Harvey Littleton passed away on December 13, 2013 at the age of 91. Noted as the father of American Studio Glass, Littleton is credited for conceiving and initiating the American Movement with his 1962 workshop at the Toledo Museum of Art. He is also admired for dedicating his career to promoting the use of glass as a medium for sculptural expression.
Harvey Littleton was born in 1922 in Corning, NY and early on exposed to glass by this father, J.T. Littleton, director of research and development at Corning Glass Works. As a child Harvey often spent Saturdays in the glass factory and later worked in various departments there during his summers in college. After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1947, he submitted a proposal for an experimental glass studio at Corning Glass Works, but his proposal was rejected. Littleton later remarked, “They believed that architects made the best designers, where you made your designs on paper and didn’t fool around with the material...I thought form was born in the material and in the hands of the artist, and that a pencil was a...poor substitute...[resulting] in a very obvious and simplistic solution.”
Harvey went on to earn an MFA in ceramics from Cranbrook Academy of Art and was then hired as faculty in ceramics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Throughout his ceramics career he never lost his dream of putting glass, a material of industrial production, into artists’ hands. In 1962 Harvey’s dreams were finally realized when Toledo Museum of Art Director, Otto Wittmann, agreed to host the first studio glass workshop. The “Toledo Workshop,” which has acquired mythical status as the birthplace of the Studio Glass Movement, energized Littleton to become a self-proclaimed “evangelist of the medium,” and to create the first university glass program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Since then, the study of glass art has spread to universities and workshops across the world. In 1971 Harvey published the seminal book Glassblowing: A Search for Form, detailing his acquired techniques and philosophical theories on creating glass art. Another of his lasting legacies occurred in 1972 at the Seventh National Sculpture Conference in Lawrence, Kansas when Littleton proclaimed, “technique is cheap,” an adage that still sparks conversation and controversy in the glass community.
In 1977 Harvey retired from teaching and moved from Wisconsin to Spruce Pine, NC to focus on working as an independent artist; he lived there until his death.
Harvey Littleton’s contributions have been widely recognized by critics, curators, and artists alike:
In the 2012 Strattman Lecture of the Glass Art Society conference in Toledo, critic Glenn Adamson remarked that Littleton’s early vessels were, “not only radical in technical terms, but also, if we look at the last 50 years of glass in America we might come to the conclusion that they were the most radical things glass makers in this country have ever made.”
Curator of Glass at the Toledo Museum of Art and Glass Art Society president, Jutta-Annette Page, recognized Littleton’s influence on the Glass Art Society and the close-knit glass community. “Harvey was not only an important player in the early days of GAS, but the importance of meetings and the in-person exchange of information was fundamental and critical for his concept of art made of glass. The early survey exhibitions in the 1960s and early 1970s always had a conference of sorts associated with them, the precursors of the GAS meetings.”
In a 1998 article in GLASS Quarterly, Dale Chihuly sites Littleton’s critical influence on his career. “Without a doubt, Harvey Littleton was the force behind the studio glass movement; without him my career wouldn't exist . . . Also, Harvey was a big thinker—if he wanted a special piece of equipment, he would spend the money; he taught us to think big instead of thinking small. Some of that rubbed off on me. And he encouraged us to be unique—Harvey liked that.”
Harvey married his wife, Bess Tamura Littleton, in 1947; she passed away on October 8, 2009. The couple had four children all of whom work in the field of glass art. Carol L. Shay is the curator at Littleton Studios; Tom Littleton owns and manages Spruce Pine Batch Company in Spruce Pine, NC; Maurine Littleton is the owner and director of Maurine Littleton Gallery, in Washington, DC. John Littleton works with his wife Kate Vogel as collaborative glass artists in Bakersville, North Carolina.