When Henry Richardson decided to be an artist, he opted out of art school and decided to take a more direct route delving right in. Self-taught, he started as a painter and eventually worked his way up to his current passion, glass sculpture. While many glass art is done by blowing or casting, Richardson instead fuses glass sheets together to create amazing orbs and towers. His method involves cutting arcs of glass that form rings, layering them to eventually form a perfect sphere. His art pieces have been shown at museums all over, including the Frost Museum in Miami and the deCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and are eagerly bought up by art enthusiasts. In 2012 he won the Artist of the Year award from Dcota Design Center.
In this telling interview, Richardson discusses his process, the environment of the art world, where his inspiration comes from, and what it was like to create a 9/11 memorial for the town of Danbury, Connecticut.
Mila Pantovich: How did you get into sculpting with glass?
Henry Richardson: I'm self taught and I started working as a painter and did realist paintings. One of the series of paintings I did was of men working on steel beams, which kind of broke up the canvas in an abstract way. To get onto the job site I got myself certified in steel and concrete inspection. So I actually walked the beams, took a lot of photographs and sketches and did a whole series of painting along that line, but I also became very familiar with the materials. I became intrigued with the idea of using concrete with strips of glass embedded in the concrete so the light would come through it. I was kind of painting in color but with light, through the surface of the concrete. In working with the glass and the concrete I started to evolve into understanding glass as a medium.
MP: There's definitely an architectural element to your work; can you explain your style and process?
HR: This isn't blown or cast, these are all sheets of glass, like window panes, table tops, so the process that I developed was of fusing that glass, or bonding it, with a polymer silica. I started thinking about glass as stone that’s transparent and that leap of understanding led me to experiment with using a hammer and chisel on the sheets of glass themselves, cutting the pieces and chiseling them, and then welding them together into theses abstract forms. I'm actually approaching glass, not the way that a lot of other artists do — as a fluid form — but really rather as a transparent stone. I started creating large abstract geometric forms that have a chiseled glass surface and from that point it just kind of took off.
Think of a sheet of glass that's seven by eleven feet and if I'm going to make an orb, I have to cut arcs of glass that then, if you put them side by side, they form a ring. Every ring has to be the perfect circumference, so every piece has to fit with every other piece within that particular layer and everything has to be perfect, otherwise you wouldn’t end up with a sphere.
MP: How long does it generally take you to complete an entire piece?
HR: When I first started it took an incredibly long time because it was very difficult to produce the pieces in my mind without shattering them. If you spend a long time mastering a medium you can become facile with it and I can actually do it rather rapidly now. I also have assistants in the studio that can help with various processes like washing and sanding the edges, so I focus on conceiving the pieces and then I actually manually chisel every single piece that’s in those forms and then we bond them together. It’s a labor intensive process.
A lot of artists today, I think, are going for the idea behind the piece and I think many fail to grasp that when they master the medium, they can actually move beyond the basic concept into something that’s transformative. A lot of people say there's an energy to [my] work and part of it is the light that comes out of it, part of it is the form and the texture.
MP: What has been the largest piece you've ever made?
HR: A sculpture called Tikkun, which is now in front of the Frost Museum in Miami, and it’s a six and a half foot orb - a hollow chiseled orb of glass. I titled it Tikkun because there is a myth in the Jewish writings, in the Kabbalah, and my understanding of it is that when the physical world was created there was a vessel of light and it was shattered and everything physical was infused with that light. God's commandant to man was through acts of goodness to repair that vessel of light. So the idea is really to take all these fractured or broken pieces and fuse them together and have the light come through it. There are a lot of ways you can interpret that, many people interpret it spiritually, but there's also a physical presence to it.
What's amazing to me is that you have these very large fractured glass sculptures and people can't resist touching them. I had a show at the deCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts outside of Boston and I had a column and a four foot glass orb [...] on a terrace. I stopped by one day and the guard said, "These pieces are driving us crazy because people bring their kids and the kids can't resist touching the sculpture and they're not suppose to touch the art in the museum." It's really quite moving that they feel that desire to actually touch it and connect with it.
MP: Some of your works feature almost science-fiction like designs, where do you gain inspiration?
HR: It's interesting because when you're working in the studio you're taking an idea or an emotion inside of you and you're translating it into a physical form. Lately what I've been doing is moving from the static geometric form to forms that have a flow or a twist to them so there's actually movement to the pieces themselves. It's been interesting to see how over the years you begin to incorporate more and more of the elements of your own life in your work and you can plumb the depths after you’ve mastered the medium, you can explore a lot of different ideas that you couldn't otherwise do.
MP: Do you sketch out an image prior to beginning the sculpture? Do you ever know exactly how a piece will end up or do you create as you go?
HR: I have a sketchbook with about 500 years worth of work in it and you have to whittle it down in terms of what you can actually physically, in terms of time, create. What I find really interesting in the studio is that I start with an idea, I have a pretty good sense of the engineering of how to create it, but as I make it things change and you come across these fabulous moments of inspiration that really only happen when you're physically working on something with your hands. It's in the process of working with it yourself that you have these transformative moments.
