Meet the Artist: Benjamin and Debora Moore

Corning Museum of Glass, November 30, 2007

When you look at great artists, you see content in their work. I mean, you see something unique, you see something coming across that’s challenging. Challenging your intellect; challenging your thought process, which is what art is all about, in my opinion.
    —Artist Benjamin Moore

 

Welcome to the Corning Museum of Glass, at a Meet the Artist Podcast with Benjamin and Debora Moore. They’ll talk about their work with Tina Oldknow, the Corning Museum’s curator of modern glass. The Corning Museum of Glass, located in Corning, New York, is the world’s largest museum devoted to the history and art of glass. This program is part of a series of podcasts that features interviews with contemporary artists who work in glass. If you’d like to view images of some of Benjamin and Debora Moore’s works, visit the Museum’s website at www.cmog.org  

 

Tina- Hello, I’m Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass, at the Corning Museum of Glass. I am here with Seattle artists Debora Moore and Benjamin Moore.

Debora Moore has worked with glass since the late 1980s and she’s best known for her complex studies of orchids, orchid trees and bamboo shoots.

Debora’s husband, Benjamin Moore, is a studio glass pioneer, who has had an influential career as a teacher, designer, and master glass blower. Since the mid 1970’s Ben has been involved with Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State, first as a student and then as a teacher, then as Head of Education, as an interim director in the early 1990’s and for many years now as a trustee. In addition to his commitment to education, Ben has built a successful career as an independent artist and his work is represented in museum collections worldwide. In recent years, his studio has become an important resource for many artists who travel to Seattle to blow glass with Ben and with his talented teams.

Tina- Ben and Debora thank you so much for coming to talk to me today, all the way to Corning from Seattle. It’s a pleasure to have you here.

Debora-Your welcome, it’s nice to be here.

Ben-It’s a pleasure being back.

Tina- Debora hot sculpts very expressive strong almost primitive forms that are drawn from the natural world, while Ben’s thin walled vessels are inspired by the elegant spare lines and sophisticated color of the best mid-20th century Italian glass design. You guys, your work can not be more different. Do you ever talk about your work together?

Debora-We do (laughter). We do indeed. I’m always picking his brain about different techniques and aesthetically what he thinks.

Ben-Yeah, Debora’s work has always been an inspiration to me, as far as how she approaches the material because it’s so fluid and the way she works the material—we’re polar extremes. My work is so geometric, hers is dealing with nature. So seeing how she approaches the material, at times with like reckless abandon, I love. I love.

Tina- You seem surprised by that Debora.

Debora- No, I’m not… just a little embarrassed. (laughter)

Tina-No, it’s really great because I think that with Ben’s work you do get this feeling of entire or control and this almost ephemeral quality of lightness of the work and then Debora’s is this beautiful heavy dark you know really expressive work that looks like …even what you do to the glass…do you apply powders to it to create those deep colors?

Debora- I do.

Tina- Do you feel that you use the transparency of the glass like Ben does in any way?

Debora- I try to with the delicacy of the flowers that I use. I like the delicacy of the flowers in juxtaposition to the heaviness of some of the branches and the logs and the tree parts that I make. So...yeah.

Tina- Uhmm and have you…  Are all your orchids of the kind of host variety or do you do different kinds of studies?

Debora- I do several different types of orchids and different studies. I love traveling and studying them in their natural environment when I can, and I start off with a water color instead of a photograph just to kind of capture what I’m seeing at that time. With the watercolors I can kind of capture what my minds eye is seeing.

Tina- Now, Debora did you meet Ben before or after you started with working with glass and how did you meet?

Debora- Well, I met Ben after I started blowing glass. I was working at Pratt Fine Art Center and I received a scholarship to Pilchuck in ‘90 and um, I met an artist by the name of Robbie Miller and he said that I had to go to see Benjamin Moore’s studio. It was the best studio in the United States at the time and…

Tina-It still is (laughter)

Debora-I think so...all the great people work there and so I knocked on his door and he answered the door

Ben- and when I answered the door

Debora- We shook hands and he wouldn’t let go of my hand (laughter).

Tina- Oh really, that’s so funny.

