, almost be like a little child with the kind of joy — my students used to smile and laugh when I was just so absolutely — there was this piece, especially when I was making the long ones, because when you’re sitting on the bench and you’re looking, this looks like it’s five miles long. This big piece you’ve just finished making, that you think is just absolutely fantastic. This great joy and that kind of passion, you know, is the kind of thing I have to rekindle in myself and in my work, and Birthe loves it when I’m that way because she knows that I’m, you know, totally — [phone rings].
[END MD 02 TR 02. BEGIN MD 02 TR 03.]
MR. MYERS: She knows that I’m very happy when I’m working. And, of course, she likes to see me happy, so she wants me to. But on the other hand, it’s been great to be able to spend more time with her and help her.
MR. KLEIN: But you know, in a sense suddenly over this past year you’ve begun a new life, because you have given up your house in Denmark; for the first time in many, many, many years you are spending your summers in the United States. You have a garden here which you never had before because you had your garden in Denmark. So I imagine it takes time, and however old or young one is, to adjust to a new life. And I’m pretty sure that we can look forward to some later work that really reflects you as the elder statesman that you have now become.
[END MD 02 TR 03. BEGIN MD 03.]
MR. KLEIN: Joel, we’ve spoken at great length now about your career as an artist, but we’ve only touched upon another aspect of your life which I think is a very important aspect, not only for you but for the whole of American education system in glass. And that is the program that you created as a university professor in Illinois.
Can you begin to tell us something about how you devised that program, how important you think it is that that program is incorporated into American curriculum generally, and something about how it benefited your students and what their reaction has been to the way you’ve taught them?
MR. MYERS: Illinois State University, where I appeared in 1970 to set up a program, is a typical kind of state university which has an art department. And that art department is a rather thorough one in the sense that it covers all two-dimensional processes — drawing, painting, lithography and so forth, printmaking, and also three-dimensional areas, sculpture, and then so-called craft areas, as glass, metal, wood, clay, and at the time, weaving. So it was a very typical kind of program. Very similar to the once in which the first glass program was instigated at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. So it’s typical. And there are many schools in the United States like it, state schools, because we have innumerable state schools throughout each of the states.
And like — part of setting up a glass program was competition in a way. I mean, you then offered another medium to a student when they came. So it was an advantage to have a very thorough art department faculty. And so that’s one of the reasons why they brought me. The school was at a point where they were expanding its image. It started out as a teacher college. So it was now expanding and growing, and by the time I arrived there, we had a pretty decent faculty, very good faculty. And certainly by the time I left, we had an excellent faculty and a very good program.
So what it does is it - you know, what kind of students did we have? We had students that were going to become teachers, art education, art educators. And other students that were going to, in some ways perhaps, become part of the artistic community, or they were going to participate as consumers. That is to say, not being professional artists but in some way appreciate art and enjoy it and buy it and promote it, and enrich their lives because of the knowledge and their experience and understanding of what it means.
MR. KLEIN: This was a master’s program you were creating?
MR. MYERS: No, this is a basic undergraduate program at Illinois State University, which, at the time I went, they did not have an M.F.A. program, master’s of fine art. It had a master’s of art, and a terminal degree in the field of art is a master’s of fine art, which, generally speaking, varies from university to university, but it became a three-year program with my insistence, so to speak. So my glass program was a three-year, M.F.A. graduate program.
So who did I have as students? I had undergraduates who at first knew nothing about glass, and almost none of them — over time, of course, they learned about it, because the program was there and because my students began to exhibit. And over the years my students began to do the best work. They won awards; they became the best students; and if you check the records at the art department, you’ll see that proportionately more glass students have won outstanding student awards than any other medium. But in any event.
My approach to it was simply — once I had built the studio, and that took some time to do it, because what did I know about building a studio? I’d never built a studio. I just went to a glass furnace and dug it out when I was at Blenko. So I had to go through all of that, and it wasn’t easy. But I did it, and we did it and got it over with. We had the program started; it began in September, and it was operational in about March of the following year. So it was rather quick.
