Meet the Artist: Beth Lipman

Corning Museum of Glass, June 11, 2007

Beth Lipman: Let’s begin here: I’m going to start with my mother. I know some people hate this, but, you know, it’s very cathartic for me, so let’s get started.

My mother was a crafts person and is a crafts person, and I was a crafts child.  I grew up surrounded by folk art that she pretty much taught herself how to do, and she massed hoards and hoards of books of still lifes, as well as Pennsylvania Dutch folk art—because I grew up in Pennsylvania in Lancaster County. These are some examples of some of her work.  You know, I kind of hated it for a really long time (It’s country, I hate it!). But, you know, probably ten years ago I was like, hmm, there’s something to this, I kinda like it.  Some of the first still life imagery that kind of impregnated my brain deep tissue came from looking at her books.

For instance, I was fascinated by, and continue to be fascinated by, Theorem Paintings, which are 19th-century American stencil paintings—paintings on velvet.  This is an example of a stencil that a woman might use in the 1800s to create a still life. And they had tutors.  Does anyone know about this here? Anyone?  I know!  It’s kind of a lost art now, I think. . . (aside).  I mean, it’s a pretty amazing thing. It’s one of the only things that women were allowed to do that was an art, that they could do to beautify their homes.  And they were trained to use these stencils, and they were trained in ways of applying color to the velvet, and it was a very formulaic thing.  This is an example of fruit in a blue bowl, mid 19th century, and it’s an anonymous Theorem Painting.

Hand in hand with the still lifes was my family’s obsession—and my obsession—with food.  My mother, in particular, would travel me—I hope she never sees this video, she’s going to be forbidden from the Rakow Library!  But, she would travel me to different points of interest in food culture.  We were living in North Lancaster, and we would drive up to New York City and we would go to Zabar’s, and then we would go down to Bruno’s Ravioli and then we’d go across to the Key Avenue and have lunch, and from there I think we went to H&H Bagels, or maybe we did H&H first.  So we’d do this whole food, you know, cycle and I started collecting images of food early on, and it was just a huge part of my life.  And simultaneously, I was really fascinated with the aftermath of consuming.  So, this shot on the left is actually from a Mexican bakery and the shot on the right is from an Italian market after it’s closed.  So, when I was at school, I started focusing on this idea of food as a metaphor for consuming, desire, consequence, and that’s what kind of led me into still life later on.

Okay, anyone here an expert on still lifes?  Anyone? (silence) Cool! That’s good!  Because I’m not! (laughter). I couldn’t possibly be. I think I could dedicate my whole life to studying still lifes and still not know everything about them.  So I’m going to just give you a brief overview of things that are pretty important in the still life tradition, and pre-still life.

This is not technically considered a still life. This is pre-still life.  It’s an emblema with dates, fish, asparagus, and fowl from the second quarter of the second century, from a Roman villa.  Funnily enough, when I was putting together this lecture, I was looking for landmarks of pre-still life imagery, and I chose this, and then I went back and I realized I had actually taken a snapshot of this when I was studying abroad in Rome.  So I was like, ah, yes!  It was a serendipitous experience.  So, the emblemas were mosaics, also frescoes, and they were painted or created for the foyer of people’s homes or possibly the dining room.  They were supposed to be welcoming, but they were also direct symbols of the status of those residents. So the status and the wealth of the people that you were coming to visit were displayed prominently on the wall.

This is Madonna della Candelletta by Carlo Crivelli in 1490, also pre-still life.  This is an example of how paintings of inanimate objects were incorporated into paintings that were religious, or political, or portraiture.  So, the Madonna: it was used as a descriptive.  Every single inanimate object has multiple layers of meanings, whether it’s a religious meaning, or a medicinal meaning, or a socio-cultural meaning.  It’s all layered in there and some of these meanings have been lost over time, which I think is really fascinating. So, when some people say to me, well, why did you incorporate this element in my still life. . . I mean, I can tell you generally what that symbolism meant, but I’m also really curious about what that symbolism means now. And I can’t tell you every aspect of it, because it has been lost.  For instance, the lilies here symbolize the purity of virginity.  So, that’s a nice early example.