Debora- and I said well okay (Laughter) and I thought he would be a wonderful person for my girlfriend to meet.

Tina- Oh, that’s interesting!

 Debora-and so I tried to set him up with a blind date with my friend and it just kind of didn’t work out…so here we are.

Ben- Her girlfriend actually said, (whispering) “He’s not interested in me; he’s interested in you!” to Debora.

Tina- That’s so great.

Debora-That’s basically what happened.

Tina-That’s a wonderful story. What interested you about Ben’s work? I mean when you got to know Ben a little %%bit%% and saw and his set-up. What kind of attracted you to his work?

Debora- Well, I really love his clarity of form and design, and I think that that’s so important for what I do because you have to start off on the round and you have to understand form before you can mess it up...basically. And that’s what I do—I distort it. And so I really admired that from him and I kind of learned a lot on how to center things and how to keep them centered and clean and then I can go ahead with the work that I do.

Tina- Now, Ben you mentioned that you loved the kind of the abandon of Debora’s work and her interest in really like getting into the material and messing it up (laughter) as she says. Is there anything else when you first met her and saw her work, do you remember thinking about anything in particular or was there something that attracted you or was it that?

Ben- Well, actually when we first met it was fairly early in her career and it was really before I think she had found her personal voice, she was still exploring, I think, as a young artist, she was doing a lot of figurative kind of objects, and um, it was shortly after we met that she was focusing on different types of flowers. And it was at that point that I think that just through her experiences that she had at Pilchuck working with Pino and a few other artists that she kind of started finding her voice and what it is she wanted to do with glass and then that’s when reckless abandon started coming in.

Debora- Yeah, I remember you saying, Dante as well, that I wasn’t afraid of the glass and that was the first thing that you kept saying, well you’re not afraid you just get right in there.

Ben- Well, you do things that are so non-typical of a traditional glass maker that… which is wonderful, which is what makes your work so special. I mean it’s really amazing, there’s often times if Dante comes by the studio and we happen to walk down and Deb’s working there I mean she’s doing things in the shop where Dante and I are both cringing off in the corner going, my God this is going to hit the floor any second but she pushes the material when its on the stick to a very high degree which is very neat and when I say reckless abandon, I don’t mean that in an obviously in a derogatory way.  I mean I think that it’s absolutely cool that she works with the material like that.

Tina- You have been a great kind of role model for Dante, throughout his life, for Dante Marioni, and um, I love the kind of scene of  kind  of you looking at Debora with  kind of fear of  because you are really about control, but you are also people who really appreciate being out of control at the same time and that’s actually I think that’s why your work is never stiff or slick in any way. Because even though you are about control its not in any way, your work still has a kind of a feeling of spontaneity about it in spite of the fact that its perfect, both you and Dante.

Ben, you have said that the main focus of your work is to achieve simplicity, balance and clarity of form and I got some of these things from things that you have written. You use simple geometric shapes such as the sphere and the cylinder and I do love your palla sets which pair those wonderful, round, flat shapes with the cylinders it’s a really beautiful combination and I know that you use color to attract attention to your contours, your outlines. Do you want to talk about your interest in design who or what has inspired you when you were developing your work.  What was the first piece that you made that excited you? Could you tell me a little about that?

Ben- Yeah, well first of all in the turn…like…in the 1900’s I mean the Vienna workshop the Wiener Werkstätte the De Stijl Movement, those particular and far as historical referencing I mean I think those movements had a huge impact on me. I mean really really simplistic, kind of spare…

Tina- Like when you thinking about Josef Hoffmann or something, those beautiful spare goblets…

Ben- Exactly, exactly! You know when you think of Mondrian or Rietveld or any of those people as far as their use of color of being really clean, primary…minimal use. It’s something that always struck a %%cord%% with me and the craft of making glass is actually a remarkable thing. I mean when I got into glass early on in the movement as you well may know there was a big line out there that “technique is cheap” and I was… and that statement was made in many different kinds of…what’s the right word I’m looking for…

Tina- Well, I think that people have translated it; I think that people have interpreted it in a variety of ways.

