History of the Glass Art Society

18_Dreisbach_GAS_1_Penland_invitation.jpgThe Roots of the Glass Art Society:
The First Decade

By Fritz Dreisbach

Originally printed in the GAS 2010 Journal

Journal Editor’s Note: This article conveys the excitement of working with glass in the sixties and the energy of those early meetings in the seventies. In 2009, the GAS History Project continued interviewing and recording the founding members’ oral histories. All the documents are housed in the GAS archive at The Juliette K. and Leonard S. Rakow Research Library, Corning Museum of Glass.

Hey, no one 40 years ago could have conceived of the Glass Art Society growing into an organization with 2,700 members representing 50 countries, or as one “mothering” so many offspring groups around the world. Yet, glass arts organizations are now thriving in Australia & New Zealand, Belgium, Canada, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Japan, Sweden, South Korea, and others. So if imitation is the greatest compliment, then WOW…“Good on you!”

This brief survey is an anecdotal view of the first decade of GAS, not a definitive history. It’s important to look back at the original intent of the organization, which was essentially to share information and excitement about this new process (blowing glass) with friends and colleagues.

“OH, SO YOU WANT A PARTY? I don’t like that idea,” Bill Brown, the director of Penland School, stated bluntly early in 1971, when Mark Peiser and I asked permission to have a glassblowers’ meeting there.
“Why not, Bill?” we queried.
“Because glassblowers are a lot like horse shit - in a pile they stink, but spread out they can do good… But I realize you’ll do it anyway,” he concluded, “So I better keep my eye on you right here!!”

To my mind, three key events led to the birth of the Glass Art Society: first, we decided to emulate the National Council on Education in the Ceramic Arts (NCECA); second, we wanted to dialogue and blow glass with colleagues; and third, we needed to locate an appropriate venue to bring lots of glassblowers together. As an arts organization, NCECA was truly an influential role model. In the 1960s, most glassblowers were also ceramic artists so they attended NCECA’s annual conferences. NCECA was formed by clay artists who broke away from the American Ceramics Society so they could discuss art, clay, and education. At the early NCECA meetings, ceramic and glass artists occasionally gathered, sharing glassy ideas and tricks. In much the same spirit, we later separated amicably from NCECA to hold our own three-day conference with events that focused on glass. I was a token glass artist serving on NCECA’s 1969 -1970 board. We learned aspects of how a successful craft-media organization operated.

Mark Peiser had an epiphany during Marvin Lipofsky’s 3rd Great California Glass Symposium, held at both University of California - Berkeley and California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) in Oakland, following the 1970 Oakland NCECA Conference. While talking with some West Coast glassblowers in the living room of Jim Wayne, a Bay Area glassblower with a backyard furnace, Mark realized that we each thought the “real action” took place on the other coast from where we lived. Hit by this “grassis- greener” syndrome, we all agreed with Mark’s suggestion to try and gather regularly to exchange information. This idea, a verbalization of our desire to help each other, became the incentive for developing a community with mutual interests. (The bonding of artists to help each other is still virtually absent in disciplines like painting, printmaking, jewelry, etc. My non-glass friends are jealous of the camaraderie that I continue to share with my glass buddies.)

Summer glass instructors at Penland School of Crafts had been overlapping their sessions slightly to exchange information with each other. Since Peiser and I lived in Penland, we knew the many advantages of the site. It seemed a logical spot for our first glass gathering, which was a smaller version of the NCECA conferences. We realized we needed a name. Somewhere between informal discussions in Henry Halem's dining room and Mark's basement, I suggested the acronym "G A S" since we wanted our title to be a real word. And the naughty four-lettered words we joked about would be decidedly inappropriate for future grant proposals.

