By Will Broaddus
---- — If you can breathe, you can blow glass.
But learning to create lasting works of art from molten material takes a lifetime of practice, and a little help from your friends.
“To learn glass blowing, it’s on the order of years to get basically proficient,” said Jeffrey Mentuck, who manages Salem State University’s Glassworks Studio. “People chase that technical perfection for years.”
For glass blowers who want to go even further and develop from professional craftsmen into creative artists, Salem State is now hosting the Rosenberg Institute for Passionate and Emerging Artists.
“A lot of times, in the early stages of a career, work is derivative, while they’re building skills,” Mentuck said. “Then, you need to apply your own artistic vision, and that’s what a residency like this is great for — an opportunity for the exploration of ideas.”
The first group of four glass blowers selected for the program will be at Salem State through the end of the month and will demonstrate their visions Monday night in a studio session open to the public.
“A part of their application process was to explain how an opportunity like this would benefit them,” Mentuck said. “Ideally, they’ll leave here with one foot more firmly in the arts camp than the crafts camp.”
As a glass blower with 20 years’ experience, Mentuck knows exactly how valuable such a residency can be.
“If you rent a glass studio, it’s 50 or 60 bucks an hour,” he said, a figure that doesn’t include expenses for materials. “There’s not a lot of freedom to mess up at the higher stages. If you spend a day, you can end up spending 600 or 800 bucks.”
It was to take such burdens off glass blowers, and allow them to exercise their imaginations, that Ira and Judy Rosenberg of Swampscott established the institute that bears their name.
“My wife and I thought, maybe we could help this by sponsoring a group of emerging artists and have them work for one month, and we’d pay for everything and let them think of nothing but blowing glass,” Ira Rosenberg said. “There are so many emerging artists, and we need emerging artists.”
Rosenberg, well-known as the founder of the Ira Toyota car dealership, is also a passionate collector of unique glassworks.
In addition to funding the program, he was part of the panel that chose artists for the residencies.
“We were able to come up with four great candidates,” he said. “One of them I’m expecting to become a major artist, a major glass artist.”
Regardless of whether that turns out to be Chris Watts, who has taught at Diablo Glass School of Boston for 11 years, Watts is grateful to have been chosen for the program.
“This is a huge opportunity for me,” he said. “It’s going to free me up from teaching obligations. The residency is going to allow me to focus on the development of a whole new series of pieces.”
Watts, who graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1990 and Massachusetts College of Art in 2007, credits an earlier residency — at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland, England, from 1998 to 1999 — with a previous transition in his work.
He was admitted to the program with his wife, Sarah, and discovered an affinity for conceptual art, which is evident in “Hirst” from 2009, a parody of Damien Hirst’s 2007 creation “For the Love of God.”
Hirst’s flamboyant original is a skull made with platinum, diamonds and human teeth, and it sold for a huge sum of money.
Watts’ work is also a skull, but it was made from windows that had been pulled from foreclosed homes in poor sections of Boston.
“The windows had a strong fluctuation in market value and declined in value,” he said. “I was using that glass, especially for the Hirst, because (he is an) icon of market value. I wanted to juxtapose those.”
To appreciate such pieces, you need to know the idea behind their creation, but they can also be seen as exquisitely crafted works of glass.
“Ideas are immaterial by nature,” Watts said. “Part of what makes conceptual art live is, it’s brought beyond just the idea phase into actual being.”
If Watts’ work has reflected on commercial value, and the commodities — like art and glass — in which it is embodied, that is in part because he has had to use his glass-blowing skills to make a living.
“Restaurants seemed to be our main business,” he said, for which he made vessels and architectural lighting.
As it frees him from the need to work, the month at Salem State will allow Watts to pursue yet another transition in his work, from economic to aesthetic themes.
“The residency work is about how glass can relate to art in different forms,” he said. “I’m making shapes that will be cut in half on a vertical axis. You’ll have a profile of those vessels — those profiles will be embedded into a flat surface, a plaster surface. They become a line drawing in glass.”
The glassworks studio at Salem State was founded eight years ago by professor John Volpacchio, who from the beginning hoped that it would host resident artists, along with training undergraduates, Mentuck said.
About 100 students a year take classes in the studio, and several will be helping out at the weekly glass-blowing demonstrations.
With all the physical activity involved in blowing, rolling and shaping glass using a variety of tools, glass blowing has been described — by Karen Gahagan, director of Salem State’s center for creative and performing arts — as a kind of spectator sport, with all the suspense focusing on the final product.
It is also a kind of team sport in which the four residents artists — who also include Danny White of Seattle; Dawson Kellogg of Columbus, Ohio; and Tyler Kimball of Reno, Nev. — will assist each other at the Monday night demonstration.
“When you’re making highly complex work, you need an assistant, and for works that are bigger and more complex, it’s not uncommon to have teams of three, four or five,” Mentuck said. “They’ll be demonstrating their techniques, their process, how they make their work.”
If you go
What: Glass-blowing demonstration by resident artists at Rosenberg Institute for Passionate and Emerging Artists at Salem State
When: Monday, July 29, at 6 p.m.
Where: The Glassworks Studio in the Enterprise Center at 121 Loring Ave., Suite 750, Salem
More information: salemstate.edu/arts or 978-542-7890