I had a notion of what to expect from BECon 2013, because I’d been to other professional conferences. I expected a room full of vendors (check), a plethora of high-quality presentations by professionals in their fields (check), a party or two, hobnobbing, networking, etc. (double check). The opening reception at the Bullseye Gallery in downtown Portland was stunning, and the Lehr-B-Que dinner held at the factory was crazy fun. What I didn’t expect was the way BECon would cause me to think differently about the world of color—and my place in it.
The BECon 2013 tagline reads CHROMA-CULTURE: A conference exploring the intersections of color, kiln-glass, and the human experience. What an interesting juxtaposition of terms. Chroma is defined as “purity or intensity of color, its freedom from white or gray.” And culture is defined as “The arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively” (thank you, Google). So what, exactly, happens at the intersection of color and human experience? How does culture affect our perceptions of color? So many questions.
With nineteen countries represented among the attendees and presenters, BECon was an appropriate crucible for a discussion of color and culture. I won’t recap each artist’s presentation; that would be boring, and the talks have been synopsized quite nicely in the BECon section of the Bullseye website. But there were a few choice nuggets of information that I felt fortunate to catch, and I carried them home with me for further study.
Author and art critic Richard Speer’s talk, “Angel White and Devil Red,” explored the idea that “color is every bit as venerable as any icon or carved Buddha.” That’s some heavy stuff. “Color,” wrote the late painter Sam Francis, “is light on fire.” Speer riffed on this, to say that color is also “thought on fire.” This idea—that color is the physical manifestation of nonphysical energy—came up in several of the presentations during the three-day conference.
Italian artist Narcissus Quagliata expanded on the idea of color as the expression of spirit, as he described his own work and what he considers to be essential for any artist to truly understand color. I wrote about his presentation at length in my last post, here. He finds color difficult to define, and says that “color lives in you, even if you perceive it to be outside of you.” He also spoke about the importance of understanding color within the symbolic context of the culture within which you are creating or displaying a work of art. For instance, white is a symbol of purity in the United States, but in Ethiopia, China, and other countries, white is the proper color to wear for mourning, rather than black. So when I get my first commission to create public art in Ethiopia, note to self: “No white clothes on happy people.”
There were some truly geeked-out moments, where the technology and craft of capturing color in kiln-glass took center stage. “Bullseye Color Stories,” a panel discussion featuring Bullseye Glass founder Dan Schwoerer and other staff members, gave attendees a taste of what goes into developing, testing, and expanding the Bullseye glass palette. I could have listened to these guys swap war stories all day, and really enjoyed the moments when too many numerical formulas started flying around and moderator Mary Kay Nitchie had to pull the conversation back down to earth.
One of my favorite presentations came from an artist who, like me, entered the world of kiln-glass fairly recently from a background in painting. James B. Thompson regaled us with the history of certain colors, and I was amazed to consider how the evolution of today’s color palette runs parallel with worldwide industrialization and technology. For instance, the color mauve did not exist until the late 1850s, then a “mauve craze” swept the country. Where did mauve come from, you ask? It was born as a by-product of the distillation of coal-tar, a common waste product of the Industrial Revolution! In fact, medical research could be considered the driving force behind the creation of mauve, because scientists were trying to make artificial quinine from coal-tar, as a cure for malaria. Mauve wasn’t the only color to arise from industrial byproducts: many of the colors in our contemporary palette do not originate from natural sources, and are a perfect example of DuPont’s (paraphrased) advertising slogan, “Better Living Through Chemistry.”
Thompson also pointed out how some naturally-obtained colors—like indigo—influenced the power structure of the world at one time, driving the slave trade, for example. Then there was the tidbit that I carried home and shared with my daughter over dinner: a popular color known as “mummy brown” in the 1790s was made from—wait for it—honest-to-God, ground up mummies. That alone was worth the price of admission.
Bullseye Glass Resource Center Santa Fe was well-represented by the dynamic duo of instructor Erik Whittemore and artist Judy Tuwaletstiwa. They took us through their collaborative journey of developing a systematic palette of more than 2000 hues created by mixing powdered frit colors fired at low temperatures. A bit obsessive/compulsive? Perhaps. But the result was an eye-opening demonstration of the nearly limitless scope of hues that can be created by mixing frit. In fact, it was the perfect response to a question that came up during the conference: the audience was asked, “how many of you think we need to keep adding to the Bullseye color inventory?” Most hands went up, but it occurred to me that asking for unlimited, pre-tinted glass with which to make art is comparable to painters asking to have every color pre-mixed, so they can paint straight out of the tube. This—as any painter worth his or her salt knows—is a recipe for garish, trite artwork. Is it any different with glass? When I look at the hundreds of colors already available through Bullseye, I’m daunted by the number of options at my fingertips. Do we really need more colors, or do we need more subtle approaches and more awareness of how colors can be blended?
So how does all this translate into finding my own place in the colorful culture of kiln-glass? For one thing, spending time with this many artists at different levels of expertise, from different countries, sharing their own stories of exploration and discovery—gave me a welcome sense of belonging to a larger community. That’s a valuable experience, and it helps to offset the periodic sense of isolation that we artists tend to have while starving in our unheated, rat-infested garret studios. Is there a culture of color at Bullseye Glass, and is it possible to be a part of it (even in far-flung New Mexico)? You betcha. To attend the next BECon, you’ll have to wait until 2015, as it is only offered every other year. But, my friends, it’s worth the wait.
Editor’s note: Guest blogger Lois Manno is a New Mexico-based writer, artist, and illustrator. She’s also a newcomer to kiln-glass who’s agreed share some of her adventures in her new medium here. She blogs about her art and other adventures – including cave exploration – at loismanno.com.