Sun, Nov 16, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Glass making kindles torch of cultural creativity

Despite having a robust glass industry 20 years ago, Taiwan has only just started to make the most of modern techniques.

By Derek Lee  /  STAFF REPORTER

Summer, sand-cast glass with painted gold and printed inclusions by Australia artist Pamela Stadus.

PHOTO COURTESY OF NATIONAL TAIWAN CRAFT RESEARCH INSTITUTE

An exhibition and two-day seminars in Taipei earlier this month by Australian glass artists Gerry King, Pamela Stadus and Roger Buddle have stimulated nationwide interest in modern glass art, especially in local artistic circles and among government officials who have been organizing a two-month-long cultural event celebrating this elegant art form.

The exhibition also serves to remind Taiwan's artists that they must keep taking bold steps forward to explore creative ideas and artistic designs. If modern glass making in Australia is able to progress in such a splendid way within a period of approximately 30 years, Taiwan -- blessed with around 100 years of tradition in glassware -- should find no difficulty making an impression on the international stage.

The oldest glass objects that have been found are beads produced around 4,000 years ago in Egypt. Though Taiwan's glass industry, based in Hsinchu, is only a century old, it manufactures various glass items for export and local consumption. At the height of the glassware export trade in the 1980s, there were about 100 large-scale factories in Hsinchu.

Now, less than a dozen, that employ more than 10 people, remain. Chen Tien-li (程天立), regional director of the National Taiwan Craft Research Institute, said that China had eroded Taiwan's competitiveness in this field.

"Right after Taiwan opened its doors for cross-strait visits in the late 1980s, there was a massive migration of Taiwanese traditional craft industries [to China] in search of cheap labor. This has contributed greatly to the sudden and drastic decline in export volumes and has dealt a serious blow to the livelihood of craftsmen in the craft industry as a whole," Chen said.

Problems related to the decline and demise of traditional glass factories, however, were in-built as well. Factories tended to be vast in size, manufacture in large quantities and thus consumed enormous amounts of capital. For the sake of saving energy and other costs, a factory smelting furnace, which was heated up to 1350℃ to 1450℃ to maintain the liquid state of the glass, could cope with tonnes of glass a day. But, melted glass had to be used on the same day, or go to waste. It therefore became practically impossible for individual artists to sustain private glassware studios or workshops prior to the early 1960s.

The glassware industry landscape only changed when Harvey Littleton, a University of Wisconsin professor and ceramic artist, and Dominick Labino, a chemist, organized two glass-blowing workshops at the Teledo Museum of Art, Ohio in 1962. The pair showed that an individual artist could work with molten glass in a studio environment. Under Littleton's guidance, world-class glass artists such as Dale Chihuly and Marvin Lipofsky made their marks. Other graduates from Littleton's classes also created workshops and spread the new-found technology to artists in America and then around the world.

The US' Lakeview museum celebrates the revolutionary Studio Glass Art Movement of the 1960s and takes up the modern glass production story. "As those pioneers moved increasingly beyond the sphere of craft they also shifted from producing purely functional wares towards artistic and sculptural pieces. Today, artists trained in all media, including sculpture and painting, are exploiting the qualities of glass in new expressive ways."

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