Glass master brings his talents to Pittsburgh

Kurt Shaw
| Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

In the world of contemporary studio glass, few names stand out like that of Lino Tagliapietra. Widely acknowledged as the best glassblower in the world, he is coming to Pittsburgh this week to work as an artist in residence at Pittsburgh Glass Center in Friendship.

For five days beginning Jan. 27, he will be working in the glass-center studios along with his Seattle-based team, including Nancy Callan, Darin Denison, Jen Elek and Dave Walters.

“Lino is one of the quintessential glass artists working today and has had a profound influence on many artists, including myself,” says Kathleen Mulcahy of Oakdale, an independent studio-glass artist and co-founder of Pittsburgh Glass Center. She has known Tagliapietra since 1984, when he was her host for a Lusk Memorial Award trip to Italy through the Fulbright Foundation.

Based in Seattle for the past 30 years, Tagliapietra says he has never been to Pittsburgh before, but made the decision to come just two weeks ago because of his “curiosity to see the shop” at Pittsburgh Glass Center.

“They asked me several times,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “I needed something to do. I am excited to see the city, the people and the studio.”

For a man who will turn 80 this year, he has the wanderlust of someone half his age.

“I like to think I'm half of 80,” he says with a chuckle. And, though he is based in Seattle, he says he is really only there about five times a year. Often, he is back on Murano, a Venetian island that has served as the world's glass capital for several hundred years. The island is his birthplace. It's where he began working in a glass factory at the age of 11 and where he currently keeps a studio.

Other than those two places, he travels frequently to glass centers all over the world, often setting up shop, like he will here, to make his art.

“It's very important for me to see the museums, meet the people, breathe the air and spend some time with the people. I like a lot, this kind of experience,” he says.

The son of a fisherman and dressmaker from the nearby island of Burano, Tagliapietra says he learned about making glass early on, around the age of 5 or 6, from his uncle, who worked at the factory Artisti Vetrai Muranese on Murano.

“He took me to the factory to see the work, and I like it very much,” Tagliapietra recalls. “There were many small kids at the factory. They do a nice job, because they like it.”

At the age of 11, Tagliapietra quit school to work in the factory. A year later, he became an apprentice to Archimede Seguso, for which he was paid 120 lire a week, all of which he gave to his parents.

He says that, around the age of 16, “I tried to go back to school, but I missed too many things.”

Nine years later, at the age of 25, he achieved the title of Maestro (master glassblower). Subsequently, he worked at several of Murano's greatest factories, including Galliano Ferro, Venini, La Murrina (which he founded) and Effetre International, where he was artistic and technical director from 1976 to 1989.

Tagliapietra is the rare example of a glassblower who is both an artist and a designer. During the 1960s, he started expressing his creativity through the design and execution of pieces that had advanced technical and aesthetic qualities. This earned him significant commercial success, and, by 1979, when a massive shift in the Studio Glass Movement was underway, he was invited to teach at Dale Chihuly's Pilchuck Glass School, outside of Seattle. That's where he established many of the professional relationships with students and colleagues that endure to this day.

“For the last 30 years, I have been in the States because my market is here,” he says. “I prefer to work in the States. I go around to different cities, meet the people, see what they are doing.”

But when in Murano, or even nearby Venice, he says, “I have a cappuccino, talk about politics, read books, listen to music.”

Much of the work he creates in the United States is finished or “cold-worked” (ground, polished, etc.) in Murano. “The cold work sometimes is a very long process,” he says. “Some (pieces) require three weeks to finish.”

As for creating the work, he says, “Sometimes, in one day, we do three pieces, four pieces, sometimes five.”

“When I work, I work with a team of about six to eight people. We work for about 20 years together.”

Nancy Callan, who showed her work at Pittsburgh Glass Center and Concept Art Gallery in September, has been with him since 1997. “The other people have worked with me four or five years before Nancy.”

Tagliapietra says he likes working with his well-heeled team because, “Normally I don't talk too much. It's much more easy. It's not necessary to talk too much. They know exactly what I am going to do.”

As for the work they plan to create this week, Tagliapietra says much of it will be components for a larger installation he is working on. “The problem with me is that I have one project that needs to be done. But I will be making smaller things, and (will likely) leave something behind.”

Tagliapietra uses murrini, which are colorful cross-sections of glass cane (long rods of glass), and cane that looks like glass straws, to create the intricate patterns in his glass sculptures, which range in size from a few inches to almost 2 feet across. The hot glass is rolled or pressed onto the murrini or cane. Then it is repeatedly fired, blown and shaped until the final look the maestro is going for is achieved.

Tagliapietra says he plans to create several “solid forms with different pattern, new material.”

“We are going to explore a little bit, new things,” he says. “That's one of my characteristics I think, to explore the work, to do something (new). I think is very important for me.”

That's a long way from the days when, as a production glassblower, he had to make 30 to 40 pieces a day. “For me, I have to walk the street all the time, have lunch, take my time.”

Pittsburgh Glass Center spokeswoman Paige Ilkhanipour says there are no public events planned during Tagliapietra's stay, “although the public is welcome to come here during our open hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) to watch him work during the week he is here.”

“This is very exciting for us considering that Lino is regarded as the best glassblower in the world, and we've been trying to get him here for a very long time,” Ilkhanipour says.

Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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