It all started with an interview with the lovely Carolyn Wang, glass artist/DesignCraft Heroine. As I nosed around her gorgeous, airy studio in San Francisco, I came across some jarringly different work.
Where Carolyn’s work is effervescent champagne, and reminiscent of water and waves, this was more like some impeccably crafted, austerely complex scotch redolent of earth and soil. Both beautiful. But really, really different from each other.
Now there’s breadth, and then there’s Jekyll and Hyde. I started to wonder about Carolyn.
And then she explained: It’s a studio mate, she said, a glass artist and sculptor named Julie Alland. Ah. I mused aloud that we might have another DesignCraft heroine in the making. But she’s kind of private, said Carolyn. Unlikely to submit to an interview. I sighed.
But then some things are just meant to happen, aren’t they?
So back to my favorite studio I went.
Julie’s work is magical. The glass (sand cast) is molded into rigorous geometric forms, but it’s what’s inside (and sometimes extending outside) of those forms that’s so intriguing: wire sculptures, burnt branches and other found objects. It’s intriguing visually, of course. But it becomes more intriguing the more you know about the process: the chemical and physical reactions that take place when these embedded elements meet molten glass. Things burn, oxidize, create new forms. And it’s the type of work you don’t get tired of looking at: each piece says something different, depending on your perspective.
Another bonus of being in her studio: being able to see her wire sculptures, which she says aren’t done, but which look spectacular to me. And then there’s Julie herself: a little reserved (yes) but with smart, articulate passion, self-confidence, and a certain refreshing pragmatism. At some point Julie reveals that she’s a book-keeper at a local print broker by day…and the tendency toward groundedness and pragmatism becomes clear. (It’s all very yin/yang…”It gives me discipline,” she says, “And makes me a better artist.” Well, it seems to be working.)
How’d you come to work in glass? Your degree (from Antioch in Ohio) is in photography. It’s kind of a long story. (Excellent.) I got the degree but lost interest in photography. After I graduated I floundered around for a long time, went back to drawing and painting. The important moment came when I moved to San Francisco. I’d always been a junk collector, always picking up bits of twisted metal and wire. One day I found a lamp stand. I restored it and made it into a sculpture. Then I started going to thrift shops and finding lamp components. But it always looked more like sculpture, and then I realized…oh, I’m a sculptor. That was a very important moment for me.
How I came to glass is that I wanted to take things a bit further by making a found-object piece that included some cast elements. Since I didn’t know how to make molds and cast at the time, I taught myself. Eventually I got too proficient and started losing interest. One day by chance I saw a listing for a glass kiln-casting class at Public Glass. I knew about glass blowing (which didn’t appeal to me), but had never heard of kiln-casting. So I enrolled and got hooked because it was way more difficult than anything I’d done before, but also because I fell in love with glass. And from there, I started taking classes at Pilchuck Glass School, and really evolved my approach and sand-casting technique there.
Your work has really evolved over the years. You used to make these very accessible pop art pieces, but then have come to this more artistic, conceptual, cerebral (and yet emotional) work. How’d that happen? Yeah. I used to do lost wax kiln casting, but it’s extremely tedious and time consuming. I loved the results but got so sick of the process.
And why sand-casting? Sand-casting had always appealed to me. It’s the opposite of the other technique…it’s so much more spontaneous. I remember going to an Eva Hess show and remarking to my husband how Eva collaborated with materials rather than fighting with them the way I was doing. Seeing that show helped me crystallize the notion of doing more sand-casting.
With sand-casting I really do feel like I’m collaborating with materials. There’s a certain amount of control but also beneficial accidents. But it’s a tough, physical, complex, and pretty expensive process that really requires assistance. It can be dangerous…you’re moving quickly and carrying a lot of weight: you’re taking this big ladle and dipping it into a big container of molten glass (in a furnace). I need someone to open the furnace, then when I’m pouring the mold you need someone to snip the glass. And if you have a bunch of bubbles that rise to the top you need someone to help you torch it. Then when you dig the casting out of the sand, it helps to have someone carry it.
I love the simplicity of your forms. I keep the shape neutral so you can focus on what’s going on inside the piece. What about the domed ones that look like diving bells? That was a happy accident: I used a snow dome as a mold….but the protrusions I added ended up making them look like diving bells.
How did you start working with the wire inside the glass? I was at Pilchuck and for some reason, I wasn’t having a good session. I found some bits of copper wire and started playing with them: it was soothing to do things with my hands. And then I got the idea of pouring some glass over it.