18_Dreisbach_GAS_1_hotshop.jpgGAS I - 1971: The Glass Art Society’s First Meeting
Penland School mailed my handmade invitations for “GAS I” to 50 or so people around the country who we knew were blowing glass. Since Penland had limited housing, we could only accommodate a small group of teachers and practicing glass artists. The selection followed Bill Brown’s “first come – first accepted” philosophy. It was our hope that they would “spread” the information to their students and colleagues. We scheduled our first meeting to immediately follow the 1971 Toronto NCECA conference, hoping that folks would attend both conferences back to back. I drove six people from Canada to North Carolina in my big yellow Suburban van. Mark and I were saluted as champions by the (ninety percent women) students at Penland School when they saw fifteen new guys and two women arrive for GAS I. Beside Mark and me, the participants included Bob Barber, Billy Bernstein, Bill Boysen, Jack Brewer, Jerry Chappelle, David Cornell, Dick Craft, Dudley Giberson, Audrey Handler, Robert Held, Tom Kekic, Tom McGlauchlin, John Nygren, Ruth Tamura, Michael Taylor, George Thiewes, and Bob Townsend.

The American Craft Council awarded us a $500 grant from Sears, to help with the organization’s startup costs. I immediately banked half of the money for GAS II – if Bill Brown would again allow it! Some say our most important decision in 1971 was planning to reconvene in 1972.

Evon Streetman, a photographer working at Penland, documented both events. We were having fun, exchanging information, and cementing friendships. None of us envisioned the birth of an influential organization between all the parties, the firecrackers thrown into annealers, and the colored glass spots launched across the room at a glass Holstein cow. (Ah! Boys will be boys.)

18_Dreisbach_GAS_II_Bill_Brown_Dave_Jacobs.jpgGAS II – 1972: Return to Penland, NC
GAS I was such a success, we scheduled GAS II at Penland to follow the 1972 NCECA conference held in Gatlinburg, TN. We sent out my second invitation and relied on the basis of first responses. The attendees included 14 of the original group: Barber, Bernstein, Boysen, Chappelle, Giberson, Handler, Held, Kekic, McGlauchlin, Nygren, Peiser, Taylor, Thiewes, and myself. Eight new people attended: Henry Halem, Dick Huss, John Lewis, Marvin Lipofsky, Bob Ness, Jack Schmidt, James Tanner, and Jan Zandhuis. Mirroring NCECA, GAS invited David Jacobs of Paoli Clay Company in Wisconsin (distributor of glass tools and JM475 marbles, our first blowing cullet). For years, he was our only “technical display” vendor. Jacobs arrived with a big van full of hand tools and grinders, plus a wheel of Wisconsin cheese and a barrel of beer!

We all enjoyed Giberson’s automatic glassblower’s bench (complete with Sawyer Stanchions!), Barber’s clever SCR circuit to control the annealing ovens, Huss’s formula for turning silver nitrate into silver chloride, Naess’s multipiece, aluminum blow-molds, Zandhuis’s lampworking tricks, and lots more.

As you recall, this was a time when studio artists were pioneering the idea of small-scale furnaces designed and hand-built for garage-size operations. Although there had been a small, but growing movement for fusing, slumping, casting, lampworking, and so on, glassblowing had been a factory operation done on an industrial scale. Learning to manipulate the glob of hot glass and create the shapes and details we wanted was very experimental. In the sixties, we often joked that mentors were glassblowers who had only a few more hours experience than their “students.”

Our first official meetings were held in Penland’s dining room. There we set in motion the birth of our new group, including research for incorporation with a not-for-profit status via Ron Coles, a New York lawyer. We unanimously appointed the outspoken, charismatic Henry Halem as our leader and charged him with the task of locating a larger venue for future gatherings. Thanks to Henry, GAS II was the last time we ever had to restrict attendance.

18_Dreisbach_GAS_III_Audrey_Handler_and_Beth_Anne_Haner.jpgGAS III & IV - 1973 & 1974: Fenton Art Glass Co., WV
GAS III brought about major changes. Since Halem’s glass classes used cullet from the Fenton Art Glass Co. in Williamstown, WV, he thought this factory might be a good venue. By showing slides of GAS members’ artwork, he persuaded owner Frank M. Fenton to host our third and fourth GAS meetings. Fenton smoothed concerns about possible union complaints by arranging for us to blow glass on the factory floor on the Memorial Day holiday. 

