During the mid-1960s, Paul Stankard was blowing glass flasks, beakers, vapor traps, and sundry items for scientific laboratories.
Back in his own studio, a utility shed in Mantua, in the evenings and on weekends, he was creating small glass objects of visual delight.
Now celebrating a career that has spanned more than 50 years, Stankard, 75, enjoys a critically acclaimed international reputation as an artist of exquisitely breathtaking one-of-a-kind glass sculptures.
As Stankard shared in a recent email: “It has been and still is a fantastic journey.”
“Beauty Beyond Nature” is a retrospective of 63 objects and two botanical prints presented at the Museum of American Glass at WheatonArts in Millville. Running until Dec. 30, the exhibit is guest curated by Andrew Page, director of the Robert M. Minkoff Foundation, which has loaned the works on display. The traveling show has been seen at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington; Bergrstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah, Wisconsin; Lowe Art Museum in Coral Gables, Florida; and the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Hence, this is a homecoming hosted by South Jersey’s premier museum, which has “the most comprehensive collection of American glass in the world” and is located about 32 miles from the artist’s studio.
Stankard said with no hesitation: “Wheaton nurtured my artistic maturity.”
Collector and friend
Since 2005, Robert M. Minkoff, a commercial real estate developer and philanthropist in Potomac, Maryland, has amassed a collection of 135 pieces by Stankard. In an email, the collector wrote, “I've always been fascinated by paperweights and other encasements in glass art, but when I discovered Paul Stankard's virtuosic botanical compositions within glass volumes, I set out to not only acquire his most exquisite efforts, but to trace his progress from his earliest efforts to all the breakthroughs to collect his most masterful achievements."
According to the curator, “This Paul Stankard collection is unique and definitive in its effort to be complete and to document an evolution over the years. It also marks a friendship” as Minkoff and Stankard share a deep respect for nature.
In the museum’s “Jewel Box Gallery,” the intimate show is not strictly chronological but arranged by the various categories of the artist’s forms.
With its 10 window cases, the presentation of Stankard’s signature small-scale work gives the visitor a feeling of looking at the Fifth Avenue windows of Tiffany & Company. His two largest pieces are the eight-inch orbs presented in freestanding vitrines. So the artist’s craftsmanship may be fully appreciated, flashlights to highlight details for better viewing are available at the nearby front desk of the museum.
Just outside the gallery is a small sample of his early blown-glass scientific pieces, including student work done at Salem Vocational Technical Institute (now Salem Community College) in Carneys Point that has not been previously exhibited. At the opposite side are two beautiful glass plate prints (vitreographs) that Stankard had made in North Carolina while working collaboratively with Harvey Littleton, a celebrated pioneer of the American Studio Art Glass Movement.
On a recent tour, Kristin Qualls, director of exhibitions and collections at WheatonArts, emphasized this exhibition documents “Paul’s amazing work that has evolved and developed over time with practice and patience of technique, ideas, and content.” Unquestionably, Stankard is an integral figure of the first generation of then emergent Studio Glass Movement that elevated glass as a contemporary fine arts medium.
Stankard was born under the astrological sign of Aries with its element of fire, so it seems appropriate that he is a master of flamework, a process that uses a propane-powered torch to melt thin rods of colored glass creating still life designs for his distinctive paperweights, botanicals, orbs and various glass assemblages.
Whitman and the wild
Stankard’s formative childhood years were spent in southeastern Massachusetts before his family relocated to Wenonah 60 years ago. Yet in spite of his distinctive Boston accent, he is strongly rooted in South Jersey and respects the significant glassmaking tradition that goes back to the 18th century in Salem County and continues to this day.
“Glass is the second largest employer in Millville,” according to Qualls.
As a Jersey guy, he is also inspired by the region’s native flowers and has an enduring admiration for the poetry of Walt Whitman.
Stankard gives considerable credit to Reese Palley, the Atlantic City art impresario who ran a Boardwalk gallery and successfully sold his earliest small glass giftware animals. Palley encouraged him to follow his desire to go to “the creative side.”
