…OK, maybe not a bar, but the atmosphere at the double-fisted Washington Glass Studio/Washington Glass School is just as intoxicating, and the two maverick artists and architect-cum-artist who helm them clearly want you to let your hair down and just have at it.
Designing some of the region's - and nation's - most uncommon public art of the last decade, studio projects in 40 states created by the “tripod,” as the three principals call themselves, range from a New Orleans AIDS memorial with multicultural cast glass faces, to a PG County circuit court outdoor copper-and-glass sculpture with components largely reclaimed from a courthouse fire, to a vast series of interior glass panels at the National Institutes of Health—with healing images. Marking a 10-year anniversary and their 4,000th student (in a variety of ages), Tim Tate, Erwin Timmers and Michael Janis are at the pinnacle of a business they say almost wasn’t.
Glass is in session
“We started our school on September 13, 2001,” Tate recalled of the tenebrous days following 9/11. “We thought, oh my God, it’s over. Nothing’s going to happen now.” But everyone they called in light of the tragedy implored them not to cancel classes, and according to Tate, they discovered that in those troubled times people didn’t necessarily want to buy art, they wanted to create it. To that end, classes that run the gamut from grinding and polishing to bas-relief dry plaster casting (of glass) taught and continue to teach motivated students, the school in part funded by the expanding portfolio of the three principals.
For whom the bell tolls
With public art and monuments a predominant theme, Tate described the major fire that destroyed the PG County Circuit Court House in 2004 from which the burned and charred bell tower cupola was salvaged. Reclaiming the copper on top, sand carved panels that contain the seals of each of the Maryland counties served, and cast recycled glass (from a local office building) inserts depicting a judge’s mallet, the scales of justice, a map of PG County and a myriad other relevant images frame a neon bell inside, representing the old bell that would sound at 9:30 a.m. signaling court was in session.
“When we talk about public art, we’re usually talking about larger-scale architectural installations around town and in other states,” Tate explained, adding where possible, the trio tries to reference something old with the new project for cultural, community and sustainable purposes.
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
At Bradley and Arlington Boulevards in Bethesda, a 1970s Safeway was something Tate called “a horror –one of the worst in their chain.” With the organization seeking a new aesthetic and undertaking a major redesign of its stores (the newer buildings are a Prairie School style, Tate said), the issue of camouflaging a first floor parking area presented a design challenge for the three gurus of glass. “The last thing they wanted was for people to see a giant parking garage while driving down the street.”
To address the problem, WGS is currently creating a 30-by-9-ft. glass wall with a checkerboard glass pattern, utilizing raised imagery of herbs such as basil, thyme, parsley and more. Some of the glass will be clear with raised imagery, and the rest is amber glass, also with raised imagery. WGS is using reclaimed glass from the former Safeway where possible.
Prior to the Safeway project, at Food and Friends in D.C., an organization providing food and nutrition counseling to those suffering from HIV, cancer and other ailments, an outdoor memorial/donor recognition wall in a Garden of Remembrance was erected with bas-relief cast glass panels in purple, amber and green glass. Names can be inset into the panels, and when the sun shines the glass bathes the garden in a warm and special light.
Watson, come here!
In the vein of “accidental” discoveries like the telephone, Tate indicated all three principals are well-known artists in their own rights, showing internationally, nationally and locally at large art museums, special exhibitions and other venues. But he revealed their signature prowess evolved from an Erwin Timmers experiment, and has essentially been a work in progress over the last decade.
“Someone had mentioned they’d heard if you push something into dry plaster, you can melt things into it,” Tate recounted of the process, adding it just didn’t seem right. “You’d think the thing would fall apart, or smoosh, with no detail.”
Over what Tate called a very strong objection (“it’s how we do things”) on his part, colleague Timmers tried it, placing his hand into the plaster to make an impression, adding a piece of glass on top which was melted down. Technically, “the heat went on to expand the molecules of the dry plaster, hardening it just enough so that when the glass melts in, it doesn’t move out of the way,” Tate explained, adding they pulled out a piece of glass with Timmers’ fingerprints on it, as it was that detailed. Realizing they had something in this process, Tate said they’ve spent years refining it because they’re using both glass and plaster in ways they were not intended, and formulaic changes need to be made to accommodate seasons and other variables.
A hole by any other name
At EPA headquarters at 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, WGS was commissioned to create what Tate called a “cistern for the gods.” With the agency’s courtyard converted into an “educational, low impact rain runoff project,” according to a website, Tate and team were charged with imagining the design, which included lining an 8-ft.-deep hole with thousands of quarter-inch pieces of glass. This was achieved by lowering an assistant into the abyss to apply silicone and place each component—in the dead of a Mid-Atlantic summer (the principals rewarded him by financing the remainder of his education). A tiered finial at the top, also made of glass, looks like rain dropping into water, with the entire venture illuminated by blue LED’s.
“There is no book on this stuff,” Tate said of the process behind the body of work WGS has produced in the past 10 years. Referencing interior glass sculpture at Washington’s tony Palomar hotel (think cast glass with fused imagery and steel), and a healing glass wall redolent of nature at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, Tate said the time involved from start-to-finish can range from one month to many years.
Tate also said that despite the issues one might connect over time with a public art glass installation, vandalism has been virtually non-existent. In New Orleans, their policemen’s memorial is a glass wall in the worst part of town. Though WGS designs for the contingency where segments of a sculpture or monument can be removed and replaced, rather than starting from scratch, Tate believes there’s a certain “honor” among artists, graffiti or otherwise, out in the world.
“We have never had anyone come up with a hammer and break something. We’ve never had anyone tag something,” he affirmed. “People don’t necessarily want to destroy art.”
Of the perpetuation of WGS’s work, and specifically of his students at the school, Tate said “…a rising tide floats all boats. We try to help everyone achieve their next goal. We came together to make an impact on Washington.”
For design story ideas, contact Beth at bh@ dcrealestate.com