American artist Toots Zynsky studied glass with Dale Chihuly at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and at Pilchuck Glass School, which she helped build during its first summers of existence. She earned her BFA from RISD in 1973 and served as assistant director of the New York Experimental Glass Workshop (now UrbanGlass) from 1980 until 1983, when she moved to Europe. There, she collaborated with Dutch inventor Mathijs Teunissen van Manen to develop and perfect the special machinery used in the process she calls filet-de-verre. This distinctive technique, for which she is known, consists of fusing and thermo-forming vessels out of thousands of pulled colored glass threads. Zynsky’s studio is in Providence, Rhode Island, where she has been based since 1999.
Toots Zynsky and Therman Statom reflect on their work, collaborating with each other, and their time at RISD with Dale Chihuly. They also discuss their community engagement projects.
Toots Zynsky discusses her first encounter with glass at RISD.03:45 Transcript
Toots Zynsky discusses her first encounter with glass at RISD. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 03:45.
Toots Zynsky: I was—did my freshman year at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Rhode Island]. I was—you know, it’s a broad program where you do 2D, 3D—are introduced to lots of different materials to work with; and within those realms of two-dimensional and three-dimensional, a lot of drawing, and then we were supposed to choose a major at the end of the year and I was like, [laughs] ‘Okay. What am I doing here?’ And I actually thought I had made a mistake. [laughs] So. I took a leave of absence from school and then had a sort of second thought about that and thought, ‘Wait a minute.’ You know, we’ve been pretty isolated in those days in the freshman foundation building. I thought, ‘I don’t really know. I mean, what is in the rest of this school?’ Not in depth, I knew upperclassmen and I had sort of run by their departments to see them or something, but we were busy in the freshman foundation building. So I decided, ‘Well, I worked really hard to get in here. I’d better make sure that I’m not making a huge mistake.’ And so I went and got the map, all the buildings and grounds map of every building the school owned, and I went to one thing after another and opened every door and one department after another and I went, ‘Mm, no, not this,’ and ‘No, not this.’ And then finally I was out of departments, according to the maps. I was out of studios, I was out of programs, and I thought, ‘Okay. I’m going to med school.’ [laughs]. You know, and I actually was in the last building and I was on the top floor and I had to go to the end of it to get to the stairwell, and I opened the doors and there was this roar [laughs]. And this thumping music playing and people were sort of suddenly dashing in, out of a door and all it said on my map was ‘ceramics storeroom.’ And so I kind of went and looked in and everyone in the room was in really wild drag; and I’m not kidding, wild drag even by today’s standards [laughs], okay? And this is 1970, and I was from a small New England town [laughs]. I mean, we didn’t know about those things and of course I was riveted. And, you know, there was this guy standing there with jartelle and fishnet stockings and a peach-colored corset and a blue felt hat and bright red lipstick and, you know, false eyelashes, and—very, very curious-looking person. And—but there was this, they were swirling hot glass through the air like drawing huge long tubes of it and just swirling it through the air. No one’s crashing into each other and it was this great, spontaneous choreography; it was like this fabulous dance piece. And that person was Dale Chihuly [laughs] as it turned out, and they had just finished building the studio, and they had invited him. He had come back from a Fulbright, and they’d asked him to come and make a glass department—a glass studio, and it was an offshoot of the ceramic studio. And then the next day I ran into one of the guys on the street and he said ‘Oh, was that you looking in?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it looks really interesting.’ And he said, ‘Well, come and try it,’ you know. And I did, and it was just sort of fascinating. I—it just kept kind of going like this [laughs] but it was fascinating. It was alive and, and people were moving and that was really critical for me. I had too much energy and I needed to use it. I couldn’t sit still doing things. So this was a good solution [laughs]. This was—this was really intriguing and inviting to me.Permalink
Toots Zynsky characterizes Pilchuck as “a center for learning every possible type of glassmaking in the world.”00:57 Transcript
Toots Zynsky characterizes Pilchuck as “a center for learning every possible type of glassmaking in the world.” Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 00:57.
