In the summer of 1962, a group of curious artists gathered around a furnace in a garage at the Toledo Museum of Art. The purpose for their assembly? A workshop on glassworking techniques organized by a ceramics instructor from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvey Littleton.
They had been there before earlier that summer; except this time, the furnace worked. From small, scorching, molten marbles, these artists made a few makeshift, blobby cups and vases — and thus the American Studio Glass Art Movement was born.
“These are a group of artists that are working in ceramics [who] don’t know anything about batching glass, or necessarily making a furnace that will melt the glass,” Diane Wright, senior curator of glass at the TMA, said. “All that information is held in proprietary ways within companies.”
Yet this information reached the artists via one crucial factor; the workshops were open-access, meaning anyone could attend and watch the experimentation process — including workers in the glass industry.
According to Alli Hoag, associate professor of Bowling Green State University’s glass program in the School of Arts and Sciences, the new furnace was designed with the help of Dominick Labino’s expertise as the director of research for the Johns Manville fiberglass company. Soon, ex-Libbey Glass glassblower Harvey Leafgreen demonstrated the techniques he used in manufacturing, and ultimately, this furnace born of industry knowledge would help Littleton achieve his goal: to bring glassworking methods and tools from factory facilities into the world of studio art.
Although Littleton had always had an interest in glass, his hopes to experiment with it in an aesthetic capacity were limited by the popular belief that glass was an industrial material, according to the Corning Museum of Glass. After a trip to Europe, however, Littleton was exposed to studio glass art, and returned with a vision and tools to use in a hotshop.
Unlike the counter-culture practice of the ‘60s, Wright said that the movement stemmed from a notably academic practice: Littleton went on to create the first-ever university glass program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which nurtured students who would grow into internationally renowned glass artists, such as Dale Chihuly and Marvin Lipofsky. Lipofsky would follow in his mentor’s footsteps to establish university glass programs on the West Coast at the University of California at Berkeley and at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland; studio glass art was spreading.
In 1971, the Glass Art Society was created to bring together, work with and learn from glass artists all around the world and the U.S. What started as two workshops in the city of Toledo grew into a global network of artists who had since been exposed to the studio glass art craft.
“[The workshops] got that information back into the hands of the individual,” Hoag said. “Granted, all that knowledge — they were starting from the beginning. They got some glass to melt, they knew some basics like what tools were what and some basic core operations, but if you look at the first glass from the workshops, it’s very blobby.”
A small cup, vase and pitcher by Edith Franklin, one of the attendees of the first studio glass workshops at the Toledo Museum of Art. These pieces are currently on display at the Glass Pavilion. Images courtesy of the Toledo Museum of Art.
What resulted was an intertwining of the artistic vision that Littleton had for the medium, supported by the TMA and the technical expertise from the glass industry’s long history in Toledo.
“This is a really unique environment where all this was able to happen,” Hoag said. “All these specialists were right here and the museum was this wonderful central meeting place for creativity to happen.”
Today, the glass art scene in Toledo reflects and embraces its origins in this collaboration, using the city as a backdrop to continue the legacy of glass art in the Glass City. According to Wright, the TMA’s glass collection is among only three in the U.S. of its scope and scale.
The region is also training the next generation of glass artists. Hannah Bowlus, a fifth-year art student at BGSU studying glass and sculpture, said the existence of glass art programs like BGSU’s embodies the Glass City’s special place in art history.
“It’s the only reason why I’m able to go to a college and take a glassblowing class and have a curriculum that’s mostly conceptual glass and not ‘Alright, this is how you make this identical bowl for this company,’” Bowlus said. “I’m not an apprentice — I’m an art student taking glass.”
Bowlus was first introduced to glass through a course at BGSU right when the pandemic struck. Students still had limited access to the studio, however, and it was during this time that she came to fall in love with the medium.
“It’s very meditative,” Bowlus said. “You go in there, you have your objectives, you’re focused on your objective and then hopefully you complete your objective. For me, I’ve always enjoyed processes that consume you in the moment. Once you have hot glass on the end of your pipe, you can’t really put it down. It demands you to finish.”
But because working in a hot shop is so demanding (artists must endure the heat of the furnace and hold the weight of a steel blowpipe and the heavy gather of molten glass attached to the end of it) it also requires incredible teamwork, Bowlus said.
“Glass has always been this very resource-intensive and knowledge-intensive practice,” Wright said. “Even from the ancient world, it was sort of taken apart or decentralized, and different people would bring different aspects of knowledge and capability and resources.”
