Professionals whose “next track” takes them to fine art through the medium of kiln-glass often bring with them a cache of life experience that resonates within the material.
The journey itself can be – and often is – a rich one. Rarely have I had the chance to glimpse an itinerary so movingly sketched as the journal entries that comprise Albuquerque artist Sarah Nelson’s background statement to her time in the PAiR residency at Pilchuck last summer.
I am reproducing Nelson’s chronological notes here, amidst works begun during the residency. There is nothing I could write that tells her story better.
“All Aboard!” – Chicago, IL (1991)
It’s early for me. I am forever a night person, but I do this ritual daily; needing more coffee and feeling not quite human enough to engage in polite conversation, I find myself again on the ‘L’ train traveling to work. Peering out the window, I see a storyboard of fast brief moving glimpses of architectural decay: missing columns, partial rooftops, doors on the second floor with missing decks – “Wait, is that really what I just saw? I’ll look again tomorrow” … these visuals become design elements that stay with me. Perhaps, retained in my visual library reserved for another day… or for another art form in my future. For today I am designing textbooks at the University of Illinois – Chicago. I like my work, I do it well, and yet I long to create art.
“It’s a Dry Heat” – Albuquerque, NM (2000)
I have made the move to Albuquerque from Chicago via a packed-to-the-gills mini-van but it may as well have been a westward moving covered wagon… things are a surreal blur. My husband has taken a job here and I have quit my position at the University upon my 10th year. We have arrived at the rental house, a small stucco ranch, sans basement. I think… “Where am I going to store all my belongings? The backyard has no grass, just dirt and tumbleweeds. As we begin the task of unpacking, my final thought occurs… “If the culture shock doesn’t get to me the heat will.”
“Depression Glass” – Albuquerque, NM (2000)
I have not found a job yet in Albuquerque. The whole newspaper here is smaller than the job section of the Chicago Tribune. Interviewers tell me I am overqualified and won’t enjoy being underpaid. I need something to do… for I have lived in my pajamas for days now.
(2001) I noticed a sign announcing stained glass classes. We have just moved from the rental house to our first home. I think to myself I’ll sign up for a class and make something for the house and meet people… I have made a stained glass panel, I seem to not want to create another… on to sandblasting and learning to etch glass… now fusing glass in a kiln… my husband reminds me before I sign up for glass blowing classes … “a kiln is doable and a glory hole is not.”
(2005) I acquired my first kiln, a pretty blue Paragon front loader, although it’s used and has cracks in the wall and small chips of brick missing, it works just fine. I have flashbacks of the giddy excitement I once had as a young child receiving my longingly awaited Easy-Bake Oven. I cannot wait to create! As I reflect on my journey on how I got here, I am happy that what I thought was a death sentence has become the best experience for me. The sunlight of the Southwest, the camaraderie of artists, the new-found art form I seem to have embraced. As a perpetual learner, I have now taken all the classes offered at the local stained glass shop. It’s time to look for something else in another state.
“DING” the Calling of the BELL” – Stanwood, WA (2009)
It’s my first time at Pilchuck Glass School, the end of the first day, I am walking out the back door of the Studio Building, ascending the many concrete stairs that lead to the path back up the hill to the dorm. I feel so alive inside. I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep. I turn to look back and recall my day, looking up at the night sky, my jaw drops… It is so beautiful, I want to weep but my smile just won’t let me… you just don’t see stars as bright as these in a big city. They mirror the community of artists down below. I am starstruck… for tomorrow I’ll be casting glass at Pilchuck Glass School with people I have admired for quite some time. Someone pinch me… for I may be asleep and dreaming.
Like some of Nelson’s fellow residents in the 2010 session, she had been to Pilchuck before. In 2009, as a student in Silvia Levenson’s workshop she clearly advanced her technical skills – specifically kilncasting - and developed the aesthetic direction of her work.
Seeing how she fine-tuned that talent in the 2010 residency is a testimony not only to Nelson’s own reflective discipline and artistic focus, but also to the program, to its leaders, and to the spirit of the Pilchuck Glass School that year after year changes lives in in such profound ways.