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Museum of Glass Celebrates Irish Traditions

Americans are enthusiastic collectors of Irish glass, but often without realizing it. Waterford Crystal—the iconic Irish brand—is found in countless homes, everything from intricately cut candlesticks to fanciful figurines. Tacoma's Museum of Glass is the first museum to host CAUTION! Fragile: Irish Glass Traditions in Transitions,an exhibit of new, contemporary glasswork. Infused with Irish heritage and Waterford’s legacy, the pieces look to the future by celebrating the past.

CAUTION! is the brainchild of Dublin-based Róisin de Buitléar, Ireland’s first widely-recognized female glass artist, whose 30-year career includes countless glass installations, honors and international acclaim. In 2009, Waterford closed its main factory located in Kilbarry, Ireland. To preserve the history, de Buitléar recorded workers’ stories and conceived the idea of organizing an exhibition. CAUTION! is a collaboration of de Buitléar’s blown glass work glassblowing, and the cutting and engraving of former Waterford master craftsmen Fred Curtis, Eamonn Hartley and Greg Sullivan. De Buitléar spoke with City Arts about her Irish inspirations, the beauty of Viking swords and why CAUTION! is a must-see.

What inspired you to become a glass artist?

When I was 14, we went to visit Roman Britain and Shakespeare country. We stopped at a cathedral that had been bombed-out and rebuilt with the most beautiful windows by John Hutton, an English [glass] engraver. It left a strong image in my mind. I went to college thinking I would do theatre design, but there were no courses and they recommended glass design. I walked in the first week, saw them blowing and I was absolutely mesmerized. I’ve been addicted ever since.

Why is your Irish heritage such an important part of your work?

I think it’s a time when we’re looking to become less globalized and more interested in our own culture and history. We decided [for CAUTION!] to go into the archaeology of our own culture rather than just looking at the general skill of glass cutting and engraving. The whole point of this exhibition is to highlight that we have these incredible virtuosos and skilled workers still in the Waterford area.

Do you have personal connections to Waterford?

I spent 18 years running the glass program, along with another individual, at the National College of Art and Design. I regularly brought students to Waterford so they could understand the factory process and see the iconic brand. That’s how I got to know Greg Sullivan, Eamonn Hartley and Fred Curtis.

What are some of the typical characteristics of Irish glasswork?

Irish glass is very refractive. It’s that glittering, cut crystal giftware. That’s what most people think of straightaway. Part of the reason why refraction is important is because there is very low light in Ireland. It’s a bit like Seattle, in fact. The light quality is very subtle and changes rapidly because of the wind and rain. Refracted glass was developed to bring more light into the homes.

You blew the glass and the Waterford craftsmen did the cutting and engraving. Pieces include glass interpretations of Viking swords and axes, St. Patrick’s Bell and Celtic trumpets. What were some of the inspirations?

There is so much inspiration at the National Museum (in Dublin). I could close the door and stay there for the rest of my life! The pieces that have connections with the Vikings spoke to me immediately. The Vikings brought a very new aesthetic to Ireland and changed how people viewed decorative objects. The swords and axe heads have a beautiful, incredible aesthetic. It’s quite extraordinary. They’re made of iron yet elegant objects. Even though they were weapons and tools, they were symbols of honor. They speak to me as original objects as well as symbolic objects.

What else can people expect to experience?

There is a sound element as well. We collaborated with [Irish musician] Liam Ó Maonlaoí to create original recordings of glass sounds. There are incantations and sounds from the glass horns, for example. That plays in the exhibition space as you’re viewing the pieces. We’re also running some of the oral histories I recorded from the workers at the Waterford Factory.

The idea for MOG to host this show originated during your 2010 residency. Why is the Pacific Northwest a good place to debut this exhibit?

Having the show in Seattle is the best thing I could imagine. There are so many people here making glass. It’s a wonderful atmosphere to bring [the Waterford craftsmen] to and it will ricochet back to Waterford. They will now understand that there is a huge interest in glass cutting and engraving.

What are your hopes for the future of Irish glassmaking?

It’s a very difficult period right now because of the economic situation and closure of the Waterford Factory. There is nowhere for a young glassblower to work, like there is in Seattle. We’re hoping when we get back to Ireland, we can bring the focus of how important this kind of glass –our Irish glass—is to the international people.

How do you hope this exhibit impacts visitors?

It doesn’t matter if it’s a glass, car or steel factory. The story of how industrial production has drastically changed in recent years is everybody’s story. It’s true in so many cities and towns in America and people will understand it at that level. Also, they will gain a better understanding of Irish culture and the virtuosity and skill. These are beautiful and extraordinary pieces.

CAUTION! Fragile, Irish Glass: Tradition in Transition runs through September 1, 2014. For more info, museumofglass.org.

Pictured: Honour! Defend! Attack!, Róisin de Buitléar, 2012.

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