Equal parts of fusion and fragmentation: In conversation with glass artist John Kiley
Artist John Kiley's work is striking and hard to look away from. The beautiful, perfectly curved forms, the vibrant colors of glass, filtering light and views, and last, but certainly not least, the feeling of looking at a seamless whole and a sum of sliced, fragmented parts all at once.
Despite their inherent perfection and balance of components, Kiley's glass sculptures can often trigger feelings of anxiety, longing, or simply a sense of tension in the viewer. This impact is one that Kiley intends to create, and can be attributed not only to the extremely delicate composition of glass pieces and the nature of the material itself but also to the precarious, on-the-edge placements of some of these sculptures when they are on display.
All of this makes Kiley's work most intriguing to us, and his process and methods in the studio, an even greater point of interest.
Kiley's work in the Hot Shop (a glass blowing studio), is unusual in the sense that it involves, in equal measure, the fusion of individually blown and colored glass spheres, and the cutting of these fused forms by diamond saws, sanders, and grinders. This tense relationship between building up, and breaking away, is at the heart of the beauty of his work. In line with these visuals, Kiley often uses the terms 'Deconstruction' and 'Reconstruction' when he speaks about his work.
Not content with only one way of doing things, Kiley's upcoming work (10,000 MPH) is unlike any of his previous creations in output and technique—where blocks of solid, clear glass are shattered by impact and make physical a certain energy. Yet, this new series continues to push and expand on his core theme of what is broken and intact, taking to new heights.
John's journey with glass has been a long and illustrious one, a relationship that began at an early age. He started his professional career at age 19 and became a member of the close-knit teams of renowned glass artists such as Dale Chihuly and Lino Tagliapietra. Over the years he has worked, instructed and demonstrated in multiple countries and his work has been exhibited in galleries all over the world. This rich heritage shines through his work and speaks through the fine, honed, signature processes he has developed for his glass sculptures.
Recently we reached out to John and spoke with him about his methods, materiality, experience as a glass artist and sculptor, and his exciting new work that opens to the public in August.
Here is that conversation, and interview with John.
MD: John, in your sculptures, we see beautiful, curved forms, and what appears to be fused fragments of whole, single-colored glass elements. How are these works created?
John: Most of my works start in the Hot Shop–a glass blowing studio that contains a furnace filled with molten glass. There are also several additional furnaces that are used specifically for reheating the glass as the piece is made.
Glassblowing is usually done in a team, and my team typically consists of seven people, including myself. When we are making my spherical or ovoid forms, the team splits into two groups. One side of the hot shop starts a piece with a single color, while the other side simultaneously starts a different color. This color is procured in the form of dense glass rods that are made in Germany and New Zealand. Sections of these rods are heated up in a kiln and then overlaid on top of a small glass bubble at the end of a blow pipe. Several layers of molten glass are gathered on top of the color until there is enough material to make the piece. When all of the glass that we need to make a piece is gathered, the blowing process begins. After two individual hemispheres are blown, they are fused together hot, during the blowing process and then shaped to form a seamless form with a dividing line down the middle.
After the initial shaping process is complete, it is placed in an annealing oven where it slowly cools to room temperature over a period of 36 hours. The room temperature piece is now ready for the sculpting process.
For the sculpting, using diamond saws, belt sanders, angle grinders and lapidary equipment, sections of the blown form are removed, and the sculpture is “roughed out”–using the typical reductive sculpting processes. The final step is smoothing and polishing using increasing finer grits, and finally cerium oxide.
MD: You mention 'Deconstruction' and 'Reconstruction' when you describe your sculptures and process. Tell us about these themes in your work.
John: The origins of these themes lie in vivid and formative experiences from my childhood.
When I was a child, my parents, tore the roof off of our house and began a seven-year remodel. Along with the piles of broken plaster and splintered wood inside the shell of our home, the yard was also a construction zone, full of mounded soil and puddles of mud.
One day I picked up a handful of soggy earth and began to fashion it slowly and deliberately with my bare hands. After perhaps an hour of shaping, the amorphous matrix began to take the form of a ball and eventually a perfect sphere.
To me, this tennis ball-sized object was too perfect to sacrifice in battle, so I placed it in a small glass dish borrowed from the remnants of my Mother’s kitchen and hid it inside a tool shed behind our house. This spherical shrine was perched on a shelf at my eye level. I would visit it almost daily.
