The present learns from the past

Toots Zynsky

One of Dale Chihuly's first students at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence in the early 1970s, glass artist Toots Zynsky recalls that the class was instructed to "just look at everything." Though she has traveled widely, always looking, she says, "what was very special about the Shelburne weekend was the opportunity to be there with a group of artists from many different disciplines and to experience other people's fascination with things I might otherwise have breezed past."

She definitely had trouble finding just one object that moved her, and settled on three: a spirited carved carousel horse, a folk sculpture called Nine Pins, and a large pastel by Edgar Degas that was among the impressionist pictures collected by Electra Webb's parents, Louisine Elder (1855-1929) and Henry O. Havemeyer (1847-1907). The Degas, Deux danseuses, inspired several of Zynsky's distinctive glass vessels, including the one shown here. Entitled Cambré (a ballet term meaning to bend from the waist in any direction), the work takes up the subtle color palette of the pastel—"one of the things I realized on return visits to the museum was how many different colors Degas used in the white tutus," she says.

Zynsky's unusual technique, which she evolved after working with many traditional glass-forming methods, such as blowing, casting, and pâte-de-verre, involves huge quantities of glass threads. She was first drawn to working with these in the late 1970s, when she encased her blown pieces with massed glass threads, spun on hot. By 1982, when she made Barefoot Bowl, or Clipped Grass (acquired by the Corning Museum of Glass from her first solo exhibition, held at the Theo Portnoy Gallery in New York that year), she had recognized that the process of hand-pulling extremely fine glass threads required too much time and too many hands. A friend, the late Dutch artist and inventor Mathijs Teunissen Van Manen, came to her aid by inventing a pulling machine for her, and over the next twenty-five years—mostly spent in Amsterdam—they collaborated on developing ever more sophisticated devices, reincorporating essential parts from one machine to the next, so that now Zynsky has two that supply her with sufficient threads for all her work.

To create her vessels, Zynsky builds layers of the glass threads on a flat heat- resistant ceramic fiber board ("laying out each piece is a similar thought process to making a drawing or a painting"), which is then placed in a kiln for fusing. When the threads are thoroughly fused, she removes the glass from the kiln and shapes it in a series of molds to form a basic rounded shape; then, reheating as necessary, she pulls and squeezes the glass to give each object its unique contours, sometimes laying it briefly upside down on a simple cylinder to allow it to drape down. By using more colorless threads than she normally does, in Cambré she has captured not only the diaphanous character of the dancers' skirts, but also the ephemeral nature of dance itself.

Appropriately, Zynsky is shown seated on the porch of the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building, erected at the museum by Webb's children after her death, to house the impressionist works that she had inherited from her parents. The pictures hang in six rooms moved to the building from the Webbs' New York apartment. A counterpoint to their Vermont house and to the collections assembled for the museum, the Park Avenue triplex was furnished in sophisticated neoclassical style, and the rooms retain many fine examples of eighteenth-century English furniture, in addition to the pictures by Degas, Claude Monet, and Mary Cassatt (who originally persuaded the Havemeyers to buy French impressionist works), among others.

Next: Michelle Erickson

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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