Student-curated exhibit shares stories in American glass

“A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass,” is on view through Sept. 29 at the Yale University Art Gallery.
The students of  “Glass in America” examine objects from Yale’s collections last fal

The students of “Glass in America” examine objects from Yale’s collections last fall during a class session at the Wurtele Study Center on West Campus.

When John Stuart Gordon was writing his new catalog of Yale’s American glass collections, he was asked whether he planned to mount a related exhibition.

Gordon, the Benjamin Attmore Hewitt Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Yale University Art Gallery, didn’t think a new catalog alone provided sufficient reason for an exhibition, but he saw a chance to engage Yale undergraduates with the collections in a meaningful way.  

I thought this was a great opportunity to do a student-curated show,” said Gordon. “Let’s have the next generation of scholars learn about glass and see what interests them.”

Last fall, Gordon taught a seminar, “Glass in America,” that surveyed the country’s history of glassmaking and gave its six undergraduate students the opportunity to conceive and develop an exhibition at the art gallery. The product of their efforts, “A Nation Reflected: Stories in American Glass,” is on view through Sept. 29.

A Tiffany lampshade with an ornate blue dragonfly design.
The shade for this table lamp was designed by Clara Driscoll for Tiffany Studios. The dragonfly was a popular design element for Tiffany lampshades but this example’s blue color makes it relatively rare.

The 137 objects on display were drawn from the art gallery’s collections and include selected loans from the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

As the title suggests, the show highlights the stories behind the objects on display: Who made a given object? Why was it made? How was it made? What role did it play in people’s lives?  

The decision to emphasize storytelling was made by the student curators: Julia Carabatsos ’20, Nolan Crawford ’19, Lily Dodd ’21, Adelaide Goodyear ’18 B.A., Mariana Melin-Corcoran ’20, and Jocelyn Wickersham ’19. Their research was guided by Gordon’s catalog, “American Glass: The Collections at Yale,” which was published in 2018 by Yale University Press. With his oversight, they developed the exhibition’s themes, selected the objects for display, and drafted the show’s labels and introductory text.

The show trains a lens on the role glass has played in America’s politics, households, science, art, and culture. It opens a window into American history, ingenuity, and creativity.

It begins with a section on glass as a vessel for political and social history. Pictorial-molded glass flasks on view commemorate historical events and figures, such as George Washington and Zachary Taylor.

A flask commemorating U.S. President Zachary Taylor. It looks sort of like a glass pear.
A flask commemorating Zachary Taylor, the 12th president of the United States, became a war hero following a string of battlefield victories in the Mexican-American War. His troops affectionately called him “Old Rough and Ready.”

Crawford, a political science major, pointed out a flask bearing a portrait bust of Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who caused a sensation when she toured the country from 1850 to 1852.

I love that story — how through material culture, she was able to enter the American historical record in a very striking way,” he said.

A table lamp by Tiffany Studios is displayed in a section on glass in the home. Its glass lampshade’s distinctive dragonfly pattern was designed by Clara Driscoll, who supervised the company’s women’s glass cutting department.  

Although she didn’t get any of the credit she deserved until later,” noted Melin-Corcoran.

Louis Comfort Tiffany hired women believing they had a superior sense of color, but he rarely credited his workers, according to the exhibit label.

A rolling pin displayed among a selection of glass tableware and kitchen tools offers a unique blend of beauty and practicality. Its hollow shaft could be filled with chilled water to keep butter cold while rolling out pastry dough, explained Carabatsos, who is majoring in art history and English.

If you watch ‘The Great British Baking Show,’ you’ll know that [laminated dough] is dependent on a cold temperature,” she quipped.  

A section on glass in science and innovation features Yale’s first compound microscope, which was acquired in 1735 before the college had even established a science curriculum. A “compound microscope” has lenses at the eyepiece and just above the specimen. It was cutting-edge technology in colonial America and is the oldest surviving compound microscope in the United States, Gordon said.

It was the second complex microscope to arrive in the Americas,” he said. “Harvard, of course, got one first. Theirs hasn’t survived.”

Jocelyn Wickersham and John Stuart Gordon with the Yale Microscope during installation of “Nation Reflected.”
Jocelyn Wickersham and John Stuart Gordon with the Yale Microscope during installation of “Nation Reflected.”

Glass can be a medium for creative expression, and the show features several striking contemporary works of art.

Photographs of Earth that astronaut Jim Lovell took during the Apollo 11 mission inspired Josh Simpson’s “Mega World,” a spherical glass rendering of a blue and green earthlike planet. Simpson is married to retired NASA astronaut Catherine Coleman, who is the veteran of two space shuttle missions and spent 159 days aboard the International Space Station.

Cliff with Pines,” a paperweight vase by artist Mark Peiser, bears a sunlit landscape of a towering cliff side and pine forest that seems painted on at first glance. The picturesque scene is the result of a long and complex process during which Peiser and his assistant embed colored rods of glass into a clear-glass gather — the molten ball spooled at one end of a blowpipe — layering, heating, and inflating the material until the imagery appears as if it were painted on the finished vase, explained Wickersham, an art-history major.

A piece of art that seems like it was painted on in a moment is actually the result of a really involved process of planning, execution, and teamwork,” she said. “It blows my mind every time I look at it.”

The exhibition’s final section examines the processes of making glass. It includes a specimen of trinitite — a glassy residue created by the Trinity nuclear bomb test in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

A glass globe made by artist Josh Simpson.
Artist Josh Simpson creates glass “worlds” using a traditional process used in making marbles and paperweights.

During the seminar, Gordon gave the students a crash course on creating a museum exhibition. While studying the history of glass from Mesoamerica to present day, they examined scores of objects at the art gallery’s Margaret and Angus Wurtele Study Center on Yale’s West Campus. They met with gallery staff members responsible for editorial, installation, and graphic design. They visited exhibitions at the gallery and other museums to get a sense of what they did and did not like. They conceived the exhibition’s open layout, Gordon said.

They wanted light,” he said. “They wanted space. They wanted the objects to be able to breathe.”

Gordon praised the students’ commitment, noting that they continued the taxing work months after the seminar had ended and their grades were finalized.

There were constant rounds of editing and refining and having to reconceive of ideas,” he said. “It’s a great testament to their passion and dedication that even beyond the length of the course, they stuck with the project.”

It was worth the effort, said Wickersham.

This is what I want to do,” she said. “I want to be a curator. Usually I do photography, and this was my first adventure in decorative arts, really focusing on three dimensionality and sculpture. Learning how to display these things. Learning exactly what it takes to mount a museum exhibition. Learning all the little things that I’d never thought about. It was an invaluable experience for somebody who doesn’t even have their degree yet.”

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