Stephen Travels

And he's ready to take you with him.

Miniature perfume bottles

Top 5 Glassworks

I have long admired the artistry of glassmaking, from when I was 17 and watched a craftsman at work in Murano in Venice, Italy. When I took a workshop in flameworking at the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, New York, three decades later, I gained a greater understanding of how very difficult it is to handle liquified glass and manipulate its syrupy texture into magnificent works of art. From Tiffany and La Farge stained-glass windows in Trinity Episcopal Church in Buffalo, New York, to a green decanter set at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from salt shakers in the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, to dozens of Turkish lamps available for sale at the Christmas markets in Freiberg, Germany, glass has proven itself to be one of the most flexible materials to create art. And, unlike canvas paintings and rare photographs, glass embraces and depends upon light to reveal its true beauty. These are my favorites.

#1 Sealife Tower (Chihuly Garden and Glass, Seattle, Washington)

"SeaLife Tower"One of the world’s leading glassmaking geniuses, Dale Chihuly has created some spectacular pieces of art, many of which are housed in Chihuly Garden and Glass next to Seattle’s Space Needle. The indoor galleries and outdoor spaces feature some of Chihuly’s most monumental works, all with shockingly vibrant colors. I was captivated by his command of the medium, how he shapes heated glass (at a scorching 2,150˚F) with the consistency of honey into a wide variety of forms and shapes before letting it cool for several hours into a fragile permanence. My favorite work dominates the Sealife Room. At an impressive height of 20’, Sealife Tower reflects both Chihuly’s love of the sea and the importance of water in his process. In this brilliant piece, what looks like a funneled waterspout tapers down and roils the sea life at the base. The different shades of blue conjure up images of the most pristine waters of the Caribbean or South Pacific. In a playful game of hide and seek, Chihuly populated it with lots of sea creatures—amber-colored seashells, snails, starfish, and other marine life—swimming through kelp-like weeds that practically float in invisible water, much the way molten glass moves as glassblowers twist and turn it. Chihuly has said that he wanted people “to be overwhelmed with light and color in a way they have never experienced.” After viewing Sealife Tower and the rest of the works in Chihuly Garden and Glass, you’ll be richer from the realization of his dream—and the fact that he achieved it so perfectly.

#2 Abacus, Western Zhou Dynasty, 1046–771 BC (Venice, Italy)

Glass abacusEast met West in the most delightful manner when I stumbled upon the playful Abacus, Western Zhou Dynasty, 1046–771 BC next to the Basilica of Saint Mary and Saint Donatus on one of the islands of Murano in Venice, where it was unveiled in 2007. Abacus juxtaposes an ancient Chinese calculator with the centuries’-old glassmaking tradition in Murano. The artist, Shanghai-born Shan Shan Sheng, worked with master glassblowers in Murano to create her piece. Its larger-than-life size, at 15’ wide and 8’ high, gives it a playful air while also letting the viewer explore and appreciate color and material. Within the wood frame, red, blue, and green Murano handblown glass spheres stack up on stainless steel rods. The spheres are marked by ethereal streaks and speckles, revealing handmade craft and lines that emphasize the talents and originality of Murano glassmakers. It’s also instructive in math, but I think I failed the test. I very much wanted the arrangement to reflect the dates in the title, 1046–771, but all I could do was come close with 10,465,751.

#3 War of Independence Victory Column (Tallinn, Estonia)

War of Independence Victory Column, Tallinn, EstoniaAt a time when Eastern Europe is on edge, thanks to Russia’s reprehensible aggression in Ukraine, we can look to the War of Independence Victory Column in Tallinn as a symbol of hope, and, hopefully, who will be victorious and who will fail. Standing 77’ tall at the edge of Freedom Square, across from St. John’s Church, the pillar consists of 143 glass plates and is topped by The Cross of Liberty, Estonia’s most distinguished award, with a central medallion featuring an armored arm holding a sword below the letter E. The idea of creating a monument to commemorate Estonians who fought and died (4,000 killed; 14,000 wounded) for freedom during the War of Independence (1918–20) was conceived even before the war ended. It wasn’t until 1936 that a law was passed to create a monument, but World War II and then decades of Soviet occupation delayed its construction. The monument was finally unveiled in 2009. At night, the entire structure is illuminated in an icy white color—a beacon for everyone who cherishes freedom and values its worth.

#4 Snuff Bottles (Asian Art Museum, Seattle, Washington)

Snuff bottleShowcasing the best collection of Asian art in the Pacific Northwest, the Asian Art Museum comprises just over a dozen galleries organized by such themes as clothing, literature, and worship rather than by geographical location. The collection highlights contemporary and historic art from China, India, Iran, Japan, Korea, Turkey, the Himalayan region, Southeast Asia, and the Asian Pacific islands. I particularly enjoyed the collection of Chinese snuff bottles. These tiny vessels, many of which were made from glass (in addition to, for instance, brass and porcelain), stand just a couple of inches tall. They were originally produced during the Qing dynasty for the emperor and his inner court to store and tote around powdered tobacco. They come in all forms, from cylindrical to double gourds to those shaped like elephants or oxen. I marveled at the exquisite details that attest to the pain-staking efforts artists like the early 20th-century Ma Shaoxuan took to produce such fragile yet durable and practical pieces of art. Every pine needle, every fold in a sage’s robe, every dragon scale, every feather of a bird painted on the bottles is so clearly defined that I wondered how many of these artisans lost their eyesight from such a fine and laborious task.

#5 Green Chandelier (Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York)

ChandelierIn the exceptionally interesting Corning Museum of Glass, I found this amazing chandelier, one of the museum’s 50,000 objects spanning more than 3,500 years. Created in Birmingham, England, around 1870, it was featured by the manufacturer in its 1878 sales catalog for customers in Kolkata (then Calcutta), India. With touches of brass and gold, this emerald-green glass lighting fixture was blown, cut, pressed, and gilded. Eight curving arms support large tulip-shaped shades, decoratively gilded with leaves and a band at the rims. Toward the top of the shaft, transparent green jewels dangle from brass arms. Before making its way to Corning, New York, this chandelier was originally owned by the Nizam of Hyderabad in southern India. It’s easy to see why such a highly placed ruler would desire this—it’s truly remarkable.

Five Runners-Up

Leave a Comment

Have you been here? Have I inspired you to go? Let me know!