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Firing the imagination

Let's call this review "Beyond Chihuly." It's about other studio glass artists, some well known, to be sure, but not with the same stratospheric celebrity _ not to mention financial success _ as the artist whose work will dominate the Museum of Fine Arts for the next four months.

Better yet, call it "Besides Chihuly."

Two exhibitions at the Arts Center and Florida Craftsmen Gallery, within two blocks of each other in downtown St. Petersburg, provide a more comprehensive look at the studio glass movement as it is today. They showcase younger artists doing their best to surprise and delight in ever more intriguing explorations into glass' potential for artistic expression.

Duncan McClellan, himself a first-rate creator of multiprocess glass objects, curated "Glass: A View Within" at the Arts Center. It's a personal show, in that he is friends, or at least has a professional connection, with all the artists represented.

He has collected some remarkable examples of blown, cast or fused glass that are combined sculpturally with other materials, such as stone and metal, or put through their material paces with sandblasting, etching, engraving, overlays and all manner of arcane embellishments.

One such treatment, seen in several works and most notably in the large vessel by Stephen Rolfe Powell, is the laborious addition of murrini, glass beads that begin as colored rods. They're heated and stretched, arranged like layers of cookie dough, fused together and sliced to form "tiles" that are laid out in a pattern. A molten glass cylinder is rolled over the murrini, then blown into its final shape.

As is Hiroshi Yamano's Fish Catcher 50, a clear crystal bowl, faceted, rolled in silver leaf and plated with copper, etched with schools of fish. Its multiple layers open like windows to its interior, drawing the eye to its center, where a single, three-dimensional glass fish appears to have broken through the surface, its head staring out from the bowl's depths, while its tail wags above the lip. I'm not sure how the artist did it, but even if I understood all the technical wizardry involved in its creation it would still be a piece of magic.

Graal and overlay are techniques with which local artists such as McClellan have familiarized us: The layers of colored glass, interspersed with clear ones, are then covered with intricate carving that seems to float through them. (Because he's the curator, McClellan did not include any of his own work here.)

With far less flash but extraordinary mastery, Paul Cunningham's incalmo vases are demonstrations of a Venetian technique that, as McClellan says, "you could spend a lifetime trying to learn." It requires the perfect hot fusion of two bubbles of free-blown glass. In this case, Cunningham introduces the further challenge of adding a third bubble of clear glass with colored canes heated to threadlike thinness and spiraled around the center of the vessel.

Among all the seriousness of purpose, whimsy has a place, too. James Wilbat's Big Head is a piece of fun, a sculptural, blown bust of a man onto which "features" are added by fusing colored shards of glass to the surface. The whole thing is then sandblasted to achieve its frosted appearance.

None of these works is functional, but I'd still love to fill the huge Scent Bottles of Australian Nick Mount with a vat of Chanel No. 5 _ or Poire William, the incendiary pear brandy, since the vessels have botanical-like pear drawings on them, made with some sort of crayon he developed for glass. McClellan says Mount is secretive about the process.

Secrecy has been a hallmark of glassmakers, who, several hundred years ago, worked in artisanal workshops and could be threatened with death if they revealed their methods. Today, with the studio glass movement still only several decades old, young artists seem far more willing to share information, although McClellan relates the difficulty he has had achieving a true "Murano red" in his work. Even when he traveled to a Venetian studio for enlightenment, he was disappointed: Those old studios often keep their formulas secret.

As mysterious as glassmaking must seem to the uninitiated, they won't confront secrets in this exhibition _ just plenty of opportunity for wonder. Don't miss it.

And don't forget the fascinating Hot Glass! glassblowing demonstrations by artist Jodi Bove, held outdoors several times a day behind the Arts Center. In addition, a former classroom on the east side of the building has been turned into a new retail area filled with interesting gadgets, jewelry, souvenir items and crafts. The center will continue to offer fine art for sale on the west side, where the gift shop had been.

"Everyday Transparencies'

Florida Craftsmen Gallery has opened its new gallery space next door, once the home of a soap shop, with "Everyday Transparencies: The Function of Glass." In the past, curated shows had to be shoehorned into the back area of the gallery, but the large new space gives visitors a much better way to see them.

This inaugural show is a nice complement to the Arts Center's tour de force because it aspires to practicality; the pieces are meant to be used. Some are overtly functional _ a funky, fused-glass kitchen sink and nesting bowls sandblasted to opaqueness, examples of what is called production glass because they are mass produced.

Others, such as Susan Taylor Glasgow's sewn glass handbags, could be pressed into service as repositories for a cell phone and compact, but they look far more artful draped in a vitrine than slung over a shoulder. And woe to the person who would use, then drop, one of Shane Fero's flameworked goblets after too many cosmopolitans, or _ heaven forbid! _ put it in a dishwasher.

An argument can be made for function in Paul Cunningham's cone-shaped vases with pure, rich colors and his bowls twirled with glass canes in a double spiral design _ more function, it's true, than in his work at the Arts Center, discussed above.

Sonja Blomdahl, also a master at fusing glass shapes of different colors into one perfectly formed piece, has vessels that could hold a rose or spray of orchids. But none of the vessels by these two craftspeople needs that sort of gilded-lily justification.

And the best way to "use" Jennifer Jacoby's collection of bright vases, named My Ladies, is to set them on a shelf or table and rearrange them at will.

Function, if one is looking for it, attaches itself to many of these objects. But, more important, beauty does as well. Don't miss this show, either.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or lenniesptimes.com.

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