Another early example of pre-still life is scientific illustration, which is so fabulous.  I would have ripped off a Blaschka scientific illustration, but I was worried that I would be carried out tonight after doing that! (laughter).  But, I did briefly consider putting in an image of that because—what a fabulous exhibition, my God! Fabulous, fabulous exhibition (Botanical Wonders: The Story of the Harvard Glass Flowers).  And alongside of the Blaschka three-dimensional and two-dimensional illustration, you’ve got the curiosities here (Curiosities of Glassmaking). These scientific illustrations were made to be put in curio rooms, as a place to study nature and the wonderment of nature.  So, you’ve actually got a lot of things here that I could just spend, you know, months and months just, I don’t know, hiding behind pedestals and trying to soak up through osmosis the most amazing things that you have here right now.

This is a scientific illustration by Giovanni Battista Ferrari.  He was Italian, mid 1600’s. This is actually done after the beginning of the true still life tradition, but an example nonetheless.

This is one of the very first still lifes.  This was done by Michelangelo Merisi di Caravaggio in 1594.  The still life tradition is recognized as starting, really, in the beginning of the 1600s.  It was the first time in history that food was  being produced in abundance: food became a commodity, it wasn’t something that was just a necessity.  The religious iconography, the political iconography, got pushed to the background of the paintings, and the inanimate objects, that still held all the symbolism of all of the other things going on in the painting, got pushed to the foreground.  So you have an alluding to of all of these things.  And what about Caravaggio, really?  I mean, my God.  Amazing, amazing.  So, this is one of the very first true still lifes only depicting inanimate objects.

This is a table-top still life with lobster, silver jug, large Berkemeyer, dish of fruit, violin, and books by Pieter Claesz in 1641.  I think he pretty much covered everything there.  It’s of the Haarlem style. This particular style of still life depicts—it’s also known as a “laid table”—and it usually depicts lots and lots of different kinds of food and inanimate objects that you would not necessarily find at the same table in a dinner.  So, not only is it talking about religious symbolism, but there’s also medicinal symbolism here.  Like, a lot of these things: if you’re going to eat oysters, you may also want to partake of the lemon—things that will help ward off excessiveness.  Actually, right now, almost everything that I’m doing is revolving around Haarlem laid tables.

This is the first still life that I actually did a direct reaction to. It’s called Still Life with Fruit after Severin Roesen, it’s located in the Brooklyn Museum.  In 2000, I was given the opportunity to pick anything in that museum and respond to it.  As a visceral response, initially I decided to just try to recreate the still life.  And immediately everyone said to me, “Why did you do that?”  And I said, “I don’t know why I did that! I’ll tell you in two years why I did that.”  But, it was compelling to me, and it was also compelling to others, and I was offered an exhibition, and it started a whole series of works.

I don’t really try to recreate—recreate is kind of the wrong word—the actual painting, or the xerox of the painting, whatever I’m working from.  I’m really trying to allude to it, or pay homage to it.  There are certain people who are like, “That jar’s missing a handle and it doesn’t curve like that.”  And I’m like, “That’s okay!”  Because the still life really deals primarily with, well, among other things, the transience of life, and capturing that moment in time.  And because I am a really bad glass blower for the most part, I had to find my way in using this material, and using the material for me, I’m really drawing three dimensionally in this material.  So, the work is really capturing that moment in my own skill—whether it’s success or failure—in time. So actually, the process of making the work is paralleling something that’s more representational in the painting for me.

Does this look familiar? (Untitled (after A. Martini), 2001).  You could go see this upstairs.  This piece, I just wanted to mention. . .  I found this decal.  Someone said to me, “You should call it an enamel transfer.”  So, I found this enamel transfer in Italy, and I just went about creating it three dimensionally, and then I actually fused it on the surface of the object.  So, the inspiration is in fact embedded in the object.

Stilleven by Willem Claesz Haeda, from the 17th century.  The still life tradition really took off in the Netherlands, in Germany, and in Italy, among other places.  And I choose paintings. . . at this point. . . I haven’t done this in a couple of years. . . but I was kind of cleaving to specific paintings for, say, the first three or four years into this series.  And I would choose those paintings based on how excessive they were, how decadent they were.  This particular painting I also saw at the Rijksmuseum when I was there.  And once again, before I even started this series, I had to have the postcard, and brought it back and held onto it for years and then, you know, continued on. So, this is the interpretation of that.

I use blowing, solid sculpting, kiln-forming, lampworking.  I paint on the glass with craft paint, I glue it together with silicone, I do whatever it takes to create the object.  I’m kind of an anti-purist in that way.  I don’t really, you know, cling to technique for technique’s sake.  I want to keep the process a lot more spontaneous and more expressive.  Some people wonder how I put these things together.  I have a B.F.A. in both fibers and glass, and I think some of that pattern-making that I did as a fibers student is still kind of really deep tissue into my psyche.  Because when I put this work together, I basically compose it on a piece of brown paper.  I’m very obsessive-compulsive and I’ll spend hours, you know, rearranging things at this point, because right now, I’m not even looking at specific paintings anymore, it’s more like genre.  Once I finally get the composition, then I’ll number everything, label it, and every time I go to install the work, it’s slightly different.  So, it’s almost like redoing a drawing over and over again.