Toots Zynsky: Yeah, I mean the great place—one of the great things I think about places like Pilchuck [Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, Washington] or you know, any of the other places which even have more, you know, diff—a larger variety of different mediums being explored and that kind of interchange that happens—at Pilchuck, I mean, I think inarguably it’s probably the most single most important center for learning every possible different kind of glassmaking in the world. So, you know, you might go there with a thought to do this, but then you get there and then there are all these other amazing things going on that you hadn’t maybe thought about or seen before or been able to have facility to try. And that’s the beauty of those kinds of places, that you can do all that.Permalink
Toots Zynsky discusses Paul Hollister’s contribution to studio glass.1:58 Transcript
Toots Zynsky discusses Paul Hollister’s contribution to studio glass. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 01:58.
Toots Zynsky: I think it probably contributed to it, sure. I mean as soon as, you know, serious articles and serious, critical insight is being published about things, people start going—taking it seriously. So yeah, probably. I mean, we didn’t think about that in those days. Paul [Hollister] would ask questions and we’d answer them, and—but no one was thinking about that. I don’t think Paul was thinking about it, but I don’t know what was on his mind. But he was certainly—it was a help, you know, it was a big help, and anybody taking it seriously was a help. I mean we weren’t thinking about making money [laughs]. We were just thinking about making our work and making better work and being able to do it. And that was the importance too, of a place where many people could work cause it’s ridiculous to run a glass furnace by yourself. You know, that’s the last thing I ever wanted to do. I saw right away how much that would tie me down. I’m sort of fairly nomadic. And I just first of all couldn’t afford a permanent place and knew that I couldn’t afford to make that kind of investment myself, and also knew more than that, that I would be tied to it then. And I saw a lot of people start doing that and wound up, you know, doing a little production to pay for the other and then more and more they were just doing production and never really—they kind of lost track of the other, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. So I think now it’s important again, too, for people to work that way so you don’t get tied to like having to empty that tank while the glass is still fresh, you know, [laughs], when do you go to the beach?Permalink
Toots Zynsky discusses the importance of Corning.02:49 Transcript
Toots Zynsky discusses the importance of Corning. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 02:48.
Toots Zynsky: I think a lot more should be talked about Corning because Corning has been an amazing resource in—at every level. When Mathijs Teunissen Van Manen and I started researching—making a real thread-pulling machine, not just a contraption, that he had made by himself, I called up Bill [Willam] Warmus at Corning [The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York]. Who I knew just a little bit because I’d been one of the editors of New Work, which is now Glass Quarterly that, you know, originated with—New York Experimental Glass Workshop [New York, New York], Hans Frode and I kind of took it over, and [laughs] started publishing it again. And so I had called Bill to do interviews on certain things. So I had known—I knew him a little bit and I said, ‘Well, you know, maybe Corning [Corning Incorporated], you know, would let us look at fiber optics,’ and—which I knew kind of basics about. And I called up Bill and he said, ‘Okay,’ you know, ‘I’ll work on it. Call you back.’ Called me back within a day. He said, ‘Okay, you’re, you know, we’ve got—we’ve got you the day with one of our chief engineers.’ Boom. So we drove up. I borrowed a car from one of my students [laughs] and we drove up to Corning and they had given us, I think his name is Ed Shlecta [phonetic], for the whole day. I mean, he just showed us everything and then he was curious to show us things that they had just developed and they were looking for artists and creative people to figure out what could be done with this new invention in glass, knew they were working on glass ceramics and photosensitive glass and all of that. And so there was already this interchange going on, and with many artists too, not just me. Corning has always been incredibly generous to the whole field of, you know, glass artists, artists working with glass, with information, materials. I mean, I would call up the library there and say, ‘Virginia, I’m doing some research on pâte de verre for an article.’ And she’d say, ‘Oh, well,’ and I said this, ‘I can’t find anything down here.’ And she said, ‘Oh, well. Give me your address.’ And, you know, within a few days I’d have this envelope like this, and she would’ve photocopied like, all Xeroxed, you know, just this dossier of information on pâte de verre. I mean, they were fantastic like that, and still are.Permalink
Toots Zynsky talks about Blenko donating cullet and allowing artists to use their facilities.00:19
Toots Zynsky talks about Blenko donating cullet and allowing artists to use their facilities.0:19 Transcript
Toots Zynsky talks about Blenko donating cullet and allowing artists to use their facilities. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 00:19.