Was it love at first sight? Oh no, I wasn’t impressed with first results….but then I added elements…started bending wire around a stick, and kept working at it.
What inspires? Pretty much everything. But in many ways, the work I’m doing now makes me feel like I’m returning to my childhood. I grew up in suburban NY state (Grandview on Hudson) and spent a lot of time outdoors, with lots of big old trees around. I love the shapes of trees and branches especially at twilight….they look black against the sky. And I’ve always loved rocks. I always look at the ground.
Where do you go these days to get inspiration? I only seek inspiration if I feel really stuck. Then I go look for materials…sometimes finding a beautiful stick will inspire. And inspiration finds me in some strange places. For instance, I recently went to Slanted Door and was in the bathroom. (Oh this is going to be good.) I noticed the toilet paper holder is a rough-cut board that has traces of insects…great wiggly trails. I’m sitting there and realizing how beautiful this was…and more beautiful than I could do myself. Another even more inspiring moment happened on the way to visit my family in NYC for Thanksgiving. I looked out the airplane window just before sunset as we flew over the desert (Nevada maybe?). The landscape was extraordinarily beautiful — bare hills/mountains with dry riverbeds meandering throughout and branching out like gigantic fallen trees or veins. (Nice.) And sometimes I look at scientific or art books. Really interested in veins in the human body…..related to trees, etc. And sea life, coral.
What do you listen to when you’re in the studio? Music is incredibly important to me. It can help lift my spirits when I’m down, or energize me when I am tired. I am on a big Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds kick right now. But other than that, I listen to NPR.
Are you from an artistic family? Kind of. I grew up surrounded by my parents’ art collection and shelves full of art books. We also made frequent trips to galleries and museums and performances in NYC. My father is a professor (emeritus) in cultural anthropology at Columbia University, one of these people so in love with their work they won’t retire. His father was a WPA photographer who then became an antiques dealer. (It’s a fascinating story.) My mom plays the flute and piano and spends hours practicing. My mother also translates friends’ poetry and prose from French to English and submits the manuscripts to journals and book companies. She’s faced a lot of rejection, but has also succeeded in getting quite a few things published. The example my mother set taught me about self motivation, as well as the value of hard work, persistence and delayed gratification.
Would you like to chuck the day job and be a full-time artist? Surprisingly not all people do. Some people say it would then feel like a job. Oh, I would if I could make a living at it…without having to teach and take commissions.
What makes you feel satisfied/successful? When I make something or a body of work that feels great, that is up to my standards. Being offered a solo show is also great. But I don’t want to base success and satisfaction on sales…it’s so dependent on so many factors.
What would you make if money, space, time were no object? (The answer comes quickly.) A huge piece….maybe a rectangle, or maybe a diving bell piece. It would have to anneal for months!
What’s was your biggest moment of joy? Going to Pilchuck for the first time. Discovering glass. Discovering that I’m a sculptor. That was pretty great.
So….who plays you in the story of your life? And what kind of story would it be? I came up with 2 actresses, but we look different and they are much prettier than me. Oh everyone says that, so just tell us. OK, they’re Katherine Keener and Janeane Garofalo. (Both wildly different, but also perfect. My first instinct was a brunette Tilda Swinton.) And genre? An animated movie, maybe like Ghost World. (Interesting…..)
What defines you? Family and cultural background. And there’s a science component to my family (my brother is a doctor and medical researcher) that’s shaped my art. Being introverted and needing solitude. I am very geeky: I love gathering technical information and techniques and solving problems. My marriage…it’s a great marriage but a bit unconventional, since my husband and I don’t live together: we have separate apartments in the same building. He’s an artist too, and the feedback I get from him is always valuable. And my belief in contradictions and paradoxes. I’m a sloppy perfectionist. (Yes!)
But in terms of things…
My white gold minimalist wedding ring. No adornments so that materials don’t get stuck in it when I am sculpting and I never have to take it off.
Silver-tone Timex watch “Easy Reader / indiglo” model.
Black Keen Briggs shoes. They allow me stay on my feet for hours and hours.
Black cotton gloves adorned with henna tattoo designs on the backs and palms.
My old nerdy Kyocera cell phone (with its $15 / month prepaid plan) that I hardly ever use
What’s the first thing you reach for in the morning? I’m not a morning person. Caffeine.
Thanks, Julie. Stay true. And by the way, for a person who characterizes themselves as “shy,” you give a great interview.