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Collaborative 'Idea Furnace' gets artists fired up

| Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, 8:17 p.m.
Nathan J. Shaulis
Travis Rohrbaugh's 'Wingman'
Nathan J. Shaulis
Jeremy Boyle's Untitled (Glass Birds)
Nathan J. Shaulis
Travis Rohrbaugh and Jeremy Boyle's 'Propeller'
Nathan J. Shaulis
Jeremy Boyle's Untitled (Glass Birds)
Nathan J. Shaulis
Kara Skylling's 'Walking Past Looking Through'
Part of Robert Beckman's 'Configuration 3, July 24, 2014'

“The Idea Furnace,” an exhibit that is the result of a six-month residency for glass and nonglass artists, recently opened at the Pittsburgh Glass Center, one of six organizations that has partnered with the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts for the 2014 Pittsburgh Biennial.

The glass center's executive director Heather McElwee selected seven artists to participate based on their creative reputation and paired them with five of the center's glass artists.

“Idea Furnace” provides support to artists working outside of the medium of glass and gives them an opportunity to explore a new material and create a body of work with the help of a glass artist and the Pittsburgh Glass Center.

“The project also challenges our glass artists to think more broadly about the material, to approach it in a new way and to find out-of-the-box solutions to complex design challenges,” McElwee says.

For example, Jeremy Boyle, an assistant art professor at Clarion University, was invited to participate in the “Idea Furnace” residency even though he had no prior experience working with glass. With help from glass center artist Travis Rohrbaugh, Boyle created four untitled “glass birds.”

“The glass center was very supportive, introducing me to processes and materials and giving me the space to think about my own practice in the context of a new medium,” Boyle says, a sound artist and musician. “Once I had an idea for an approach, I was paired with Travis Rohrbaugh to develop a process to realize my ideas. Travis very generously shared his expertise and time as we worked to figure out the best way to make the work.”

On display in the glass center's Hodge Gallery, the four pieces feature small circuits built directly on drilled glass, with each circuit synthesizing a bird-like chirping sound in random patterns.

“My initial idea was to build circuits that would be musical in nature, maybe chime-like in sound,” Boyle says. “As I worked with Travis, I was influenced by his thoughts around flight and airplanes — and shifted my sound toward flight as well, thinking about birds.”

Making the small glass circuits was a tedious and time-consuming process, Boyle says, requiring more than 200 holes to be precisely drilled in the glass. “Not to mention the hundreds of misdrilled holes and cracked glass along the way,” he says.

Through the time working on this project, Boyle says he began thinking about other possible smaller works. “I was interested in making something kinetic,” he says. “I became very aware of the qualities of light and shadow through the thin glass I was drilling.”

This interest led Boyle to propose to Rohrbaugh that they work on something collaboratively, resulting in a glass propeller carefully mounted to a small motor. “I especially enjoyed this opportunity to pull together ideas, common interests and skills in different media into this collaborative work,” Boyle says.

Rohrbaugh took this aviation-inspired idea even further to create “Wingman,” a scale-model of an airplane made of assembled plate glass and blown glass.

Watercolorist Kara Skylling of Polish Hill found a way to make her collaborative piece, “Walking Past Looking Through,” into a continuation of her work in drawing and painting.

Much like her linear, landscape-inspired watercolors, Skylling says, “I created deconstructed compositions using line, color and shape with a focus on process, repetition and material, while flattening space to emphasize the patterns of our urban landscape.

“I was excited to work in glass not only to explore the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar material but also to use a material that is so key to the field of architecture, especially post-modern design.”

Skylling says working collaboratively with glass artist Margaret Spacapan and the Pittsburgh Glass Center was “highly rewarding.”

“Their support and encouragement to think big and that anything was possible set a great jumping off point for the project,” Skylling says. “There were times when it was challenging to be working with a completely unfamiliar material, but my partner Margaret at PGC understood my vision and was a huge help and inspiration throughout the whole process.”

Primarily a printmaker, Robert Beckman, co-founder and director of Artist Image Resource, a printmaking facility on the North Side, says that he, too, gained a lot of insight from the glass-center experience.

“I went in thinking about three bodies of work that I had been developing, and two of them, a dictionary project and a portrait project, became the basis for the work exhibited,” he says. “The work remains in progress, but I am pleased with this iteration, and the crew at the glass center has been great.”

Glass artist Ashley McFarland helped Beckman create his “Configuration 3, July 24, 2014,” which includes words and portraits in powdered glass created by pushing glass powder through printing screens (silkscreens) onto sheets of glass and firing them.

Powder was fused into each sheet from both sides, and the sheets were subsequently put into the kiln, one on top of the other, and fused. Words, definitions of words and photographic tracings of individuals were combined and positioned on the wall to create associations meant to prompt the viewer to create new meanings.

“If a culture truly values the work of the artist, it is essential that it provide resources for the artist,” Beckman says. “The ‘Idea Factory' model, a model that allows a resource organization to provide broad access for the exploration of ideas and creation of new work by diverse artists, is a great example of how we can express value for the artist by providing real support.”

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

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