And it’s perhaps because of the shared experience of sweating together in the hot shop and working to shape a glob of sizzling, glowing molten glass into works of art that teamwork and community are big features of the glass art scene in Toledo.
For the co-owners of Gathered Glassblowing Studio, Mike Stevens and Adam Goldberg, it’s one of their favorite aspects about working with glass and a major factor in how their business came to be. Located in Toledo’s Warehouse District, Gathered offers various services such as glassblowing workshops — that allow customers to walk away with glass cups, flowers or bowls that they’ve made themselves — and specializes in handmade studio items or larger-scale custom installations.
Before Gathered, Stevens and Goldberg, then recent BGSU graduates, had access to an empty warehouse and a vision: to exhibit glass pieces from their community. But when the Glass Art Society decided to host the international conference in Toledo, this warehouse welcomed a community of glass artists from beyond just the Glass City.
“Our big goal was to have a studio up and running so that we could do demonstrations during the conference, and we met that goal,” Goldberg, who participated in various committees for the conference, said. “Nobody believed that we would have our studio ready … But I remember it was either the first night or the second night of the conference, word of mouth just spread. Hundreds of people just showed up and came to our brand new studio that had been up only two or three times before.”
Since then, Gathered has taken on a goal to help contribute to the Toledo community through glass works and has collaborated with different institutions and organizations like the Toledo Symphony, ProMedica Toledo Hospital, the Arts Commission and even the Toledo Mud Hens, the city’s minor league baseball team.
While studio glass art has found its place all across the U.S., its relationship with Toledo is a special one — one that not only artists, but also the community members, recognize as a key aspect of the city’s identity.
“Glass is the history of Toledo — there’s no getting around it,” Stevens said. “I hope that we can continue that narrative and help people realize that glass is a pretty incredible material.”
“[Glass] is a bit of an enigma,” Wright said. “It has this element of mystery and magic to it, which is why a lot of people are drawn to it as, maybe a museum-goer, but also artists. They just become smitten, and then there’s nothing else in the world like glass.”
According to Goldberg and Stevens, many customers who stop by Gathered are longtime Toledoans who want to actively participate in and learn about this part of their home city’s history.
For Bowlus, glass is a presence that permeates throughout the city. When she worked as a studio technician in the TMA’s hot shop assisting with glass-blowing demonstrations for museum visitors, she stood only a couple feet away from ancient glass pieces. She says she appreciates the connectedness to both the past and present world of glass in Toledo.
“There’s still a lot of glass around Toledo,” she said. “Once you start to learn the community, you find all these people who have these little hot shops squirreled away in their garages and stuff like that. You can very quickly network between people who can get you opportunities and have been to places. In Toledo, you could probably find someone connected to someone all over the world.”
The TMA invites contemporary artists from across the U.S. to participate in their residency program, where they deliver workshops on glass creativity in the museum’s studio pavilion. According to Wright, these classes are open to anyone — regardless of glass experience — and aim to teach new explorations into glass as an art form.
“For any artist, permission to play is the greatest gift that you can have,” Wright said. “Because that’s where the creativity comes … permission to explore and to not follow rules, is really where you have this tremendous expansion of creativity.”
Yet Bowlus also recognizes that glass art is a field that has its limitations. Because work in the hot shop is so physical, Bowlus explained, end products are bound to be limited by the artist’s physical capabilities.
“This furnace is a monster; it has to be fed,” Bowlus said. “The electricity has to be running. Otherwise, the glass is going to cool down and it’s gonna crack the interior and then when it heats back up, [it] oozes everywhere. This whole thing — it’s terrifying. It’s hard, and so I feel like learning that so early on has been really helpful.”
Beyond the actual craft, however, Bowlus grapples with the difficulties of being a practicing, full-time artist. As she’s still a student, it’s been a time of great learning about the field and what her future might look like in it. Through exposure to the community, she’s been able to open her eyes to difficult, yet exciting realities.
Still, the city is relatively inexpensive for budding glass artists. For Hoag, this affordability, paired with the city’s unique relationship with glass and embrace of its history, offers a kind of freedom for artists.
“I feel that Toledo has a lot of space to grow,” Hoag said. “And there’s a lot of opportunities here that are supportive of artists. I live in the Old West End, two blocks away from the museum and I have a large studio and it’s just super affordable here. You’re close to everything. You’re close to a museum that has great programming, and we have a great community. I feel like all of those things foster the spaciousness to have creative practice, no matter what you do.”
Caitlin Evans and Marin Warshay contributed reporting to this story.