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The Designer on the ‘L’ Train

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.

Don’t miss the chance to see Nelson’s work and that of her fellow residents in the exhibition, “Act 2: The Next Track,” opening on March 12, 2011 at the Museum of Northwest Art.

For blog posts on prior residents featured in the show, go here, here, here, here, and here.

5 Responses to The Designer on the ‘L’ Train

  1. Sarah A. Nelson says:

    Although the works have been recently created for this museum show, the applied journal entries tell the story of thoughts happening in a time line that span years. How is it that one finds themselves working in glass when trained in another field? Everyone’s journey is different but I think the passion and path to create with intent and the detail it takes to work with glass may be similar among all our different creative minds found in the residency.

    I wrote my letter of intended study as required and loving packaged up all my delicate vitrigraph stringers to make the journey to Pilchuck. I was thrilled all survived the trip and ready to create. I think it was morning of day two of the week long residency Richard and Steve made the suggestion to not use the stringers and create with more intent, maybe just draw or paint today and not touch glass. I smiled and nodded as to willingly entertain the idea while inside thinking this goes against the plan… I actually had a plan… I wanted to see said plan completed, for it was all written out on my poster size goal sheet hanging over my head for the week. And now my head it spinning… A) abandon plan and just see where this takes me… the journey could be grand and I’m sure to learn something… B) ignore suggestions and say… but I have a plan.

    I picked “Option A”… So, now I am painting… drawing… writing down ideas and thoughts… and completing a bunch of small sample glass pieces… this week is not about getting a finished piece completed it is pushing yourself to explore and get away from the voices in your head that come to you as you work back in your home studio. Out of all the artists who have taken part in the residency I am not sure that my work has changed the most… but for me I recognized the experience has changed me, the work I do and the thoughts I have about my work.

    I truely give thanks for Steve and Richard as well as all the artists who took part in the residency!

  2. Kim Brill says:

    Sara, you have such a gift for writing and I think it’s so wonderful to see your work and to understand so clearly what was going through your mind. I really like the new work and how sketchy and painterly it is. I feel like I’ve been given a really intimate look at your process, so thank you for that. Really looking forward to seeing you next month and seeing your new glass.

  3. Irene D'Aloisio says:

    Sarah, I agree with Lani and Kim. Your writing simply sparkles. It gives us such a wonderful picture of where you were and how you grew. So, so personal…and isn’t that what art really is? It’s that something deep inside us bubbling up, wanting to explode out into the world. I can’t wait to see more of your art, and even more of your writing.

  4. silvia levenson says:

    compliments Sarah! I am folowing you and the rest of the students from Pilchuck 2009.I feel that the chalenge is to find our own voice , looking for a balance between concept, feelings and technique.It’s wonderful to see how the residency helped you in it.

  5. Austin says:

    Hi Lani! I found this through an art & design aggregate website I visit frequently. Thought you might enjoy this:

    OurGlass of Cockington from Danny Cooke on Vimeo.In this documentary we follow ‘OurGlass’, a glassblowing studio formed in 1995 and now situated in Cockington Village, located in the South Devon region of Great Britain.

    Brother and sister glass artists Mark Tranter and Patricia Tranter-Edmonds with Lee James reveal traditional glassblowing techniques, behind the scenes work and their inspirations, when creating a wide variety of unique studio/art glass for the trade and retail commissions.

    OurGlass of Cockington

    A Film by Danny Cooke

    Soundtrack by Tony Higgins
    & Hogan Grip (Tony Higgins & Declan Q Kelly

    OR a direct link:

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