Another thing that really influenced me is I was able to work at the Barnes Foundation right after I got out of school.  Some of you might recognize this interior.  My goodness, Dr. Barnes, let me tell you.  They de-installed this entire collection, which some of you might know, and they traveled it.  They traveled 80 paintings all over the country, explicitly against his wishes I might say, to renovate the museum, which is located in Merion, Pennsylvania.  When they de-installed the paintings. . . Anyone here from the Barnes Foundation?  Good.  Just checking, you never know.  Whoever took all of the work down, gave us, you know, one dimension from the corner of the photograph—there were these photographs of each wall—one dimension from the corner to one object on the wall.  And the installers basically had to reinterpret that wall by looking at a photograph.  Which was an incredible experience.  It was really empowering and his whole, I mean, I could just go on about him, but I won’t.  You can research him for yourself, if you don’t know, but he incorporated. . . his whole museum was his art, essentially.  And he composed with paintings and door hinges and tools, and he actually composed entire spaces in that way.  So, to go about recreating his work, his master work, was something that influenced me.

People ask why I don’t work in color.  I really enjoy how the clear glass really frustrates your eye.  You can see it, but you’re also seeing through it.  It’s really visually unattainable.  You can own it, but you can’t really visually own it.  And that kind of frustration, that perpetual frustration of not being able to visually completely own these objects is something that is so important to my work.  And when I do choose to work in color, I try to kind of recreate that, whatever that is.  So, I usually do monochromatic colors: I’ll do black on black, or white on white.  This is Dead Birds (after Myerop), white glass on a white wall.

In 2003, I was flabbergasted to get a residency at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center’s Arts Industry Program, which is the program that I oversee now.  I had never worked in pottery before.  You know, they make toilets, and sinks, and bath tubs, and generators.  The residency takes place on the factory floor right next to the factory workers.  There are three shifts, and we provide technicians that teach you how to slip cast in clay or cast in cast iron or brass, and you can also enamel, or chrome, or nickel-plate those materials.  As an artist, I’m kind of used to being asked to go into an environment and act as a catalyst in that environment.  You know, come in and teach, or have, you know, have some transcendental experience with people and you’re gonna change!  You know.  I know some of you know what I’m talking about here!  (laughter)  And most of the artists, before they go into this program, are used to coming in and assuming that role.  And I can tell you that you change.  You are the person that changes.  Not the Kohler associates that have been watching artists for the last 30 years come in, aghast, and try to work in a factory.  They’re used to seeing creative process, so in fact, the factory is a catalyst for the artist, I think, even more so than the artist is for the factory.

But, it’s a really special place and I was able to make several works while I was there in clay, the same clay that they make urinals out of.  In fact, right behind me, they were casting urinal tanks.  Every day from 5:00 to 1:00.  I’d come in at 8:00, and they’d say, “Well, what took you so long? We’re like on our lunch break now.”  So, it was something.  You just get into the rhythm of producing.  This is the work in progress that I did there.  It’s a swag, after Jan Van Kessel.  I made several of them.  I basically hand- sculpted shells, and then I made molds of shells, and then I cast shells. There are over 400 shells in this.  I also dipped branches in slip, which are those things that you see hanging down here, and I put it all together, let it dry, and glazed it and fired it.  This is one of those pieces.

Another thing I did there was. . . and the reason I’m showing you all this, in case you’re wondering (this is not glass!), is that this profoundly affected the way that I continue to work in the material of choice for me.  This is a wreath.  It was actually a Kohler mirror that I appropriated, and then I dipped twigs and foliage that I had picked up off the grounds in slip- cast clay.  I glazed it and fired it, and the work was destroyed in the firing.  But, it was also completed.  So now, I started to use the equipment to capture that moment of time, that transient moment between growing and decay and destruction.  And, for some reason—you know this is like 101 to people who work in clay—but for me, it was very profound.  So, that changed the way I was working.  And I came home to my studio and I started creating my objects and then putting them back in the kiln and destroying the objects.  And finishing the works as I was destroying them.  That’s a wreath that I made immediately following coming home.