It may be important to note that in the sixties most of us were blowing glass solo. That is, we didn’t have helpers. The type of studio teamwork, so prevalent today, was not yet accepted. That made these first four meetings monumental. We had a bunch of glassblowers helping each other make pieces we could not have created alone in our home studios. And, don’t forget, WE WERE HAVING FUN TOO! 

Because of Fenton's generosity and curiosity, we invited everyone we knew who was interested in glass to GAS III. About 120 people attended – what a gigantic increase! Frank also secured rooms at nearby Marietta College to help lower expenses. We could now invite speakers like Dr. Robert Brill, research scientist and scholar at The Corning Museum of Glass, and Larry Penberthy, a world pioneer in the commercialization of electric melting of glass, among others. The program provided new information that helped us in our studio settings, because many of us were isolated from other glassblowers. We also experienced what it was like to use a large palette of hot, compatible, colored glass. At the time, our limited and boring palette of browns, greens, and blues was derived from pottery glazes. This factory experience opened many creative avenues for us. And in 1974, we noticed some of the factory glassblowers had picked up fun ideas from watching us in 1973.  

from_TMA_Henry_Peiser_Ritter_Toledo_GAS_1975.jpgGAS V – 1975: Toledo Museum of Art, OH
After declining an offer to join the NCECA conference in Philadelphia in 1975, the GAS Board voted to hold our fifth conference in Toledo, OH. It was an appropriate location because the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) was the site of the two seminal glass workshops in March and June of 1962. We mostly think of Toledo as “Where It All Began!” The two ’62 workshops are often cited as the birth of American artists blowing glass outside traditional factories (“Studio Glass”). Jack Schmidt, Toledo resident and major player in the early development of GAS, was the 1975 site cocoordinator. Bertil Vallien was invited to demonstrate his sand-casting techniques for sculpture in the museum’s glass studio, a first in the USA. We also spent a day at Dominick Labino’s studio. His importance cannot be overstated! Since 1963, most glass artists had been using the Labino-style furnace, but now we could check out his whole physical setup and his hand tools that were designed for working alone. He was a creative inventor who fashioned ingenious methods for working with hot glass. After the demonstrations, Nick and Libby hosted a glorious sunset picnic on their farm, complete with Dave Jacob’s traditional beer and famous cheese, of course!

GAS VI – 1976: Corning Museum of Glass, NY
This was a pilgrimage to “Glass Mecca.” Halem and Myers worked with David Donaldson to set up this first of six conferences sponsored by The Corning Museum of Glass (CMoG). Nearly 300 of us were welcomed in 1976 by museum director, Thomas Buechner. He mused that if our glass works improved in quality, as they had in variety and quantity, we could witness the emergence of a new art. He declared, “When I see what you have done in such a short time, I get very excited. Thank you for coming to Corning.” CMoG hosted a big exhibition of the GAS members’ work in their auditorium. Corning Glassworks arranged plant tours to their impressive factories. And GAS awarded its first two “Honorary Life Memberships” to Bill Brown and Frank Fenton for their visionary support and continuous faith in our fledgling organization.

As we grew up, it was time to steer the organization beyond a big party consciousness towards a greater sense of professionalism. Instead of the original popularity contest to assign leadership duties, I proposed a slate of seven officers, each elected to a specific position. The GAS Board for 1976 consisted of Sylvia Vigiletti, treasurer; Audrey Handler, site and program coordinator; Jack Schmidt, secretary; Marvin Lipofsky, publications; David Donaldson, museum liaison; Rob Adamson, grant procurer, and I served as president. As stipulated in our bylaws, we selected people to represent different regions of the USA, who also had different interests and experiences (faculty members, private studio owner/operators, etc.).

Early on we reached out to Corning for answers to technical problems. At this conference, Mark Peiser and pals compiled 20 technical questions they would like to have addressed by a selection of glass scientists. Unfortunately, the industry decided not to help with our concerns, but we filled that slot with our own talented and experienced family, like Dudley Giberson, etc. The differences between the perspectives of technicians and artists, back then, became obvious when a Sullivan Park scientist exclaimed: “Oh, I get it! Your furnaces are like a backyard barbeque!” And another who declared, “You’ll never gain any fuel efficiency until you install functioning doors, instead of using a pile of bricks to cover your furnace openings at night, and then placing them on the floor all day!” Both acute observations! The technological advances in equipment, tools, and compatible glasses are keys to understanding the increased range of work produced through the ensuing decades.