Ben- In a variety of ways...but my thought on that particular line, you know, I mean granted the artists that were working on glass early on in the movement  were trying to take glass out of just the decorative arts, so they were using that line because they wanted people to break barriers and to approach and use the material in a different way. And seeing what was going on early on in the movement, they were doing things but every thing was so primitive as far as how things were executed. So, consequently, I kind of went to the other extreme saying the technique is very important because if you think of a painter they know how to draw, they do color study. A musician—they know %%scales%%, I mean  its repetition, its craft, to build your vocabulary to build to be able to talk and that was something that was really so severely lacking early on in the movement, um, that the craft of making and wanting structure for me was very, very important to me at that point, I mean I was seeing all these lumpy, bumpy objects that all the early pioneers were making that were like abstract expressionist kind of feeling or something. To me we needed more than that. That was a great starting point, but it had to go somewhere beyond that in order for things to develop the ways they have today. I think what has happened with the Italians and the great fortune I had being in Italy at the time I was and being able to bring some of these Italians back to share their century-old craft with us has created this foundation for all the glass makers today that are enabling so much more sophisticated kind of things being able to be made.

Tina- I think that’s completely true and I think that some people think about Harvey Littleton’s aphorism “technique is cheap” is kind of a way to avoid work that’s skill high, content free kind of a way as they say, um, work that is purely, purely decorative and of course your work and also Dante’s work and many other people who work with coming from backgrounds in designs there’s really a very beautiful intellectual construct to the work and this is not always the case, as you know. I think that’s the kind of thing that maybe Harvey was talking about, but I think that, um, in your recognition and also people such as Dick Marquis and Marvin Lipofsky also recognized that yeah it was really great to subvert the functionality of the decorative of glass and explore sculptural forms but if you can’t handle the material you’re not going to get very far so…

Ben- Exactly.

Tina- you were definitely on the right track there. And um, I wanted to ask you a little about this, you devoted much of your career to education. For many years, I think it was over, nearly ten years you were the Head of Education and Creative Director at Pilchuck in a period that was really um, extremely important in the school’s history at a time when glass was changing literally every month it seemed that new techniques, this kind of explosion of people working with the material. How important has education been to you and what have you gotten out of it? I mean, I know that you built yourself your own successful career and but you gave a lot to something that was not about you which was the education of others.

Ben- Well, once again that statement that I made earlier about being in the right place at the right time… but anyway…The dynamics of Pilchuck and being involved and working as the Education Coordinator and working with all the different faculty and you know these vibrant young American artists that were so hungry. And, I mean, they were like sponges when these Europeans would come in. We were all coming from the American Studio Movement and the people that were coming from more classical kinds of European backgrounds was very very special. And then the crème-de-la-crème as far as designers and artists from these different countries sharing their cultural differences and backgrounds created this melting pot that was incredible. And having been there at that moment when all that was going on was truly magical.

Tina- Yeah, it was you had the Stanislav Libenský, Jaroslava Brychtová, and you had Lino Tagliapietra, you had later Pino Signoretto, a lot people coming over from Europe. And some of the things that I have heard when either reading what they’ve written or asking them is that they were so amazed by the abandon of the American artists that they were kind of shocked by what they were doing but then at the same time they were so completely enamored of it, they thought that it was so great, so free. So while they didn’t need any help learning how to work the material, what they took was this idea of freedom and not being afraid of the glass, which is a nice aspect for you Debora, because I think that that is very American and I think that is easily lost. So, I think that it’s really important that now that the so called movement, that really is not a movement anymore, we have really matured beyond that but there is still that really great energy approaching the material in a fearless way and just trying to do different kinds of things with it and I wanted to ask you Debora… You talked about that you were interested that when you look at the plants you don’t take photographs of them you do watercolors because you are interested in how you see them not how they really appear, you’re maybe more interested in portraying the fundamental design of the plants and flowers and that you interpret them. You do not make a realistic representation. Um, are there any artists whose work has inspired you in this? I mean when you look at certain people, are there people who have inspired you in the development of your work?

Debora- Napoleon Martinuzzi was a designer for the Venini factory in the ‘30s and I was very much inspired by his work. The Blaschka Collection, the glass flowers—I’m very much inspired by that. Although its total models and reproductions of real life pieces of plants, I was totally inspired by that. And I can say that I drew a lot of inspiration from at least those two.