This may look slightly familiar.  This is a basket of fruit after Caravaggio.  The work is fused as well, so it’s like, you know, it’s actually embedded into  the background.  That’s another more recent piece, that I made, where I just continue to use multiple firings to destroy and finish the work.

Another thing I was working on when I came home from Kohler is a piece called Banketje.  I was thrilled to be able to go to Wheaton Village in Millville, New Jersey, and work with a team of 10 people for two weeks creating components for a 20-foot long table.  I worked with people who had been blowing glass for 30 years, and I worked with people who had their first experience working in glass when I pulled them onto the floor to help me.  Everything went on the table, and it was interesting.  This also changed the way that I worked.  Up until this point, I would make everything by myself.  It was all about my hand in the material.  And at this point, it became much more interesting to me to create with other people.  It actually expanded my vocabulary because everyone’s hands were in the material at that point.  And I found that that was far more interesting than what I could make by myself.  People were given two tries to make an object.  What I did is, I’d xeroxed seven different laid tables, still lifes, and I put them at each bench and I said, “You can choose whatever you want to make out of these still lifes, but you only have two chances to try to make it.”  Knowing how obsessive people get about technique in glass, I said, “That’s it, two chances.  If it falls on the ground and breaks, it’s going in the kiln, I’m using it.”  And, in that way, I kind of kept a spontaneity, and I think it was also very interesting for the people I was working with.  Most of those people, some of them were like, “Dear God, I have hot glass in my hands and I’m going to burn someone.”  And the next person is like, “Oh my God, I’ve never worked in this way before.  I think this is a piece of crap, but she wants it, so I’m putting it in the kiln.”  So, somewhere inbetween there, I was able to amass a certain amount of components.

It (Banketje) was first exhibited at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, which was actually not attached to the residency.  If you get a residency there, you don’t automatically get an exhibition.  I encourage you all to come visit that museum, because it is an amazing museum.  It’s as amazing as the Corning Museum of Glass, in fact, in a different way.  But, they gave me this opportunity.  I had never seen this work before.  I created it in a 10-by-10-foot space, with a 5-foot long table, and I made a small amount of it.  Then, I marked it off, and took everything off the table, and pulled the paper down, and made a little bit more, and did it that way over nine months.  I actually saw it for the first time when I installed it, I finished the work at that time.  And the piece on the floor. . . I had brought broken pieces to put on the floor, but nature took care of that on its own, and it actually fell while I was installing it.  Only five things broke during the installation, and they all happened right in a row.  That was the only time I really freaked out, because I was like, “I’m going to break every single thing from now on.  And I have 200 pieces to keep putting on the table!”  But, the registrar, you know, came over with a dust pan and brush immediately and started, you know, and I was like, “Don’t touch it!” (laughter).  And he was like, “What?”  Some people refused to even walk in the room, I was told.  After three months, the security guards were really happy to see me at that point, because everyone kept coming and saying, “Oh my God, there’s glass on the floor.  There’s glass on the floor.”  So, that’s interesting, maybe.

I made a piece very recently, thanks to the generosity of the Studio at Corning, for an exhibition that’s up now at the Renwick Gallery called “From the Ground Up.”  It’s based on the large Milan Bouquet by Jan Brueghel the Elder in 1606.  Flemish painter.  This Bouquet, he painted over a period of months, traveling and waiting until every single flower was in bloom.  He painted it for a Cardinal, who hung it in his curio room.  Some of you might be familiar with Tulipomania?  I mean, I just have to tell you. . . if you know this, I’m sorry, but I have to tell you this, because it just kills me.  Tulipomania was insane, basically.  At the height of Tulipomania, people were were trading their homes for tulip bulbs that were still in the ground. And the most prized tulips at that time were tulips that had broken.  They called them broken tulips.  Sorry if you already know this story, and correct me if I’m saying something incorrect, but from what I understand. . . For instance, the tulip in the center here, it’s broken.  It’s variegated.  That variegation was something they couldn’t control and the reason they couldn’t control it is because, in fact, they found out decades, hundreds of years later perhaps, that it was caused by a virus.  So, the tulip was sick.  Interesting, I think.  This is the piece on the left.  I’m sorry I don’t have a better slide of it.  I came here to Corning and made the components for that piece, and, yeah,  I like it.  I like that piece.

Oh, look, this is a video for you.  The other way I’m working right now that relates to this kind of destruction. . . Instead of having the kiln destroy the work, which is actually just controlled by gravity.  I’m making centerpieces, that I call the Topiary Series.  All assembled hot.  So I’m working with teams of five to eight people, and we’re building these centerpieces that were used during banquets in the 17th century in France and also in England.  And once we get the whole form, we put it back in the glory hole, and we actually let the glory hole destroy it and melt it.  This is an example.  This is a brand new piece.  It’s about three feet high.

