Glass artist Duncan McClellan settles into unique home, studio in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

Animal, vegetable or mineral?

Figuring out the actual names for all the spaces in Duncan McClellan's new dwelling is like playing that old guessing game.

The popular, award-winning glass sculptor recently moved from Tampa to a 7,800-square-foot building in St. Petersburg. It was first a plant for processing fish, then tomatoes, then nothing.

Under McClellan's ownership, it is now many things.

Foremost and uncompromisingly, it is, like the beautiful vessels he creates, a visual statement. The green structure, a shade below avocado flesh and above lime pulp, rises from the scruffy surroundings of an industrial park near the Midtown neighborhood. The color comparison to fruit is appropriate because McClellan has planted on his half-acre plot a forest of tropical fruit trees that include several varieties of the aforementioned green species. (Also important to mention, his digs shouldn't be confused with a warehouse next door that the owner painted almost the same color. It's a long, possibly contentious story that McClellan doesn't want to get into.)

As formidable as the building's size, its entrance is a welcoming stack of broad wood steps leading to a deck lined with flowering plants. Inside, part of that welcome is extended by a large metal insect by artist Paul Eppling that stares you down from the wall. And it's where things begin to get really interesting.

McClellan has organized the interior for living, working and entertaining. Some space, such as storage, is dedicated just to that, but most of the building easily transitions from one role to another.

"All my space functions in a lot of different ways," he says.

The best example opens up inside the front door, in a room taking up about a quarter of the entire square footage. Large metal tables on wheels are off to the side, filled with McClellan's glass sculptures in various stages of completion. On another day, they will be used for glass etching classes. Several hours later, the tables might be cleared, rolled into the center of the cavernous space and set with table linens and trays of hors d'oeuvres for a party.

He loves to entertain, and soirees in his former Tampa studio and home, for which he often did the cooking, became famous locally. Most of them were benefits for nonprofit organizations, especially arts causes. His new home in St. Petersburg gives him a larger stage that he has already used for a number of events since he moved several months ago.

The building's day job is as McClellan's studio and office. His colorful vessels with ornate surface work punctuate every room, a canny reminder to visitors that the art he creates pays his bills and may be purchased on the spot (usually for low to high five figures). He has an elegant gallery, dimly lit except for bright niches that highlight his dramatically beautiful work.

Near the service bar, which he designed, is McClellan's shower. It faces the sectional sofa. It's the size of a walk-in closet and, given its public location, could accommodate a good number of party guests on any given evening.

The artist admits it's an unconventional siting. And when he first moved in and construction was still under way, taking showers with hard-hatters milling around could be awkward. But the location was a practical decision.

McClellan, 55, also has a design business to create furniture and decorative elements commissioned by interior designers and architects for their projects. He often works with other artists on them. So he had fellow glass artist Sandra Brewster etch the shower's glass panels depicting the myth of Icarus "to show designers who come in what we can do." This way, he doesn't have to clean his bathroom for a presentation.

But speaking of bathrooms, the ones McClellan designed are also pretty cool. As you would expect, they have glass sinks, one created by him. Because of the entertaining thing, he has men's and women's rooms side by side. When he's alone, he uses either one.

Most of the building doesn't have air-conditioning "because the cost would have been prohibitive," he says. With very high ceilings and a good fan system, the temperature on even a recent wiltingly hot day was pleasant.

He does have a small air unit in his bedroom, which can also function as an intimate dining room. The closet is hidden behind heavy wood doors from India that slide on an iron track, similar to high-end barn doors. When you walk through them, you expect to see more than T-shirts. An enormous carved wood frame, covered with thin sheets of silver, is 19th century German and now acts as elaborate molding around the entry door. Both are examples of "some of the things I can get for designers and architects for their projects," he says.

You can understand the need for two bathrooms in this building. But two kitchens?

One, he says, isn't really a kitchen. It has a large refrigerator and a restaurant-style sink ("You can buy those things really cheaply," he says) that McClellan installed as a caterer's space early on when he wasn't sure he would be living there full time. The problem was, he couldn't add a stove or oven because, as a potential commercial space, it didn't meet code regulations. The second kitchen, equipped with both, is separated from the commercial areas by a roll-down metal door that acts as a fire wall. So, two kitchens.

McClellan has made his outdoor spaces as quirkily charming as the interior. Another, larger deck is built for entertaining, too, with benches and a fountain he designed using large metal silhouettes. The deck, too, was a practical solution to an aesthetic problem. It hides a lot of the wiring needed for outdoor lighting.

In addition to those avocados and citrus trees, he has tropicals such as lychees, guavas, Surinam cherries, mangoes and "every known species of kumquat," a particular favorite. Pomegranates and allspice berries have been his first harvests.

As versatile as the old warehouse has become, it lacks a component that is central to McClellan's vision, which is as a place where he can create his glass sculptures from start to finish. McClellan's works, some built up from 16 layers, require many steps and processes. He has his own equipment for grinding and sandblasting — the final decorative parts of glassmaking — and space for it when he moves it from Tampa in the near future.

Yet his dream is to build his own hot shop on the property where he can host visiting glass artists in conjunction with glass programs at the Morean Arts Center, where he is a board member. The move to St. Petersburg came because he feels the city is so arts-friendly and has the potential to be "the East Coast version of Seattle, which is the studio glass capital of the U.S." He believes the Chihuly Collection, a museumlike gallery that opened on Beach Drive in July, will be a catalyst, along with the Morean, in attracting international artists to the city. He's hosting an open house in his new studio with some highly regarded glass artists, most not from the area, who are participating, along with McClellan, in Sculpture Objects and Functional Art, a huge exposition in Chicago in November. (See above)

McClellan has bet a lot more than hope on this dream. So far his total investment is about $700,000, "which is everything I could possibly borrow or cash in. This has been a leap of faith for me. I'm going to have to wait a little on the hot shop," he says.

In the meantime, he has blown and stockpiled hundreds of blanks — the plain, basic forms — which he says can keep him busy etching and sandblasting for the next five years.

And there's the design business he wants to grow. And the big pots of pasta he'll cook for those fundraisers (along with big bowls of tropical fruit, of course).

It's a life that's as transparently enjoyable as glass.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lennie@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8293.

Visit Duncan McClellan's studio and gallery

McClellan will host a free open house from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Saturday to promote artists participating in the Sculpture Objects and Functional Art show in Chicago in November. It's also part of St. Petersburg's Second Saturday Art Walk with a number of local galleries participating.

In addition to McClellan's work, those by artists James R. Wilbat, Maciej Zaborski, Bruce Marks, Keith Rowe, Sandra Brewster, Jacob Stout, Midek and Rafel, Jack Storm and Peter Layton will be included in the show, which is also organized by the Greg Matteson Gallery.

McClellan's gallery is at 2342 Emerson Ave. S, St. Petersburg.

Glass artist Duncan McClellan settles into unique home, studio in St. Petersburg 09/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 30, 2010 1:44pm]

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