Toots Zynsky: Blenko used to give barrels of glass to anyone who asked for it basically, and then was open to letting people like Howard Ben Tré go down and build a special kiln and work away in their, you know, furnace space. All that was really, really important.Permalink
Toots Zynsky talks about studio glass artists bringing information from Europe and the subsequent development of larger-scale works.1:41 Transcript
Toots Zynsky talks about studio glass artists bringing information from Europe and the subsequent development of larger-scale works. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 01:41.
Toots Zynsky: But so much information came back with all those different people, just—you know, ways of handling glass, you know, [laughs]. We were still, like, mucking around, like reinventing the wheel, you know. And then Jamie came back and he was marvering these huge pieces. No one was marvering then, everyone was using wooden blocks. Now everyone uses everything but having that possibility, as a new possibility to handle larger amounts of glass changed the face of what was made in America. If you—when the Ben Heineman collection was donated to Corning [The Corning Museum of Glass, Corning, New York], Tina [Oldknow] asked me if I’d, you know, participate in a walkthrough, and what impressed me and what for me was so obvious was because Ben had been collecting—Ben and his wife—have been collecting since the very beginning so there were very early pieces; Mark Peiser’s, they were like, this big. I mean they’re jewels in a nutshell, you know. But then by the time you get to the other side of the gallery, you’re talking about stuff like that, and I said, you know, the thing that I think it’s important for everyone to pay attention to in this exhibition is how the scale changed, in what people—because the skill levels change, new techniques and skills emerged, people started combining blowing pâte de verre, casting, all kinds of things. And that is a very short period of time for so much growth to happen.Permalink
Toots Zynsky talks about the excitement of working with a material that did not yet have its own history as an individual artist’s medium.1:14 Transcript
Toots Zynsky talks about the excitement of working with a material that did not yet have its own history as an individual artist’s medium. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 01:14.
Toots Zynsky: But I think when we came in, I mean I know when I started, it was like, one of the things that was so exciting about it was that there weren’t any galleries. So there weren’t galleries that were already filled with all the artists above you. It was no one above us. It was like—just blue sky, you know [laughs]. And that was so exciting, the possibilities were vast; and not having a huge tradition sitting on top of your head meant you could do anything you wanted with it. And then—it also, like, became evident that because it hadn’t been an individual artist medium, it had missed going—being carried through and developed through some of the great art movements of the twentieth century, you know, like Cubism, Dadaism. I mean, it’s perfect for Dada [laughs] right? You know, on and on and on, Arte Povera, I mean you name it and it had—and so it was like we had to run it through all of that fast to catch up and be current. So, we did, or some of us did.Permalink
Toots Zynsky talks about her early experience with Pilchuck.00:45 Transcript
Toots Zynsky talks about her early experience with Pilchuck. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 00:45.
Toots Zynsky: That was the semester Dale had decided to build Pilchuck [Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, Washington] and he was looking for people and, you know, he kept asking me to go out and I had other plans for the summer and I kept going,’“No. It’s okay [laughs], you know, you got plenty of people, you know, it’ll be fine.’ And then he sent John Landon, who still works for him, and Buster Simpson, who I later did a lot of collaboration with, and somebody else to convince me. And it was just because I was a hard worker. Because I thought I might only be there one semester, I’d given myself that one. So I wound up, you know, going out, building Pilchuck, getting pretty involved with that. So that’s how I got involved in glass.Permalink
Toots Zynsky talks about working with glass outside of glassblowing.2:57 Transcript
Toots Zynsky talks about working with glass outside of glassblowing. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 02:57.