Interestingly, today some of the experienced glass artists have been asked to design equipment for Corning. Eddie Bernard, John Chiles, Charlie Correll, Fred Metz, Bob Stephan, and others have all been “tapped!” I see this turnaround as a way of saying Thank You! to Corning, especially the late Tom Buechner, for his insight and support – both then and now.

GAS VII – 1977: University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
It was right after the two 1962 glass workshops in Toledo that Harvey Littleton started the first art department glass program in the country at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He understood the opportunities that his academic link provided for this new activity. The GAS VII conference saluted this “first” at U W-Madison. We frequently utilized the more affordable university facilities (rather than hotel conference sites). Audrey Handler, remembering her earlier site work and programming for the NCECA’s conference, took responsibility for our overall site development. She also arranged a glassblowers’ safety research project. Jack Schmidt organized our first official GAS Technical Display, and David Jacobs was elevated to Master BBQ Chef. For years, Sylvia Vigiletti worked closely with Hilbert Sosin, a CPA and dedicated GAS advisor, to formalize both our finances and the voluminous paperwork required for our incorporation and nonprofit status.

I especially remember, Billy Bernstein singing his blues song Glass ‘79 in the Madison Glass Lab: 
So you better start to dip and blow, you better do it fast
‘Cause you know this is a big one,
maybe the biggest one yet
There’s just one thing that’s on my mind
I hope I don’t get juried out of Glass ‘79

In Madison, the Life Memberships were awarded to both Dominick Labino and Harvey Littleton. Each was recognized for their pivotal roles in kick-starting the education of American studio artists working with glass.

18_Dreisbach_GAS_VIII_1978_Grandma_Prisbrey.jpgGAS VIII – 1978: Asilomar, Monterey, CA
Our first West Coast meeting took place at the beautiful Asilomar Conference Center. For many, it’s one of our favorites of all time. Marvin Lipofsky was our man. He wore many hats – as site developer, president-elect, journal editor, program designer, and host. He created a magnificent, memorable California experience for us all and he designed the first stained (flat) glass day at GAS. For the first time we had no hot demos on site! And we lived! 

Lipofsky invited Rose Slivka, editor-in-chief of Craft Horizons, to give a lecture on the influential ceramic and metal sculptor Pete Voulkos, who was also a mentor. I fondly remember meeting the California folk artist Tressa “Grandma” Prisbrey and enjoying her entertaining yarns about her Bottle Village, which she built in the Simi Valley. And no one can forget the “entertainment spectacle” herself, the performance artist Pat Oleszko!

GAS IX – 1979: CMoG installs the “GLASS ’79” exhibit
Returning to Corning is always wonderful. Thanks to Halem and Lipofsky working with CMoG, nearly 800 of us renewed our contacts with the “big” glass world, used the Rakow Library, shopped for books and gifts, toured the scientific and technical facilities, and dined with old friends. The highlight of the conference was the gigantic exhibition, New Glass: A Worldwide Survey (affectionately dubbed “Glass ‘79”), which exhibited 273 glass objects designed and made in 28 countries. Many of the international artists, including those from former Eastern Block Countries, traveled to Corning for the exhibit. We invited many to speak (for the first and only time) as part of our program. These included Willie Andersson, Sweden; Dan Bancila, Romania; Joaquin Torres Esteban, Spain; Pavel Halava, Czechoslovakia; Floris Meydam, Netherlands; Jorma Vennola, Finland; Yan Zoritchak, Slovakia; and many more! This truly international gathering allowed us all to meet and mingle within a Glass Artist - Designer United Nations.