I taught the students, you know, how to understand glass, to understand its properties, how to control it, and gradually how to blow and how to form it and shape it and to gain that kind of skill. Which, by the way, can only — a skill which can only be achieved by repetition, by constant practice, like many things, like a sport. To get good at something, you have to practice, and to get good at glassblowing, even if you’re outstanding with your coordination and skills, you have to be able to practice. And so that became part of the program, my approach to it.
I gradually had an advanced class in which I introduced other processes of casting and slumping and use of color, and gradually, as my own experience — remember, this was a time in which nobody knew anything, and everytime you found out something new, it was something new. We didn’t have the kind of knowledge that we have today, which we take for granted. Students today take everything for granted because it’s there. We didn’t have it.
So the program gradually grew. And even in the early ‘70s, I was able to recruit graduate students. And, of course, graduate students, what did they mean? They are your committed personnel, your committed students. They aren’t there for one semester, but they’re under your care, so to speak. And so you work with them. I had a number of students, one of which is still a very prominent glass artist by the name of Jack Schmidt, makes nice glass sculpture, been committed to make what I consider to be pure sculpture, using glass as part of the idea. He was a graduate student. He graduated with a master’s degree, a joy to have.
I had several other graduate students that went different ways. They got their masters degree, and one of them has a studio — gosh, the name, you slip the name. I know his name so very well. He has a studio producing glass. He has been producing — a producing glass artist since he left practically. He has his own production line. He exhibits and sells. Not what I would call a prominent artist but somebody that makes good work, good, honest work, exceptionally well crafted. And so this early core of people were very important to me because they almost — I wouldn’t say I never wished to have my students that close to me -
MR. KLEIN: Well, I think in a sense you began teaching at a rather magical moment. You were, after all, largely self-taught as a glassmaker, and you were — you began teaching at a time when the whole language of glass as an art form was being born, or re-born, and you were building an entirely new language, which must have been as exciting for the teacher as for the student.
MR. MYERS: Theoretically, that’s very true. But that, again, always depended on who was observing, who was watching, of your students. And unless you had that kind of commitment, then what you’re doing was not seen, not recorded. We had a number of workshops during the ‘70s, bringing in Dick Marquis, Dale Chihuly, Bertil Vallien, and so forth, and undoubtedly the students gained a lot. But they never picked up on any of the things that were shown to them. I don’t know whose fault that is, whether it’s my fault for not asking them to do that, or whatever.
Things changed as we got the near the end of the ‘70s. I had some very, very good, accomplished students. I had a student, an undergraduate student from Rhode Island School of Design named Jim Harmon, who was a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design [Providence], and he stayed with me for a couple of years, and actually his degree show was work that I helped him make, which he became rather well known for. He’s still involved in glass.
The other student was David Huchthausen, who while even as a student he had work accepted by the Corning Museum. I don’t know whether I think that’s a great idea, but nevertheless. He’s still a professional in some way or another, making glass today. And I daresay that — so I — I never would accept any of my undergraduates as graduates. I felt they should go somewhere else to work under someone else.
In terms of helping undergraduates develop, it was a question of nurturing. And once I had identified someone that wished to — at that time we had instigated a bachelor of fine arts degree in a particular focus, in a particular medium. So I could get a B.F.A. student in glass if he was interested in it. I got a few. I had one called Jeremy Popelka, who still has his own studio. He and his wife [Stephanie Trenchard] have a studio [Popelka Trenchard Glass] in [Sturgeon Bay,] Wisconsin, and I think are reasonably successful at being glass artists. He went on to graduate school to work with Marvin Lipofsky at California College of Arts and Crafts. He did his work essentially in mostly all casting, and this was with very primitive — still a very primitive annealing situations.
So things were — I’m getting better students, and some went on to graduate school. A few did. A few undergraduates, Sidney Hutter, a few other people went on to graduate school, and the program was, I wouldn’t say expanding - I never wanted to expand the program to a certain point, but I was interested in my graduate program because I felt that that was the meat. I still taught all my classes, essentially was the only one faculty member in the glass area. But I relied on my colleagues in the other areas to provide the kind of basic vocabulary that would help form their ideas and form their concepts in glass, simply because that’s what happens at the university. It also happens at a design school like Rhode Island School of Design, or Cleveland School of Art in Cleveland. There they have committed students from the start. I even had students from the English department for a while and other areas, which sometimes were very good students.
