With 40 years as a glass designer behind her, Ann Wåhlström inspires a varying medley of associations with her new glass collection, comprising 36 stones, teardrop shaped or cylindrical vessels. There are 14 of the former, and with their asymmetrical and organic forms, they deviate from the earlier, fairly austere geometrical look. Her classic, rather strict range has gained new movement, while the cylinders and teardrop shapes become increasingly refined in appearance, offering sharper formulations of her preferences. The scale is surprising while the tone is subdued, with a few exceptions. The two red cylinders and teardrop-shaped vessels are a nod to the historic French Baccarat.
Something both elusive and generous emerges in the charisma of these unpredictable forms. Challenging, headstrong and timeless. The transparent outermost layer of glass protects its contents, announcing a powerful integrity. The surface is crystal clear. Inside, patterns and colors unfold in structures that are occasionally as blatant as candy cane stripes, bubble wrap bubbles, fabric threads – and occasionally, they are inscrutable motifs in their own world.
In the last twelve years, Ann Wåhlström has returned repeatedly to work in the American glass studios in Seattle and Tacoma, most recently at the famous Museum of Glass in Tacoma, a studio surrounded by myth and inspired by preeminent glass artist Dale Chihuly. It has a team of glassblowers that has carried on and developed Venetian techniques that are thousands of years old, a prerequisite for Ann’s development of unique works in the exciting partnership to produce glass of this caliber.
Glassblowing in the studio is a carefully choreographed dance, with alternating speed and slowness. Hot and cold. It is a spectacle, a ballet that has become an audience event in Tacoma, a form of public entertainment. The audience gets to take part in the artwork’s creation. The role of the artist is to direct the drama, to instruct the glassblowers regarding her intentions.
One of the techniques is called murrine, named after Murano, the little series of islands in the lagoon outside Venice where the art of glassmaking has been developed for centuries. The glassblowers Ben Cobb, Gabe Feenan and Sarah Gilbert, with whom Ann Wåhlström has worked since 2005, play key roles. The ensemble has also now been joined by Courtney Branam and Darin Denison.
Together, they are an evenly matched team. The intense work period is prepared for meticulously with ideas, sketches and the making of the murrine – small, compact pieces of glass that contain the calculated embryo of patterns and colors. These glass pieces are the basis for evoking the composition of texture in the final blown form. The intentions are in sketches on watercolor paper, of which there may be hundreds, usually in a 1:1 scale – gorgeous, suggestive images with their own power. Ann Wåhlström describes her sketches as a sort of refined doodling. What appears to be deceptively simple to the viewer is linked to the hand’s movements, yet also the result of long and penetrating thoughts. She finds it liberating to experiment abundantly on paper, applying gouache to wet watercolor paper in rapid brush strokes. The whole process of creating the three-dimensional glass is based on slowness and speed, heat and cold. The result of extensive preparation is shaped over three weeks in the glass studio. The ideas exist in the artist’s mind for some time; they are then further shaped in sketches and take shape at last in the glass studio, like the emergence of a phoenix with form and allure. The stones, if not boulders, are her latest addition – an evolution alongside the more classic teardrop shapes and cylinders. Ann Wåhlström describes her beach walks on Gotland’s west coast: the infinite views of the ocean and horizon; the shore lined with stones. Most are softly polished by the ocean, wind and weather. The beaches are dappled with small rugs of seaweed, which, in addition to lichen, give the pale gray stones fluctuating character. Nature’s own camouflage to blend in – to signal its presence. The soft shapes inspire movement in the body. Jumping from stone to stone, automatically awakening a personal choreography. Movements, cyclones, spirals: all have long been themes of Ann Wåhlström’s glass art, enveloped for so long in austere spaces: cylinders and teardrops. Her consistent style follows a path from her first debut exhibitions in the early 1980s in New York and Stockholm. She describes it as an ongoing “perpetual play with primary forms.” There is thus freedom in closely studying the stones on the beach. New thoughts are born. Their individual and asymmetrical shapes allow for another kind of freedom, and that randomness has inspired an expansion of what has been a fairly geometrical range to date. She was drawn to new landscapes while continuing to deepen past experiences, and now an array of experiences crystalize in the rearview mirror: her influences from early modernism and constructivism; her encounter with a new landscape on the other side of the globe, and the absent father who lived in Australia. With a gift for the visual, the flow of imagery has played a special role. Twentieth-century modernism, contemporary art and beloved children’s books continue to have a tangible presence in her allusions. To be sure, “Stones” also has a distant counterpart in the Babar books, and Tove Jansson’s The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. With the murrine technique, Ann also digs deeper into the underlying mid-layer of the teardrops and cylinders with fascinating results. The vessels gain new dimensions with patterns that have a remarkable influence on the form, causing an archetype to transition into an individual. Compared to earlier collections, the colors are more subdued. Perhaps this is because the beach walks, permeated by the variegating hues of the ocean and sky, have inspired a certain expertise and maturation associated with a threatened climate. Threads, glass eyes, rings: textile references infuse the patterns, lending a special aura to the teardrops and cylinders. Ann Wåhlström, who has so consistently adhered to hard materials in her artistic practice and design, describes with surprise her newfound inspiration in fabric construction and twisted strands of thread. And with the perspective of a 40-year long practice, it has become clear which references are important. From her immersion in the glass of Småland during her early training years at the Orrefors Glass School, she describes her discovery of Finnish glass in the late 1970s as liberating. The Nuutajärvi glassworks’ subtle, yet powerful colors and severe shapes, exemplified by artists such as Kaj Franck and Gunnel Nyman, created a surprising rejuvenation that lasted throughout the 1940s, 50s, and several decades on. When Ann Wåhlström pays tribute to them now, for example with the magnificent Rings II or Stone VI, it is with fanfare. Her glass art largely has its own dimensions, while simultaneously broadening worlds. The Stones and Vessels collection evokes remarkable reminders of the infinite universe. And of all the possibilities that have yet to be shaped. Puzzling patterns and frozen movements in the glass conjure thoughts of the significance of chance for imagination, awareness and evolution.