This conference included a peek at Tom Buechner’s spectacular design for the proposed new CMoG building. The concentric circular floor plan surrounded the library, representing a target’s bull’s eye. It was designed so even harried visitors, wishing to see the most significant historical glass objects, could briefly view the 12 plinths spaced along the innermost circle around the library. But for those who wanted more, the study-collection rooms and topical exhibitions offered in-depth information, and often necessitated a longer stay!

Marvin Lipofsky remained our editor as he transformed the original newsletter into the Glass Art Society Journal, which included a list of 126 production studios in the USA and Canada. He also served on the American Crafts Council Board with Sidney Rossoft, a New York lawyer, who finalized our official incorporation and not-forprofit status in 1979. That year, we honored Thomas M. Buechner with our Life Membership Award for his countless efforts on behalf of the glass artists everywhere, and for his generous support of GAS as an organization.

GAS X – 1980: Marshall University, Huntington, WV
Marshall University hosted the next conference, and the Huntington Museum selected and for two years toured an exhibition of GAS members’s art work called New American Glass. Larry Bell, the visionary sculptor, was our keynote speaker. Honorary Life Memberships were awarded to both William H. Blenko, Jr., the third generation owner of Blenko Glass Company in Milton, WV, and Paul Vickers Gardner, the historian and author of Frederick Carder, An Influential Glass Designer and Sculptor.

The new board of trustees elected to carry us into our second decade, included Robert Kehlmann and Andy Magdanz, with Michael Taylor and me returning. Dan Dailey served as president, Bill Warmus became secretary, and Sylvia Vigiletti continued as treasurer.

To sum up, the earliest GAS gatherings emphasized camaraderie foremost! Everyone blew glass. There were only a few meetings and presentations. In the late 1970s, we offered fewer blow-outs (that is, artist demos), but we increased lectures and social gatherings. The venders’ tech displays became a very important place for attendees to gather, to learn, and to exchange information. And not surprisingly, some of the absolute best lectures have been from our very own membership – especially recent ones by Paul Marioni, Marvin Lipofsky, and Mark Peiser.

In the early years, I felt all our members were equals. Later, understandably, social activities somewhat divided the newer younger folks and the old farts who want more schmooze time, better lectures, and fewer demos. With the shift in membership demographics, the make-up of the recent GAS boards, now weighs toward the younger component.

Special advisors, like Bill Brown, Tom Buechner, Frank Fenton, Nick Labino, and Hilbert Sosin were invaluable to the development of our organization. Early GAS officers were mostly university and college teachers and we received support from their schools. Many people, institutions, and organizations have helped GAS over the years. They are listed in the Journal’s back pages as former award recipients, site chairs, board members, officers, and directors. We owe them a huge hug of appreciation. THANK YOU!!

These recollections represent some of my fondest personal memories, and judging by the members’ participation in this, the 40th “Ruby Anniversary” GAS Conference in Louisville - It’s Not The End! My gratitude goes out to all the advice, photos, and documents graciously offered from Susan Rossi-Wilcox, Audrey Handler, Sylvia Vigiletti, Marvin Lipofsky, Henry Halem, Mark Peiser, Art Reed, Don Hansen, Tom McGlauchlin, and especially Bill Boysen! Thank you all. (Panels organized by Tom McGlauchlin and Sam Strang are being planned for GAS XLII in Toledo, OH for 2012, and will provide more details on the beginnings of studio glass in the America.)


About the Author

Fritz Dreisbach (www.fritzdreisbach.com) teaches and makes glass as an independent artist, working at Island Glass Studio on Whidbey Island, WA. He is working on a new series of carved glass objects, in addition to his singular show pieces: the Mongos and the playful goblets, “tricks, and toys.” During the past 45 years, Dreisbach, “the Johnny Appleseed of Glass,” has offered hundreds of presentations in more than 160 institutions in North America, Europe, and Asia. His glass is represented in numerous public, private collections, and “all the usual suspects!”   


Many past GAS facts can also be found in our GAS Journals, some of which are available online for members.
See a list of past GAS Conference locations

GAS's History Committee has begun an oral history program; look for more information about this in the future.

The Glass Art Society reserves the right to deny applications for Technical Display, advertising participation, GAS membership or the conference from anyone for any reason.