So, how are you guys doing? All right? Good? All right. Checking in.

The other thing I’m doing right now, really brand new, is I’m creating photographs.  Which I’m so excited about!  So, I’m creating the glass with other people, sometimes with myself only.  I’m assembling the compositions for only a photograph, working with the photographer, shooting the work, and then destroying the glass.  I’m making the photographs in an edition of three.  This one, Shells, Urns, Fruit Basket, and Books, also comes with a souvenir urn that’s filled with crushed glass.  From the Studio at Corning, in fact!  They’re scaled to life: I choose one object in the composition and I give it one measurement, and I give that to the photo servicing shop that I work with and they scale the whole photograph to that one measurement of that one object.  Still Life with Candle Stick, Cheese, and Figs. It’s a smaller work. Still Life with Grapes.

And, I also wanted to take this opportunity to tell you that the Arts Industry Program and the Studio are going to be doing a collaborative residency next year, which I’m totally excited about.  I think Amy’s probably pretty excited about it, too.  I wanted to show you some shots of that residency because, in a nut shell, you can apply for both.  You must get accepted to both residencies and then you will either come to Corning first, or go to Kohler first, and then toggle to the other residency.  And whatever you decide to propose—those of you in the audience that are artists—it has to just basically include both materials.  Whether you’re working in clay or cast iron at Kohler, and also glass. At Kohler, you don’t have to know how to use the process, but Corning, you do.

So, that’s where we are: two and a half hours north of Chicago.  Super easy to get to.  Beautiful country.  This is the paradox of Kohler: this is the American Club.  Some of you might know of the American Club.  It was the original barracks that the immigrants lived in when John Michael Kohler brought them over from Germany, in 18--, well, probably by that time it was 1904 that he was doing that.  It’s now the only five-diamond resort in the Midwest.  And there are amazing golf courses.  Some of you might know of Whistling Straits, if you golf.  Directly across the street from the American Club is the factory.  So, this is your neighborhood when you come to do a residency.  On your left, you’ll see an image, an old image, of the foundry. We no longer use those cupolas: they have electric melts, and they melt nine times every 40 minutes.  On the right is another shot of the pottery.

Just to clarify, the John Michael Kohler Arts Center is a museum. It’s a non-profit museum, even though it has the Kohler name. It’s fully funded by public and private foundations. It happens to be in John Michael Kohler’s house; the Kohlers gifted the house to the museum. Kohler Company is separate, even though some people at Kohler aren’t even aware of this. And they fully fund our residency program, in fact, but they don’t fully fund the museum. So, I didn’t know that when I was there. I thought I’d just mention that.

These are some shots of the pottery. This is the past, but still the present, on the left. And also the future. This is a mechanical glazing arm that is glazing a pedestal for underneath your sink. That’s a clay pedestal waiting to be fired. But, you will be maybe amazed to find out that most things are still cast by hand. At Kohler company, almost every single product that goes out of there is cast by hand. Which is just incredible. Master craftsmen. These are some shots of the foundry. Grinding, on the left. . . you too can wear that beautiful piece of equipment. And on the right is a mold. Probably for a bathtub, but I can’t tell from the angle.

And, who’s there now?  I just wanted to show you quickly.  Lynne Yamamoto, from Massachusetts, and Chris Lo Sze Lim, from Hong Kong.  We also have public tours that go through the factory every morning, Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 11:00.  So, as you’re casting your molds you’ll be constantly on display to anyone who happens to sign up to take a tour through the factory.  And, in the foundry, we have John Cleater in New York and Myra Mimlitsch-Gray.  They’re both from New York State: Columbiaville and SUNY New Paltz, which is where Myra Mimlitsch-Gray teaches.  And the bottom right photograph is a photograph of cast-iron bratwurst pans.  Sheboygan’s well known for their bratwurst.  Do not mess with Sheboygan bratwurst.  It’s a whole, it’s a whole lifestyle.  It’s a whole lifestyle. Beer, and brats, and cheese, basically.  So, those are some of the works that she’s doing in process.  And then above, John Cleater, who is an architect and a designer as well as an artist, is creating these huge cast-iron kind of architectural components that he’s going to attach to a shipping container, which he’s converting to a studio/garage for his Mini Cooper.

So, that’s all I have to show you. Thank you.