Weeks later, I decided to share my creation with the other kids in our neighborhood. After summoning everyone for the big reveal, not a single one of my cohorts believed that the sphere was merely soil shaped by hand! The leading theory amongst the group was that it must be a ball, coated with dried mud.
I pondered two options, return my treasure to the shed or break it open and impress my friends. I opted for the latter. Looking at the broken pile of earth, splayed out on the sidewalk, I felt a sense of pride that I had created something so perfect, and a sense of loss that it was ruined, or was it? I stood there, my gaze fixed on the destruction below–not a pile of ruin but clearly a broken sphere. The round outside surfaces were still intact–rough inside sections cast contrasting shadows and questions arose, which is more interesting, intact or sectioned, outside or inside, material or shadow? Why was I so drawn to this broken form?
MD: John, you work extensively with glass as your medium. Are there other materials which you are interested in working with, or currently work with, which also respond to the conceptual needs of your art and design?
John: I do work with other materials, including composites, and wood. There are limitations on the scale possible with the glassblowing process, so I’ve used glass maquettes as the basis of larger sculptures in other materials. An example of this is a composite sculpture called ‘Evenfall’ that was made using rapid prototyping technology.
MD: You mention that the delicacy of glass can trigger a sense of tension, concern, and longing for the viewer. Is that always the impact you are trying to create, or magnify through your work?
John: It really depends on the piece, but aesthetics aside, my work is about asking questions regarding the relationship between art and the viewer. It’s always interesting to see how people react to the work. Sometimes, in an exhibition, I'll place a precarious looking piece right at the edge of a pedestal. This tends to create anxiety in the viewer, although it is no less stable than if it were in the center of a pedestal. I question–Why does this placement evoke a particular response?
MD: John, you have a new series of works opening to the public in just a few days–10,000 MPH, at the Traver Gallery in Seattle. Can you tell us a little about this exhibition? How does it differ or relate to your previous work?
John: My new work, titled, 10,000 MPH Hour, will appear to be quite a departure from what I am known for.My previous works have been about the delicate composition of meticulously formed and colored glass orbs. But for these new works, the intent is to capture the raw energy of the moment when a sledgehammer meets a thick clear glass block.
The sledgehammer collides and hits the glass explosively, leading to cracks that propagate through the glass at the speed of 10,000 MPH. Each piece, each moment is unique, and cannot be replicated.
I have also always been interested in Fractography–the study of the fracture surfaces of materials–and to my mind, these pieces are, what I would like to call, 'Fractographs'. While the action of breaking the glass is rapid, there is nothing momentary about these pieces–an immense amount of time has been spent putting the pieces of the fractured glass and shards back together.
MD: You have a rich history of work, both individually, and alongside prestigious artists such as Dale Chihuly, Lino Taglipietra, and Benjamin Moore. What are the most significant ways in which those early years have shaped what you create today?
John: I was very fortunate to have worked with the masters of the material that I use for my art–glass. As I learned from and worked with them, I understood that I wanted a minimum of 10 years to invest in simply learning the techniques of glass blowing.
While I started blowing glass in 1991, I had the first solo exhibit of my work only in 2010.
I used this time to gather skills and master the techniques of working with glass, but also to determine that my own work would be more minimalist in its character.
While formally, there is no direct connection between my work and that of the brilliant artists I used to work with, what I did pick up from them (besides techniques) were certain attitudes and lifelong practices. From Lino Taglipietra, I learned to enjoy my surroundings–the outdoors, food, travel–and draw from them. Both Lino and Dale Chihuly urged me to ask questions, examine things and be curious–and not just about the materials we worked with.
From them, I also learned that I had to find my own voice and style of work, and not imitate that of any other. This helped me unearth my personal interest and passion for what is intact versus what is broken.
Chihuly also helped me understand that I should document my work and document it well; that those thousands of images of my work would reach and impact far more people than the one's who would get to see my work in person.
MD: Thank you, John. It is true; we count ourselves as one of the individuals who have enjoyed and been impacted by your beautiful work by way of such images. We can't wait to see your upcoming work, in person.
Many thanks for speaking with us and sharing your journey and process!