Nancy Callan’s glass art is all about exploration, discovery, and collaborating with the material.
By John Dorfman
Nancy Callan has caught on fire. Not metaphorically—literally. When she’s working on her pieces in the hotshop, assistants have to hold wooden paddles to shield her arms and torso from the heat, and on more than one occasion, her clothes have ignited anyway. It’s hardly surprising, considering that glass artists have to handle liquefied red-hot glass right out of furnaces where temperatures average 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to get the effects they desire. Like her peers in this challenging art form, Callan relishes this primal encounter with the raw material. “I’ve been blowing glass for 27 years, and I still find the magic every time I work.” says the Massachusetts native, who now lives and works in Seattle, the country’s art-glass capital. “I can’t believe you can do this with a material. Whatever your imagination can think up, you can make it in glass. Actually, it’s even better than what you can think up, because it’s really a collaboration between you and the material. Glass has so much will—it has its own idea of what it wants to do.”
Of course, Callan has her own ideas. One of her stylistic signatures is the etching of fine lines and patterns into the surfaces of her blown-glass pieces, suggesting organic forms of nature such as leaves with their veins, or imagery from physics on both the micro and macro levels, such as the hyper-dimensional strings from quantum theory or the pathways of cosmic rays. “As an artist,” Callan says, “I go through the world in wonder of things, and there are so many I don’t understand, for example string theory, how things can be in the universe. By creating my own universe, I can try to understand it.”
Recently she has been creating flat wall pieces or glass panels, which are rather different from the sculptures in the round that she had been making. She started making them in 2016 as “a kind of record of all the different patterns I’ve done. A friend suggested doing a book, but I thought, what about making the pages glass panels?” She began doing it in all black-and-white. “I loved it because it was freeing, like doing a drawing, but I’m a way better glassblower than I am with pencil and paper.”
Callan’s fascination with patterns gives her the ability to find inspiration virtually anywhere she looks. “When I see something in the world, I start to deconstruct it, thinking, how am I going to make it from glass?” she says. “I want to translate it, not copy it, so the work is definitely an abstraction of things that I see. I never try to copy Mother Nature; I just try to be inspired by her.” The artist has also found inspiration in human-made patterns, whether from graphic design or even something as ordinary as the lines on a road bending and winding into the distance. In many of her works, she strives to convey a sense of motion. “I love patterns on fabrics and textiles,” she says, “when somebody is wearing a pattern, how it moves when they walk, and how that distorts it. And I love being able to do that in glass.” For her “Tops” series, which resemble a cross between a child’s toy and an objet de vertu, and which she made up until about four or five years ago, she conveyed the spinning movement with the striped cane work.
In order to infuse the glass with imagery, Callan uses a variety of murrini and cane, creating her own language with historical Venetian techniques. “I make a cylinder, a 3-D object out of my pattern, then open that up,” she explains. “Cutting it open and letting it unfold, I sometimes get a variation of what I thought I would make.” The element of wonder, of the unpredictable, accompanies her throughout the process: “Every time I do a pattern, it comes out different, even if I do it in the same way. How is that possible?” Speaking of one piece, a purple and pink iridescent jewel-like object titled Witching Hour, Callan says, “Trying to remake that is like chasing a rainbow. I don’t even know how I did it! Sometimes you just have to let something be a one-off.” Lately she has been experimenting with color fades achieved through a blow-through technique followed by sandblasting and hand-sanding, which makes the objects glowingly translucent rather than transparent. In some of these pieces she will do the same pattern in different colors, and even the patterns turn out slightly differently each time.
Not surprisingly, Callan came to glass having first worked as a graphic designer, which she did right out of high school, entirely self-taught. After eight years of that she enrolled at MassArt (the Massachusetts College of Art and Design) to improve her computer skills. In addition to the computer classes, she took a ceramics class and realized that she had been missing working with her hands. “One night I was doing a firing in the ceramics room,” she says. “I opened the door to the glassblowing studio and was mesmerized—furnaces glowing with the lights out. I didn’t know what I was seeing.” She signed up for glassblowing classes, and the first time she handled the hot glass, she recalls, “I knew instantly that this is what I wanted to do and be really good at it.”
After only a year and a half of working with glass, Callan was lucky enough to get into a class with Lino Tagliapietra, the great Venetian master who brought the ancient techniques to America and opened a new era of glass art in this country. She asked him what she needed to do to be a great glassblower, and he told her to move to Seattle, where he worked while in the United States. She did so—and spent the next 19 years on his team of assistants. Because of the technical challenges, glass is a collaborative endeavor (Callan today works with a regular team of four assistants), and through Tagliapietra she met fellow glass artists from whom she learned a great deal. Alongside her work for him, she was doing her own work and growing as an artist.
“I thought I’d be with Lino until he retired,” she says, “but he kept not retiring.” (He is 87 and finally announced his retirement in 2021.) It was a hard decision, but seven years ago she went out on her own and set up her own studio on her property in Seattle, with a modest little showroom. She also works at a public-access glass shop in Everett, Wash., called the Schack Art Center. “I’m an artist, and it is a business, and the two meet,” she says. “They don’t tell you that in art school!”
Glass art is a collaboration with other people, but above all, it is a collaboration with glass. As the great American glass pioneer Harvey Littleton said, “It is through the insatiable, adventurous urge of the artist to discover the essence of glass that his own means of expression will emerge.” Callan is endlessly intrigued by the way glass behaves, its dichotomy of solidity and liquidity, which suggests a spiritualization of matter, or magical transformation. “Glass is beyond comprehension at times,” Callan says. “I don’t want you to know that I labored over the piece; I want my forms to flow and look effortless, as if you could see it in nature.”