MP: Do you ever take on commissioned jobs?
HR: About half of my work are commissions. Often times someone will say, "I really love your work and I would really like to have a piece and I want to put it here." Usually it takes three to six months to figure out what that might be, sometimes a lot less, and then usually I give them a simple sketch. Many artists, I think, don’t really like that personal connection with the people who are acquiring the work — the work goes to a gallery and it's lost to the artist — but I have been really happy to have had a number of collectors who buy multiple pieces who I have relationships with and I think it makes the work stronger. If I know I am making something for you, then you're part of the process of making the work. I think we lose sight of the fact that art is really a collaborative effort. I create it as the artist, its coming from inside of me, but without somebody to have it placed somewhere or somebody to buy it, it's very hard to ever have any part created. There have been a number of finance guys in New York who have taken a very strong interest in my work lately and have bought a number of pieces. One man in Greenwich, Connecticut, who has the Seven Bridges Foundation, commissioned me to do a very large piece for the opening of the museum, which was last June. It was called The Three Graces, it was three columns of glass that were black, clear, and green. It was 11, 13, and 15 feet in height.
MP: How do you generally price your work?
HR: I've always kept the pricing of my work low, or lower than the market would necessarily have for what they are. I think the reason I did that, and have been doing it, is because the people who are buying the work now are supporting me in the process of developing and growing the work. I think this work is really going to take off and it doesn’t hurt to have people who support you in the beginning. I just called a woman today, she and her husband were very early supporters of me and bought a two foot orb in...1999 for I think $3,000, while a gallery in Aspen just sold a two-foot orb for $18,000, so that was a nice phone call to make.
A four foot orb today goes for $48,000...and takes about a month to do; I'm very skilled at what I do now and if you think about it, a lot of artists get to a certain level and they have a whole bunch of people create their work for them. When you have other people create your work you really start to lose touch with the innovation and the creative process. There's an authenticity about the work, when you're in that immediate presence and you're creating it. I think a lot of artists are trying to go for a shock value, so they come up with one clever innovative idea but it's kind of a one-trick-pony...you can't really repeat it. It's a really cool idea and its really unique...but it's not something that’s sustainable. If you create work which I think is authentic you have many moments in time where that work is relevant.
MP: Congratulations on winning Design Centers of America's 2012 Artist of the Year award; how has the recognition changed your career?
HR: Last year was an unbelievably good year, in terms of both commissions and major galleries having very strong interest in my work. I just started working with the Elaine Baker Gallery in Boca Raton, and I took a four-foot chiseled green orb down to them - I think it was on the 17th of December - and she put it in the Boca Raton Resort and it sold on the 29th. So there seems to be an acceleration of interest in the work by both galleries and collectors.
MP: Have there been any projects that stand out for you?
HR: I got a call from a guy in Danbury, Connecticut who was on a committee that had been formed by the mayor; they wanted to commission a 9/11 memorial. He called me up and said, "We're exploring different kinds of mediums and I know you work in glass and you can do large scales" — that’s another thing, I'm one of the only artists that can create very large scale works in glass that are appropriate to be outside. So he invited me down to the first meeting and I explained what the medium would be and how it could be outside and he called me up after the meeting and said, "The committee wants you to come back in two weeks, can you come down?" So I went down to the meeting and I got there a little early and the first person there was a local high school art teacher and he said to me, "I'm just curious, what would you do?" So I said, "Well, I made a column that was at the deCordova Museum that was chiseled on the inside and it's clear cut on the outside so you really see two columns, so you see two towers — the inner one and the outer one." I sketched it out and the other people came in the room and…they all passed it around and they asked me twenty questions and he said, "This is what I want." It represented the absence on the inside of the twin towers and…they stopped the process after two meetings. They said, "We were going to do this process for six months and choose an artist and we were going to plan to have this installed in 2005, but could you make this for 2004 in September?" I think this was in May. I had three commissions that had been lined up and I called the patrons and…they said, "Put our commissions on hold and do that." So I spent the summer doing that and got it in before September 11.
MP: I really loved the detail of the names etched on the inner column.
HR: I sat there and thought about this for a long time and you know you go to a memorial and you see Roberts, John, and everything's alphabetical. There were two friends that I had who actually went down in the towers, so I thought, "I'm going to alphabetize these but I'm going to do it by first name." All of the Connecticut victims are on that panel on the inside, they sort of float in space, but they're all alphabetized by first name.
MP: What future projects do you have planned?
HR: I'm doing a show right now at the Naples Philharmonic which has three large orbs and three column pieces. I'm starting a series of columns that have this movement, sort of twisting, in the shape. In conjunction with that I've started to explore color. For twenty years I've worked basically with the color of the glass itself but I'm now taking the pigments that I used in my oil painting and infusing them in the bonding agent so I'm now creating large pieces that have quite a bit of color in them. You have the same form and you can make it completely different, it evokes a completely different feeling.
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