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Materials Science Melts into Art

Master artist teaches in MIT Glass Lab residency

The world’s preëminent glass artist recently gave the MIT Museum a blown vessel that looks like a delicately webbed, glowing balloon banded in glass threads of cobalt, burnt umber, and pale green.

glass art:Glassblowing master Lino Tagliapietra works with Glass Lab students Jonathan Gibbs and Sarah Bernardis during his residency (below). Tagliapietra donated the piece pictured, called Niomea, to the MIT Museum, where it’s on display. Watch Tagliapietra at work and learn how to support the Glass Lab at technologyreview.com/glass-lab.

Lino Tagliapietra’s 16-by-10-inch creation is arresting, but students who got to see the artist at work during his weeklong MIT Glass Lab residency in October can appreciate the decades of training it represents.

This story is part of the May/June 2011 Issue of the MIT News magazine
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Born in 1934 on the Italian island of Murano, the center of Venetian glassmaking for centuries, Tagliapietra was apprenticed to the internationally renowned glassmaker Archimede Seguso at 11. By 21, he was considered a master. He moved to the United States in the late 1970s and now lives in Seattle.

When Tagliapietra came to campus to deliver the 2009 Page Hazelgrove Lecture on Glass Art, Glass Lab director Peter Houk invited him back for a residency because he wanted MIT students to be able to see such a master up close. “I thought that since Lino is not only extremely accomplished as a technician but also as an innovator, he would be perfect for MIT,” Houk says.

The piece Tagliapietra gave the MIT Museum exemplifies his knack for innovation: he invented a process that combines several classical Venetian techniques, including the famously difficult reticello, wherein two separate vessels of detailed cane (ribbons of colored glass) are created and one is slipped inside the other while both are still hot. The resulting overlapping pattern reflects “a very complicated and technically challenging operation,” says Houk.

Transforming the Space

On the first day of Tagliapietra’s residency, he and his three assistants worked privately in the hot lab—the furnace burns at about 1,150 °C. The following day they opened it to viewers. Because space was limited, video monitors were installed around the room’s perimeter, and a live stream allowed Internet viewers to catch the action.

The lab was reconfigured to accommodate the flood of visitors, which included Institute VIPs, art collectors, and students from the Massachusetts College of Art. Visiting groups are usually limited to 12 people, but the new arrangement allowed 30—and it opened up space for Tagliapietra to pull cane, a glassblowing process that requires a 30-foot runway. 

“Having somebody so good work in the same lab where I work put it at a higher level,” says Isaac Entz ‘11, a student who assists the lab’s beginner class as a monitor.

“The lab felt more … exciting,” says fellow lab monitor Bonnie Blackburn ‘11. “He listened to beautiful music, made beautiful pieces, and his assistants were in tune to his every need. All you really heard was the music and the sound of visitors watching.”

The MIT Glass Lab has been serving students for decades. Houk credits J. Kim Vandiver, PhD ‘75, the Institute’s dean for undergraduate research, with establishing it during his graduate-student days, when the Department of Materials Science and Engineering used it for teaching. In 1986, Glass Lab classes were removed from the Course III curriculum and glass artist Page ­Hazelgrove took over from Vandiver as director of the lab, where students are still encouraged to explore the material and to learn its properties through hands-on investigation. Hazelgrove led the lab until 1997, when she died unexpectedly. “It was a dream of Page’s to invite artists to MIT to use the Glass Lab and other resources of the Institute to deepen their artistic visions,” notes a section of the lab’s website. “Page believed that an annual artist-in-residence [program] would also be a valuable experience for students in the Glass Lab.”

The Process of Making Art

Graduate student Patrick Barragán says students learned by watching techniques but also by observing the artist’s demeanor: “Sometimes you assume people who are really good at something are very serious, but Lino was good and having a great time, too. He was often singing along to the music or joking around.”

And he made mistakes.

“At times when he was transferring a piece from one pipe to the next, the process didn’t always go as smoothly as intended,” says Jonathan Gibbs, a graduate student and lab monitor. “But unless you knew what was supposed to happen, you wouldn’t have noticed, because he took everything in stride.”

“His mistakes also come from being able to let certain things happen,” explains Entz. “He knows that the one mistake doesn’t matter in the long run.”

Tagliapietra’s fluid, easy concentration communicated something about art that can be hard to teach, even in a well-stocked, well-staffed lab. As Blackburn puts it, “Watching Lino in a shop is like watching someone in their natural state.” With decades of practice under his belt, ­Tagliapietra didn’t overthink things, she says. Part of his magic was being able to forget the rules of the game, which made it possible for him to experiment and innovate. Temperature, timing, and handling still mattered, but they weren’t distracting.

“Lino’s visit gave me something to keep in mind as inspiration,” says Blackburn. “I will go work as an engineer one of these days, but I will always blow glass.”

Expanding the Opportunity

The Glass Lab program can accommodate 16 students per class at its current level of funding, and nearly 150 students enter a lottery for those spots each session. “That’s about as hard as it is to get into MIT in the first place,” notes Barragán. The lab is raising money in hopes of doubling its space, adding more glassblowing benches, and ultimately teaching more students.

“Maybe doubling doesn’t mean that we can take 100 percent of the people who are interested,” Barragán says, “but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. And I think that’s a more exciting project right now than any particular thing we are making out of glass. It would be awesome for twice as many people per semester to get this experience.”

The Master Returns

Tagliapietra plans to return to campus for a week in September to conduct research. His residency “was both surprising and rewarding,” he says. “Surprising because, despite MIT’s reputation in advanced technology and science, I found the people there warm, natural, easy to work with, and they made my stay enjoyable. Rewarding because while there, I saw the advanced knowledge in glass and materials that is most fascinating. It opened my mind for new possibilities on new techniques in glassmaking. I look forward to pursuing these new ideas when I return this September.”

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