MR. KLEIN: So cross-fertilization is an absolutely vital part.
MR. MYERS: Absolutely. And I think in many universities a great deal of conflict between areas. That is to say, people working in the crafts medium don’t have much contact with those working in the so-called fine arts medium. Fortunately, we had faculty that were positive, that were encouraging, and were very supportive. So I always directed my students to take courses with sculptors and to work in their committees with sculptors. So we had meetings, lots of meetings together and so forth, when we formed committees.
But another key thing was always to have an international community. It was vital to me to have an international community of graduate students, because I felt that, from my own experience of living in Denmark and knowing the value to understand other people’s cultures and viewpoints, that it would be a good thing for my American graduates to be embedded with other internationals, with students from other countries. And I focused a lot on England because it was easier to bring over English students with degrees. In Europe it was difficult because I was a state school, and they were very fussy about having a bachelor’s degree before they would let you into a graduate program. So I missed the boat with a lot of students that I would have loved to have, whereas a school like RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] was able to bring them in and find some way of getting them a degree.
So from the beginning I began to recruit students. I had a great deal of contact with Great Britain, with people at Farnham [University College for the Creative Arts at Farnham], and eventually at — I always forget the name of these schools. We try to get names. The other glass school that was —
MR. KLEIN: [University of] Wolverhamptons?
MR. MYERS: Wolverhamptons. And over the course of those years that I taught, I had — I can’t count how many. Mel, Mandy, Mark. Four or five. And then there was Yasmin. English students, whose lives were greatly changed by coming to the United States. Some of them got married; some are still there. And it was a great — it’s a wonderful thing to see how you’ve changed a person’s life, and undoubtedly in a very positive sense.
But they had a difficult time because it was very hard for them to adjust to a different format. And I was very keen on having them work independently. And I gave them a great deal of freedom. And in the end they all blossomed. They all blossomed with that kind of freedom. And it was easy for some of them — I mean, for me to support them, for some of them. Because they were hard-working. They were intelligent. They had a kind of training that helped them, that assisted them, training in schools in England. Although most of them, when they presented their portfolios, it was all school work that they showed. But I based it more on what I thought their potential was than by exactly what I saw in their portfolios.
MR. KLEIN: To what extent do you think art history is important in an education for a glass degree?
MR. MYERS: I come from that generation that in some ways moaned the ‘60s. That is to say, although it brought out a lot of good, I’m a conservative, believes in authority. So if I had my way, I would have a history of glass program as an element in the glass program. I would make it absolute necessity. I think they have such a course at Alfred University.
MR. KLEIN: History of glass, or history of art?
MR. MYERS: No, they would have a history of art as a university requirement. History of glass as a glass requirement. They all have history of art, or they have theory of art. Every graduate has a — belongs to a seminar class, so they are quite full with art history, I can tell you. Whether they enjoy it or not is another matter, but I’ve never had a — I taught the glass history course. That is to say, as an aspect of my course work, and beginning and advanced class I, you know, would do it all the time, starting from the beginning, from sand casting, I mean, core work, et cetera, et cetera.
So I did it. I stopped giving examinations when I realized that it was useless.
MR. KLEIN: Of course, no amount of culture or historical knowledge is going to compensate for a lack of skills, and I’m just wondering how much importance you attached to skill in your program, and how you coped with teaching skills, of which there are so many in the world of glass, and so many different skills.
MR. MYERS: Well, I mean, that came about — depending on how long I had a student and what I could teach them. Some could have gotten better glassblowers than myself. And my demand — I know there are certain programs that won’t let people, sort of, define what they should make, or what they can’t make. And my feeling was that I don’t care whether you make vessels. I want to see something that I’ve not seen before. I want to see a kind of excellence that I see in my mind and I know exists. I want to see something that in some way contributes to the field of glass. I don’t care if you blow it, stamp on it, whatever it is, whatever process fits you, whatever process fits your idea — if it’s casting, if it’s slumping, if it — lampwork, whatever it is.