The artist recalled Palley, his first dealer, “celebrated and emotionally supported my efforts.”
Just as Stankard was preparing for the arrival of a fourth child, he made a life-changing decision with the endorsement of his wife to leave glassblowing at Rohm and Hass in Philadelphia and pursue a career as a full-time artist. Since 1972, there has been no looking back; his technical facility has certainly bolstered his subsequent success.
Though the exhibit reveals the breadth of Stankard’s accomplishment, he acknowledged, “I dedicated my life to make paperweights. “
His challenge was to take the Millville Rose, the first uniquely American paperweight dating back to the mid-19th century, and create a more personally relevant object. On display are 18 paperweights representing three decades since the early 1970s.
While he strove to design botanical portraits, the initial resultant images were rather simplified. As the vegetation becomes more illusionistic, the flowers are actually interpretive and referential. Regardless, many may think they are real blossoms encased in the high-grade soda-lime glass.
His mastery of technique is a tour de force in glassmaking. Says the artist, “I want people to go beyond the wizardry of whether it is real or glass. It is about respect for living things.”
'Labor is prayer'
Unlike the traditional 19th-century paperweight that is seen just looking down at it, Stankard offers a more all-encompassing point of view. His small-scale sculptures are admired from both the top and bottom. They cannot be touched at the museum, but mirrors provide an opportunity to see the various artworks from varying vantage points.
Rather than exotic or remote flowers, he gave the paperweight a new tradition by focusing on native flora. His work has “organic credibility,” but “I conceal in that imagery more personal illusions.”
Several years ago, Stankard reminisced about a childhood love of pulling clumps of grass out of the ground: “You would have this clump of roots, dirt, insects. Most of the time it was more interesting under the earth than above the earth. So clumps have been a fascinating area of exploration.”
On view there are numerous sculptures with suspended clumps and a fantastic array of roots that included what he has termed his “root people.”
His art has been described as “crafted blossoms suspended in stillness.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the Transcendentalist philosopher from Massachusetts, wrote, “The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship.” In the beautifully illustrated catalog that accompanies the exhibit, Stankard similarly proclaims, “I have a whole series of trails and woodland experiences I visit regularly (Chestnut Branch Park in Mantua) ... I marvel at what you can see, standing in the woods, being completely quiet, observing. I find a spiritual sense of timelessness.”
A Benedictine inspirational message is positioned directly above his workbench: “Laborare est orare” (labor is prayer).
He calls Whitman his studio's "patron saint.'' Stankard cites a line from “Leaves of Grass” as a guiding principle that has personal resonance: “A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of books.” This may have added meaning, since the artist has suffered from dyslexia and is an experiential learner.
Artist as teacher
In mid-June Stankard taught a workshop on flameworking at Salem Community College. He regularly shares his expertise and talent with a younger generation of aspiring artists.
His work has inspired Leslie Kirchhoff, 27, a Los-Angeles based artist who creates Disco Cubes, high-end ice cubes with real herbs and edible flowers suspended in the center of frozen purified water for cocktail drinks.
In a telephone conversation, she discussed her childhood in Wisconsin seeing fish in perfectly clear frozen water, describing this as “beauty suspended in water in nature.”
In 2007 Stankard made a deliberate decision about his artistic legacy. He destroyed approximately 400 pieces that he described as “experiments or failures.” By then, his art had received significant critical acclaim and achieved considerable market success. Nonetheless, he decided to edit his work, because he” didn’t want something that was unsatisfying to represent me.”
Stankard continues to work in his Mantua studio every day. He also enjoys spending time collaborating with the technicians at Wheaton, who are challenging him to go larger in scale.
“I am a workaholic,'' he said. "I am very comfortable in the studio kicking around. “
Fred B. Adelson is a professor of art history at Rowan University.
If you go
'Beauty Beyond Nature: The Glass Art of Paul Stankard' is on view through Dec. 30 at Museum of American Glass, WheatonArts and Cultural Center, 1501 Glasstown Road, Millville. Visit www.wheatonarts.org or (800) 998-4552 or (856)-825-6800. Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.