Tina- What do you think of someone like Émile Gallé?

Debora- I love him (Laughter).

Tina- Because he was also someone who interestingly did  a lot of very interpretive work with natural things trying to get at their essence and when you talk about kind of interpreting things your own way what do you mean by that they’re not realistic representations?

Debora- Well, let’s take an example, I like making orchids and one of the type of orchids that I like to make is called a Paphiopedilum or a Lady Slipper. I play with the colors and there are really no blue and green Lady Slippers, but I just like to have artistic license to play around with that aspect of it. Sometimes when I’m walking through the forest or wherever I might be, the sunlight will hit something a certain way and I might not have my glasses on and I see something totally different that really isn’t there, it’s just kind of in my mind’s eye, so that’s kind of what I mean…

Tina- No I love that.

Debora- that’s what I’m saying. Several people have said to me, oh they look so real and I always thought to myself well I wasn’t trying to make them look real, that’s just how I portrayed it.

Tina-I think that’s what you’re probably talking about…you’re getting to their essence and I think that sometimes what makes something look real when I look at the epidendrum orchids, the host orchids is that wonderful contrast between the dark kind of seeping trunk, then you see these pale super delicate, you know almost transparent flowers that hang from them, you really capture that beautiful contrast really well and that thing whatever it is that grabs you when you see orchids in their native environment.

Debora-Well its interesting because orchids (this host series that we are speaking of), orchids just attach themselves to rocks or trees. And so, I still can’t get over orchids, so I try to incorporate orchids in everything that I do. I’m really interested in texture right now of bark and moss, lichen, things of that nature.

Tina- And do you spend a lot of time actually studying and taking apart barks and things?

Debora- I do. (laughter)

Ben- In fact when we were just in New York, we were walking down the street and there was a pod that had fallen from a tree and Debora picked it up, was tearing it apart and stuck it in her purse.

Debora- Can’t help it.

Tina- So there is bark and pods in your purse.

Debora- Yeah and you know it’s interesting, because I recently went to Antarctica to study moss and lichen and I had traveled…

Tina- Where do you see that?

Debora-Well you see it on rocks…and that’s about it. (laughter) But there are, well I can’t say exactly but something like 360 something species of mosses in Antarctica and there are 400 different species of lichen and I had traveled to tropical rain forests to look at orchids and bamboo and then I’ve gotten involved in going to temperate rain forests just to see the moss and lichen on the trees and the old growth forests. And I thought that I needed well to some extreme to find some new type of inspiration or something so that was my latest trip and I think that by going there, it’s a very desolate place but yet quite beautiful and the only vegetation is moss, lichen and algae. I think that the way it’s affected my work is what you were speaking about a little earlier. The heavier parts of the truck are now becoming a little %%bit%% darker and denser and I think it’s from that experience of going to Antarctica to study moss…

Tina- Wow!

Debora- …that’s how I see it and I just try to bring that into my work.

Tina- Do you travel and study things or is your work primarily been inside your head?

Ben- Laughter

 Tina- It’d be interesting to know how designers or people who are involved with more design type work…

Ben- Right, hmm, you know you were asking earlier about influences by particular artists so I think both Debora and I think that Napoleone Martinuzzi has to be a hero of mine, you know as well as some of the other people that I had mentioned earlier. But, how Martinuzzi approached the material in so many different ways, and executed so many remarkable objects in so many different aspects of glass objects from lighting to figurative things, to plants, animals, vessels, I mean classic vessel forms…

Tina- It’s actually really interesting that you focus on him because he really combines what both of you are doing.

Ben-Right.

Tina- He did this really sculptural work and then these really intense, beautiful, simple vessels as well. It’s really interesting. I think time and again, so many of us…certainly he was the inspiration or one of the inspirations for Dale when he started his Venetian series as well.

Ben- Correct.

Tina-Martinuzzi, who was at Venini, he was the design director in the 1930’s; really his work is just amazing. What I want to ask both of you too is, what are the qualities of glass that intrigues you, like what is the thing that you like most about working in glass and what is the thing that you hate about it?

Ben- I guess the thing that attracts most people to glass so much is just how it deals with light,

Tina- Uhmm

Debora- I’d have to agree.