Now my program — I mean, if I had had the opportunity or had the budget to do it, I would have brought in another one or two other faculty members, because I couldn’t handle it all. I gave them projects; I gave them assignments. We worked on different processes. I helped them with doing that technically. They got very good themselves at discovering and working, and became excellent at doing. Mark [Bokesch] Parsons, the Englishman, he just did wonderful things. Casting on their own. They learned it.
They would go to Pilchuck or some other way. They all managed to do — either they came as graduates with that kind of skill, or they developed it while they were students. And that’s why one of the things I really believed in graduate education is that undergraduate, even in design school, like RISD, how does it really prepare you, because you’re working on a series of projects and assignments, how does it really prepare you to go out and be an independent artist? Graduate school’s a great way to find yourself with less pressure, if you will, less specific assignments, so you find how you’re going to cope with yourself and with the world as an independent artist. You have to begin somewhere. Better not be thrown out.
Now, if you are a good glassblower and you say, oh, well, I’m so skillful. I’ll go out and open up a shop. Or, I’ll go out and work with Dale as assistant, or I’ll work in the glass factory that makes, you know, good work. No small studio or something. A lot of them did that. A lot of them still do it. They got good; they enjoyed doing that.
I pointed my students to the gallery scene. I wanted their work to be of such a level — I felt that if the M.F.A. degree was a terminal degree, in some ways paralleling the Ph.D. in any other academic discipline — when you have a Ph.D. degree, it signifies a level of intellectual achievement, at least theoretically it should, that is important to the field. Why shouldn’t an M.F.A., in some degree, express the same idea?
Now, that’s in an ideal world, of course, and the way that people churn out Ph.D.s and churn out M.F.A.s, it’s another matter. It’s all very individual.
MR. KLEIN: But what is the best, as a teacher, you can hope to teach a student? What do you set out to teach the student?
MR. MYERS: Well, I think that if you set up a set of criteria, commitment, passion, and exact work ethic, confidence, determination, willingness to meet defeat with a new step. Realization that this is what you want to do and that this is — you’re not going to stop trying until the last resort, whatever that’s going to be. Now I know people who have — my own son wanted to be an actor or director. He put up with it, what he had to put up with for a couple of years, and then decided he couldn’t do it. And there are a lot of people that do. A lot of successful people that, we see them only as successes; we never see the years they struggled to be a success. So it’s not just in the field of glass. It’s in any field. Especially creative people.
Creative people, musicians, writers, they’re the ones that have to struggle and have to live and survive by what they have in them and what they believe in, and how they believe in themselves and how they believe in what they have is worthwhile. And in some cases they may not even be worthwhile, but at least we know that there are people that do that, as well.
MR. KLEIN: So you think talent without, whatever, the teacher?
MR. MYERS: Talent is only one element. I’ve seen a lot of talented students haven’t gone anywhere because they don’t know how to apply it. I take a student that has less talent and puts it to use, and they become much better artists and eventually will outdistance the one with the most talent. Because I see myself that way. And I dealt with my students the way that I dealt with my life. That is how I saw my students. That this is the way I did it, this was right for me, and I believe this is right for you.
And I was a hard teacher. I was critical. I never set out to destroy a student. I tried to help them, to nurture their ideas, if they had ideas. But I was not tolerant of anyone that sat around on their butt and didn’t do anything. Now that’s strange to think of a graduate student behaving that way, but I’ve had my examples. And the undergraduates, the same thing. Obviously more tolerant with undergraduates because they were still undergraduates and still had to grow and still had to really define what they wanted to do.
But I had — you know, I had some damn good — if I produced a B.F.A. student in glass, you could be sure it was a hard journey, and it was really something totally worthwhile. And I looked at it with a great sense of pride, because it wasn’t as if I was teaching at a design school, where they all came in so well equipped and tuned in and could really excel so well. They struggled. They worked at it. Under — still carrying a full academic load. I mean, they had other courses to take. They were taking courses in drawing, in painting. Those were required courses. They were taking courses in mathematics, or courses in art history, and other courses while they were still teaching — I mean, I did the same thing, of course. Anyone who is in the art program simply does that anyway.
