with glass: William Morris’ Crow with Shard.
By David Brickman
Morris: Myth, Object and the Animal
Berkshire Museum, through
of Contemporary Glass
Berkshire Museum, through
The West Coast sensibility that William Morris brings to the
Berkshire Museum will confound some visitors to Myth, Object
and the Animal. And that’s a good thing.
A native of Carmel, Calif., and now based in the Seattle area,
Morris is an artist who works in only one medium—glass—and
who draws his inspiration from nature and ancient history.
Not the usual wellsprings of fine art in the postmodern era,
especially so close to New York City (and Europe) as Pittsfield,
Whatever Morris may lack in theoretical underpinnings, he
more than makes up for in passion and mastery over his medium.
And, judging from this set of five installations, his output
is nothing short of prodigious. Just one of the pieces shown,
Artifact Panel, incorporates more than 300 separately
made objects meticulously mounted and arrayed over an 8-foot-by-33-foot
In terms of craftsmanship, Morris is among the best alive
and the most innovative in his field. By blowing, sculpting
and decorating this most common of materials, he creates the
illusion of many other materials, including pottery, bone,
metal and leather. Though many of his pieces have the appearance
of cast glass, none of them is cast—everything he makes is
created directly from hot glass (adding powdered, colored
glass to decorate the surfaces) with crude hand tools right
at the furnace.
It’s hot, macho work that requires the help of several full-time
assistants, and it has earned Morris representation in museum
collections all over the United States and the world. It’s
also colorful, lyrical, subtle, obsessive, and yes, confounding.
Drawing on anatomically correct and expressive animal imagery,
as well as Egyptian, American Indian and Ice Age stylistic
tropes, Morris evokes a world in which actions take on legendary
consequences and the primal conflict between man and nature
is in full flower.
One such scenario consists of a tremendous row of curving
tusks, which make a sort of giant ribcage or boat skeleton
in the middle of the darkened gallery. Strewn among the tusk
ribs are several human skulls with holes smashed in them,
other human bones and a variety of tools, weapons and gourd
shapes. Titled Cache, this stylized archeological site
plays against the idea of a history museum display to conjure
up the sense of a warriors’ graveyard directly out of Norse
And the 79 tusks, many of them more than 6 feet long, are
exquisitely crafted in brilliantly colored and delicately
textured layers, using a technique known as “casing”—one of
many that Morris adapts in unique ways. It is easy to take
for granted because his technique is so good, but remember:
The skulls, tools, etc. are also made of nothing but glass.
Other displays that play against the museum artifact stereotype
include the lighthearted Artifact Panel; Adorned
Burial, which features a fascinating oversize human skeleton;
and a set of pots under attack by birds, titled Crow and
This last piece features stylized figures of the black birds
apparently laying waste to ancient Greek and Anasazi pottery,
much of it adorned with images of the ravens themselves. As
the birds have their way with the precious artifacts, some
of them holding broken-off pieces aloft in their beaks, one
can’t help marveling at the realism and expressiveness of
the craft (again, it’s all glass) and, especially, at the
imagination that spawned this bizarre vision.
While Morris apparently can make glass look like anything
at all he wants it to, the proliferation of ideas that drives
him is the more impressive aspect of his art. The fertility
of this wonderful artist’s imagination is only hinted at in
the ambitious pieces featured in this traveling exhibition,
but it’s a great place to start.
By the way, there is an 8-minute video loop of Morris and
assistants at work in his studio that is well worth watching
for a bit of insight into the process that transforms a glowing
blob of molten glass into the marvels seen here. My compliments
to the staff at the Berkshire Museum for providing pairs of
headphones with the video, so as not to ruin the atmosphere
in the gallery with a distracting repetitive soundtrack.
Accompanying the Morris exhibition in a spacious gallery next
door is a fine display of more conventional (but still innovative)
glass art called Masters of Contemporary Glass. Featuring
16 highly regarded artists, the show was curated in conjunction
with Holsten Galleries in Stockbridge and provides
a stimulating overview of some of the many possibilities for
this endlessly malleable medium.
Included are colored and engraved vessels by Lisbeth Sterling;
prismatically geometric clear glass sculptures by Christopher
Ries and Martin Rosol; oversize blown vessels by Sonja Blomdahl,
Dante Marioni, Lino Tagliapietra and Stephen Powell; and over-the-top
silly combines by Richard Marquis.
Also of interest are painterly abstractions by Dorothy Hafner
and extremely elegant, almost minimalist designs by Thomas
Patti. But the centerpiece of the show is a trio of basket
sets by Dale Chihuly, probably the best-known glass artist
alive (and mentor to Morris). As these dazzlingly beautiful
vessels attest, Chihuly’s fame is totally deserved—and his
craft is clearly second to none.
On the whole, the show is a feast for hungry lovers of glass
art. If you’re one, save the airfare to Venice and check it
out. And if you’re not, you’ll likely become one after seeing
this outstanding work.