Ben- Its what everyone has said about a million times, how glass captures, refracts, transmits, all those things are so special and so remarkable and then and then another thing that’s so seduction for me and I’m sure for Debora as well, if I can speak on your behalf, is just the seductive quality in its molten state. It’s just so unique and so different and so, there’s no other material where your continuously trying to freeze this liquid at a, well get it to a point where you want to freeze it, so it, you know, is saying what you want it to say. So that’s seductive, it’s very different; it’s a very unique medium in that sense.

Tina- I can see how that would apply to both of you because light is for both of you, in completely different ways, an important aspect of your work.

Ben-Uhmm, uhmm

Tina- What about the frustrating part?

Debora- It breaks. (laughter). I spent three months with everything breaking one time in my experimental work and for a minute I thought that I would never touch the glass again and then all of a sudden it started to happen, it worked! But it was very frustrating… floor models!

Tina- I know Toots Zynsky was talking about that to me too. She just spent a very long time with everything breaking and it took…when you’re doing experimental work it, you do have to figure out as they say how to work with the glass…

Debora-Yes.

Tina- …but at the same time to stretch it you are going to go through that bad breaking period.

Ben- Absolutely!

Debora-Oh, my stomach hurt so bad, it was awful…its so frustrating.

Tina- It’s very challenging.

Ben- Now, what was the other...what we don’t like about glass?

Tina- Yes, or what do you find most frustrating about it? Or is there something that you don’t like about it? Is there?

Ben- Yes, there is!

Ben- One thing about glass that I don’t like is it is just so damn beautiful in and of itself.

Tina- Oh really.

Ben-Yeah, and that’s…

Tina- It’s funny to hear you say that...

Ben- Well, I mean hopefully I’m not…I’m taking advantage of those wonderful qualities but there’s so much that is being done today that really does not have content. There are so many young artists today and young people working with glass that are just relying on the inherent beauty of the material in of itself to sell it…

Tina- Right!

Ben- …and to me I have a real hard time with that.

Tina- I agree and I think that many people do. In fact, many people are suspicious of glass for that reason, they’re like, well, it’s not hard to make something beautiful and attractive because the material is so lush, in the light and the color. And I think both of you are really great example of people who have developed this wonderful content for your work and don’t rely on its beauty to carry it along, which I think that’s an important message and I hope that people think…

Debora-It really is.

Tina- people need to think about it more and more. And I tell people glass is a technically demanding material. I completely understand this. But you really have to spend as much time developing your content as you do you technique.

Ben- Exactly.

Tina- An interesting note, now that you brought this up, other glass. When you look at glass made by other artist what do you at, what do you look for? When you look at glass by other artists what do you look for? Do you look for content?

Ben- Exactly, I look for what is it that the artist is trying to say using this material and are they saying something that is personal to them. Are they making a new statement or something that, it doesn’t necessarily have to be new, but is something personal coming across about what it is that they are trying to do with the material. And when you look at great artists who are working in glass…

Tina- and you have worked with a lot of them in your studio.

Ben- I’ve been very fortunate indeed, indeed. You see content in their work, you see something unique, you see something coming across, that’s challenging, challenging your intellect, challenging your thought process, which is what art is all about in my opinion.

Debora- I have to agree with you. I always look for things that are very unique and sometimes the degree of difficulty. I like the problem solving aspect of glass. So I look at something and wonder how it was made and if it is unique.

Tina- Thank-you very much for joining me today.

Debora- You’re very welcome.

Ben- It’s a real pleasure

Tina-And I really look forward to seeing Debora, where you go in your work, and Ben, more exhibitions and things and upcoming, which is great. Thank you both very much.

Debora- You’re welcome.

Ben- Thanks for having us.

You’ve been listening to Debora and Benjamin Moore talking with Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass, at The Corning Museum of Glass. The Corning Museum of Glass showcases 35 centuries of glass artistry, including an extensive collection of contemporary art made in glass. To subscribe to other podcasts in this series, learn more about the museum’s exhibitions, and view images of some of the artists’ work, visit the Museum’s website at www.cmog.org.


Thanks to Laura Mann for transcribing this recording.