But still — you know who makes theoretically wonderful graduate students? Students that come from a whole different discipline. I had one student that had anthropology background. He was a Canadian and he had some glass background, and he came in and he brought a whole dimension to his work that related to his own intellectual development in that field. And that’s a wonderful thing to be able to turn loose, because then you’re focused. You have some form of reference. Something to draw on, some history, some background. And it isn’t all just winging it, you know.
And also with the contact with other teachers, they began to waken you to how you form ideas, how do ideas happen. Because it isn’t just me talking to them. It’s all the other teachers.
MR. KLEIN: If there is one quality that you would wish for in a student, what is it? Is it passion?
MR. MYERS: I would think that passion has to be — without passion, there can be really no accomplishment, because passion speaks of such a whole range of energies and of characters, something about your own character. If you can have, you know, passion for something you really — then you have an element, an emotional element that can carry you forward.
MR. KLEIN: Skills can be taught. Can passion be taught?
MR. MYERS: You know, I made a statement at the time that I was jurying in Japan. I said that I would much, much rather have an inept piece of wonderful art that, with a wonderful idea than have a wonderful — just a beautifully, you know, necessarily well crafted object. Because the one has so much more content, in that — I mean, I’d love to bring the two together. I think that’s the ultimate, of course, is to bring the two together, so that you have those brought together into one entity. That you have the idea that is realized in its best sense and best form.
It isn’t always you’ll see that. When we juried this exhibition in Japan, there was a piece that was very nice, a piece about — it was a green piece, you might say. And I liked the idea very much, and I think the resolution was very good, so I was very positive about it in terms of giving it an award and so forth. And so I see that aspect of content. And that was the thing that I constantly — when a student would have a critique, it is vital that they could talk about their work. They could explain what their work was about. If they could talk about what their work was about, then I understood how it came about, and that if you knew what it was about, you could help them take the next steps.
I never directly told them, do this or do that, because nobody wants to be told — at least young people, I’ve discovered — don’t like to be told exactly what to do. And it’s a bad idea, because if you tell somebody what to do and they do it, it’s not theirs. You want them to do it themselves. So you hint and you try to push them — and every student is different. Every student’s different. They’re all individuals, and I treated each student as an individual, because some were more sensitive than others. Some you had to be very cautious about. Some you had to be very blunt about. So that’s the way I was looking at it.
I mean, I’d say this basically about the graduate program, because I was so focused about bringing people into the field, and I was equally — as soon as I identified undergraduates that were that way, I gave them as much attention as I did the graduate students because — well, not as much because actually when you have a graduate student you have committee meetings; you have other things, other obligations. And they were also generally my assistants, teaching assistants, who would assist me in teaching the students. So there were other obligations.
But it takes a lot. I mean, it’s wonderful to be able to have a student that constantly has ideas; they can move along on their own. On that basis, you almost don’t have to do anything.
MR. KLEIN: Well, they can do without teachers.
MR. MYERS: They can almost do without teachers, yes. Exactly. And many programs, I think this is the case.
MR. KLEIN: And now you’ve left teaching, certainly as a permanent post, do you have any views that you would like to express about the current — not so much the standard but the current attitude to education in glass in America?
MR. MYERS: Well, first of all, I’ve never felt that education is given its due. That is to say, I spent 27 years of my life teaching, and only within the university itself was there some sense of appreciation in some ways, very specific ways. So I think teachers are looked at as being these very — you often see these teachers that are — that you think hold up teachers as ideals, that they give up their life for their students and so forth. That’s one thing, and they expect you to do that with very little remuneration. I don’t think there’s very much appreciation for teachers in this country at all. I think there’s a much greater appreciation for teachers abroad.
MR. KLEIN: Who should be appreciating these teachers?