Toots Zynsky: I knew that I loved the material. But I also knew from the very beginning that that wasn’t what I—glassblowing, which was the only thing that was offered at that point, wasn’t what I wanted to do with it. But I wanted to have my hands on that material and have access to it. So I started, you know, pouring it, stretching it [laughs], doing all kinds of strange things with it and then still felt limited and wanted to work with larger materials. And—you know, had started looking seriously at, you know, the Arte Povera movement, because I found that—something, really, like I connected with those ideas. And the idea that you could just make art out of anything was kind of a revelation [laughs] in the early seventies. And—so I started doing work with just raw crude, discarded, metal rusty—rusty pipes, and slumping large pieces of plate glass just very freely, free form. Not, not trying to make a particular form but using the form; just seeing what it would do combined with those materials. So I did a fair amount of work with that and then I had—from the very beginning been really fascinated with all the sounds that glass makes when you’re working in a glass studio, whether you’re blowing it or casting it or putting a pipe in a bucket, the sound of glass. You know, all of a sudden I realize those are perfect musical tones and music has always figured really importantly in my life. And so I decided I wanted to know more about that. Everyone was like, ‘Oh, the glass is breaking,’ you know, and I thought, ‘That’s really important that it breaks.’ I mean, there aren’t too many materials that break like that, that self break and explode with such force and make these amazing sounds. So it has to be important. There’s something there that’s really important. Why is it negative and I just started exploring that with video infrared, simultaneous infrared to see what was happening, and then attaching contact mics because sometimes inexplicable things wouldn’t happen. And it didn’t make sense. So I thought, ‘Maybe there’s something going on inside, that if I attach contact mics I’ll be able to hear it,’ and indeed, you know. You’d hear these fractures zooming across the glass that never physically appeared. It’s a really mysterious material.Permalink
Toots Zynsky talks about the contributing factors that enabled the studio glass movement to happen.3:28 Transcript
Toots Zynsky talks about the contributing factors that enabled the studio glass movement to happen. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 03:28.
Toots Zynsky: I mean all those things were all the feeder threads that fed into, you know, this happening. It’s always like, ‘Oh, Harvey Littleton started the studio glass movement.’ And yes, that was like a seminal moment, but without, you know, vast development by aero—you know, aerospace industry, developing refract—new refractories, really really high-tech refractories, reflective shields, all kinds of materials that were suddenly, you know, readily available, that were being mass-produced. And industry was looking, I think, for new ideas too. They were kind of on a downturn and they started welcoming artists to come in. And most glass shops across the country existed by virtue of the fact that barrels and barrels of cullet were being donated by places like Blenko [Blenko Glass Company, Milton, West Virginia]. Because there was—glass shops were so extraordinarily [laughs] expensive to run, that I kind of doubt if schools in the very beginning would have been able to, you know, really [laughs] get on board with it if there hadn’t been a fabulous donation of materials; both refractory bricks to build furnaces and the glass itself. So those were all really important things and the ceramics people. They enabled glass shops to come in because there was already gas in the building, all the permits had already been gotten. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh my God, we can’t [laughs] have all that gas.’ You know, it was already there for ceramics. And if you look at most glass programs across the country, they were right next to the ceramics and they, most of them, a lot of them started in ceramic storerooms that weren’t being used cause there was already maybe a gas line feeding in there. So those were really important things, plus the affluence of the country. I mean, the country was extremely affluent in those days. And all those things converged to enable the whole studio glass movement to happen. And I’ve always liked, you know, people always sort of question, ‘Why is it called studio glass? I mean, it’s like you don’t say studio painting [laughs] or studio clay,’ but I think it was just as a distinction to distinguish to the larger world that whatever was being made wasn’t made in an industrial setting, it wasn’t industrially produced, and it was to distinguish that. I mean, not that they didn’t already know that in Italy, not the way [laughs], but not in America, less so. And to distinguish it from, you know, Louis Comfort Tiffany, which was a—practically an industry at that time that he was, you know, running it and it had grown to be its own small industry. Or you know, Frederick Carder and Steuben [Steuben Glass, Corning, New York], where blowers were blowing the same things over and over and again and different things, but still, they were being produced. And I think it was just to distinguish it as individual artists in the studio.Permalink
Toots Zynsky discusses Pilchuck connecting people from other regions and cultures.0:58
Toots Zynsky talks about craft media at Penland.0:10 Transcript
Toots Zynsky talks about craft media at Penland. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 00:10.
Toots Zynsky: And sometimes in different ways, like doing glass at Penland [Penland School of Craft, Penland, North Carolina] meant you were also encountering people working in other—you know, in other ways, in other mediums and materials.Permalink
Toots Zynsky talks about Pilchuck creating a glass culture in Seattle.00:12 Transcript
Toots Zynsky talks about Pilchuck creating a glass culture in Seattle. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 00:11.
