Arts & Entertainment: The crystal cutters of Waterford come to Museum of Glass

Most of us are familiar with Waterford Crystal: makers of etched crystal golf trophies, elaborate chandeliers and the multifaceted crystal ball that drops in New York City’s Times Square to mark the New Year. The Waterford brand name is derived from a city in Ireland of the same name; a place long associated with thick, leaded glass elaborately cut and deeply etched.

In 2009, however, global economic forces brought upheaval to the traditions of glass making in Waterford. The glass-etchers of Eastern Europe and Asia worked more cheaply than the unionized workers in the Irish glass factory. Consumer choice is also a factor. There is less demand these days for gaudy crystal chandeliers and elaborately carved crystal punch bowls. The Waterford glass factory in Ireland went bankrupt. The skilled glass workers found themselves unemployed.

Industrial capitalism is a temperamental thing (as we in the Puget Sound region are discovering with the current shenanigans of Boeing). For a time, the corporate person may provide sustenance to a community and foster the growth of trades and skills in working with materials. The Waterford glass works trained thousands of glass workers, the elite of whom were the engravers: folk who worked their way through a long apprenticeship to become master craftsmen in cutting intricate designs into leaded glass.

But the corporate beast can turn on a dime. When the lure of greater profits tempts, a corporation can pull up stakes in one place and leave, jerking the economic rug out from under the community and leaving the skilled workers there out of work and without the security of regular income.

In 2009, Waterford Company went belly up and the old works shut down. People who had invested their lives in glassmaking found themselves idle. The long tradition of glassmaking in Waterford, Ireland is threatened with extinction. All of the hand-on skill and the knowing of how to work the material could vanish with the passing of the last of the Waterford etchers.

Enter Roisin de Buitlear, Dublin-based glass artist who has done time at Stanwood, Washington’s Pilchuck School and has had a residency in the hot shop at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass. She recognized both the peril of loss of the tradition at Waterford as well as an opportunity to tap the knowledge embodied in the former factory workers to foster a new era of independent guildsmen operating glass shops and schools that could make Waterford a center of Ireland’s nascent art glass universe.

De Buitlear selected a trio of the Waterford crystal engravers with whom to collaborate in a series of works that are currently on display in a new show at the Museum of Glass. “CAUTION! Fragile. Irish Glass: Tradition in Transition” is the name of the show. The three engravers with whom De Buitlear worked are Eamonn Hartley, Greg Sullivan and Fred Curtis. The works in MOG’s exhibition are meant to showcase the skills of these fine craftsmen and bring attention to Waterford as a repository of the kind of know-how that it takes to sculpt fantastical crystal critters, etch subtle scenes of landscape on crystal slabs or make script flow over a crystalline axe head.

In a series called “Soft Rain,” De Buitlear’s green blobs of blown glass are surmounted by crystal orbs that Sullivan etched with snow-globe like scenes of his own memories of the rain. The piece called “Intent on a Good Holiday” shows Sullivan and his wife camping in the rain. The couple is hunkered in their tent trying to cook dinner while the rain in coming down.

Hartley, meanwhile, etched a series of scenes recalled from the workplace of the old Waterford factory. Glass blowers and glass engravers are depicted busy at their work on a series of amber disks that are enlarged versions of the ancient brooches worn in olden times.

The show also features a series of glass replicas of artifacts – swords, axe heads, spear points and musical instruments. The models for these are ancient objects that De Buitlear encountered in Dublin’s National Museum. The glass swords were sand cast at Pilchuck and shipped back to Ireland to be cut and etched with elaborate pommels. One, called “Precipice,” has a brilliantly sculpted wolf or bear crouched upon its handle. Replicas of wonderful axe heads are etched with Irish proverbs rendered in regal script.

Included in the show are glass copies of ancient musical instruments such as trumpets. Those in the show have banded, green glass tubes fitted with etched, crystal bells. A recording of music played on the glass instruments emanates from the museum’s sound system as visitors go through the gallery.

At times the show feels a little too self-referential with its numerous depictions of the seemingly idealized life in the Waterford factory. The etched crystal elements are also not always harmoniously grafted to their blown glass hosts. The crystal bird inside a wonderful glass replica of Saint Patrick’s bell, for example, seems a little chintzy. Overall, however, this is an engaging show with a compelling story to tell.

“CAUTION! Fragile. Irish Glass: Tradition in Transition” runs through Sept. 1, 2014. Look for Curtis and Sullivan to be showing off their skills during a stint at the museum in Summer 2014. For further information visit http://www.museumofglass.org.

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