MR. MYERS: Who should? People that — everyone in general, I think. Everyone should appreciate what capability a teacher has, whether it be glass, clay, mathematics or whatever. I think that there should be an understanding about what they are — what they are contributing.
MR. KLEIN: Do you think that states’ departments attach the right importance to it?
MR. MYERS: I think that — many things are — attach importance by words, not in deeds, unfortunately. I mean, I see programs that I think — for example, we don’t see any expansion of the glass programs within this country. I don’t see very many programs being initiated. I’m not saying that we need them either, but that there are some standard programs that still exist in this country that are turning out numbers of students over the years. There’s a goodly number of students being produced.
We have places like Penland [School of Crafts, Penland, NC], places like North Lands [Creative Glass, Lybster, Caithness] in Scotland and England, and places like Pilchuck, Sars Poterie in France. We have Erwin Eisch’s program in Bavaria [Eisch Glaskultur, Frauenau, Germany]. There must be programs in Australia, who knows where else. So that becomes some subsidiary educational resource, which is very valuable. And students, when they graduate undergraduate school with a reasonable amount of skill, I think they feel, well, what do I need graduate school for? Why should I go back to school again? I go to Pilchuck and I learn how to do this. Then I’ll go next year and I’ll learn how to do that. You know, then I’ll learn this, and then I’ll be complete.
But how to use all this stuff? The greatest problem I see - for example, I can talk about Europe. There’s this school in Orrefors at Kosta in Sweden. They produce a school which is essentially a training school for glass workers that were meant to work in the glass factories in Sweden. Well, there aren’t any need for them any more, so who fills them? Young people who know about the studio movement, want to learn how to blow glass. They spend two or three years going through a vocational training. They get out; they don’t know what to make, so they copy what everyone else is making. They become a part of an increasing volume of small studios throughout, in this case, Scandinavia, all of them struggling, making little bowls or making goblets, and obviously for a certain point at their life thoroughly enjoying it, enjoying the independence and freedom they’re having and so forth, not thinking about the future perhaps. So we have that category of people, and we certainly have those kind of people in the States, except they maybe have gone to university; they’ve learned a little bit more about how to be expressive, perhaps.
But I think they get stuck. They don’t know where to go, and so they become studio — they become production people, and it becomes a real job, producing glass at a certain volume every day, five days a week, six days a week. It’s a job, and it’s no longer something quite different. So I think that — I always try to encourage students to go to graduate school. I always encourage them to go to graduate school. I felt it was a point — a time in their life they could afford to give that would be rewarding, and they would look back on it as almost — and I know in many cases — almost that step you need to go into the professional. Because some of them — and graduate school, already exhibited in galleries.
MR. KLEIN: Well, I would say that in this day and age there are more so-called glass artists in the world than there have ever been at any time in history. Are there too many?
MR. MYERS: Well, you know, first of all, you can’t control how many there are going to be, so that’s a moot question. You could say there are many potters around, as well. So what’s the difference?
I suppose an issue that is relevant that I have never really talked about, and maybe just very briefly, there’s the whole issue of consumption of energy. Think of all the energy these people are using. It’s an amazing thing to see the way that they, you know, fire furnaces, and ceramic people do it as well, but not in such a constant basis. A lot of the stuff isn’t worth — there’s too much junk out there.
There are way too many people producing bad work, which is inevitable, I suppose, because that’s the way things are.
MR. KLEIN: Well, I guess the more good work you see, the more bad work there’s likely to be.
MR. MYERS: Yes. And the more you can segregate what is the best work and see what is the best work. It’s available, and as long as the people out there — there are a lot of good people, and a lot of bad things, and a lot of very similar things, you could say. I think that what has happened in glass — I never try to encourage my students to be production glass people. I certainly encourage them to make fine art. That’s what I try to do. Whatever it was they were doing. If they were blowing — I mean, fine art. If they were blowing vessels, make beautiful vessels. Make significant form. Do that, and then find where you could use it.
So I never tried to influence that way.
MR. KLEIN: Well, perhaps we ought to end this part of the interview by asking a rhetorical question that you’ve raised - are glass artists contributing to global warming?
[END OF INTERVIEW.]