Toots Zynsky: [laughter] I mean, Pilchuck [Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, Washington] is what created the glass culture in Seattle. Cause people would go there and it’s so beautiful. They’d just stay and open studios in Seattle.Permalink
Toots Zynsky discusses an NEA grant awarded to NYEGW.05:11 Transcript
Toots Zynsky discusses an NEA grant awarded to NYEGW. Oral history interview with Toots Zynsky, March 22, 2018, Bard Graduate Center. Clip length: 05:11.
Toots Zynsky: Here was everyone else going back out to the woods and to beautiful places, you know—moving back to the land and, you know, being out in the mountains or by the ocean or it was—a subculture, kind of culture. And then Richard Yelle decided that he should build a studio in New York, but it was the first cousin or [laughs] brother or sister of Clayworks, which was upstairs, and then Glassworks was downstairs on Great Jones Street. And I was introduced to it because our friend Jun Kaneko was at Clayworks as a resident artist for several months and we would come down and visit Jun and that’s how I met the people at Glassworks. That was like in ‘78, ‘79. And then we wound up moving to New York because my first husband was offered a great job in New York and so [laughs] we moved to New York—me [laughs] very reluctantly. And, you know, after we get settled in and got my son settled in school and I was helping my husband with certain—jobs. I really wanted to get back to my work again so, you know, I went down to the workshop and Joe Upham was the director then and Richard Yelle was—he was a presence that came in and out, but Richard had thought it would be a great thing to start a place in Manhattan. Everyone’s like, ‘What’s he doing?’ You know, ‘Why isn’t he, like, out in the hills somewhere?’ And it was basically not so much an artist-in-residence program but a visiting artist program where the idea was that artists—and part of the reason he wanted to be in New York—that artists working in other mediums could come and, like, try it and see what they could do with it. I mean, people like Thomas Bang, Chris [Christopher] Wilmarth, I mean the list was long, and Dennis Oppenheim. Rauschenberg, whose studio was right across the street, did those amazing full size tires, that—glass tires, cast glass tires. So there were a lot of really interesting artists coming and going and they were actively seeking, bringing them in. And then at the time that I arrived, Joe said, ‘Oh well, we want—we need an assistant director. You want to [laughs] be the assistant director?’ And I went, ‘I don’t know, I suppose I could do something about that.’ And, ‘Oh and there’s some grants to write. We need to write an NEA grant so you can do that, cause you helped write some grants from Pilchuck [Pilchuck Glass School, Stanwood, Washington], right?’ And I went, ‘Yeah, I helped write some grants. I guess I could try it.’ So we got the grant, but then Ronald Reagan canceled them all because that was just the end of ‘80 and the week that he was—after he was inaugurated, slashed with the NEA, and we got a letter that basically made null and void—or tried to make null and void—the first letter they’d sent us which said, ‘Yes, we’re giving you this grant.’ And I walked in the studio, and I thought someone had died. Everyone was like, with their heads down. Half the people were crying. Because our lease was up in June and we had, based on being given that grant, you know, put a big chunk of what money we had left to moving to a new space. And it was like ruin, you know, and I was so angry. I got on the phone with the NEA and I said, ‘Blah, blah, blah, you tell Ronald Reagan that he can’t do this. This is by law breach of promise. I have two letters and one is a breach of promise. One’s a promise, and one’s a breach of promise. So you tell him that he can’t do this and all I want to hear from you guys is when we’re going to get that money.’ And—the guy’s name was Michael. I can’t remember his last name, nice guy, and he said—and I said, ‘And believe me, every arts group is going to band together and get a band of lawyers and come to D.C. and make a mess out of this.’ And he’s like, ‘Okay, Toots, I’ll see what I can do.’ you know. And I have the phone and I was shaking. I mean, I didn’t know a lawyer to save my own rear end [laughs], let alone, you know, the world of art, but we did get the money. And in the meantime, we had to find some other money, and I hate asking people for money. So I did sort of, because it was a do-or-die situation, called a friend’s parents and asked if they would loan us the money, and five days later we get a check for twice the amount of money that we had asked for as the loan and it said, ‘This is a gift. We don’t think that young people doing such a good thing should have a big loan hanging over their head.’ So that plus getting the NEA sort of got us through. And then we moved to Mulberry Street [laughs] which was another set of adventures.Permalink
Toots Zynsky discusses early multimedia offerings at Pilchuck.0:29