Harvey Littleton

This interview was originally published in ART PAPERS January/February 1994, Vol. 18, issue 1.

In April 1993, Mildred Thompson worked as a guest artist in the Spruce Pine, North Carolina studio of renowned glass artist Harvey Littleton. While there, she conducted the following interview.

Mildred Thompson: For decades I have been involved with printmaking—etching, lithography, monotypes, etc.—but until your call I had never heard of printing on glass—vitreography. Can you tell something about its origins?

Harvey Littleton: The process was first developed in a studio in Vienna, Austria. The first of these prints were shown in an exhibition at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851, in London. There are references to this in a catalogue from the Mint Museum here in North Carolina.

Thompson: Why and how did it come about?

Littleton: Well, they were trying to make paper money. The trouble was that the printing matrix would break down after so many runs and the later printed bills were not clear and were easily counterfeited. So they were trying to find a material that would stand up for the duration of the printing. A paperweight maker named Tassy was commissioned to make a cast of a copper plate in glass.

Thompson: Why do you think glass printing was abandoned?

Littleton: Because the chemicals were too dangerous and glass was expensive. When hydrofluoric acid was developed they found that it was the first acid that would etch glass. The etchers would block out the designs on drinking glasses with wax and then expose the glass to these undiluted fumes of the acid. They used the acid pure but it is a very pernicious material. It doesn’t burn the skin in the same way that sulfuric or nitric acid does, it just goes through the skin to the bone. Corot and others picked up the technique and began to use the process for book illustrations. Again the desire was to exploit the durability of the glass. About the same time, electroplates were developed and they learned how to steel face the copper plates. Then the steel engravers began to illustrate the newspapers and large publications with the then-new steel face method. Glass was found too dangerous and people were afraid of it and the acids.

Thompson: But since then there have been many new developments in glass production. Does this have anything to do with the revival of vitreography?

Littleton: Yes, vitreography is very appropriate today because there is all this new technology, and marvelous new materials. The float glass, which, for example, uses the Pilkington method, was developed in England. The glass is pulled in a sheet across a bed of molten tin. The speed of the pull determines the thickness of the glass. With the air on top and the molten tin underneath the surface comes out perfect. Because of the process, the glass is much stronger. Before, when we had nothing but ground glass, we never had this kind of surface perfection. The surface of ground glass has many tiny, microscopic abrasions and this makes the glass weak. My father was a glass physicist. He was director of research for Corning Glass Works in New York, one of the first to go into industry with a Ph.D. Part of his research involved problems concerning the strength of glass and the elimination of these imperfections caused by abrasions.

Thompson: So you grew up in and around the workshops and laboratories where glass was being manufactured. What was that like?

Littleton: When we were children, my father would often pick up an ashtray in a restaurant, or hotel and show us how it was made, analyze it for us, pointing out its weaknesses and where its strengths occurred. Whenever we ate jello he would explain how jello could be compared to glass, how it breaks apart just like glass only much slower. All of this fascinated me.

Thompson: Did you begin your work in the arts with glass blowing?

Littleton: No, I went into pottery. I had read and was constantly told that I could not go into glass on my own. I didn’t want to work for a corporation and make the kind of commercial glass they were making. And I couldn’t stand that kind of discipline either. I went into teaching with the pottery.

Thompson: How and when did you begin working with glass?

Littleton: In 1957, my wife Bess, the children, and I went on a trip to Europe where I was going to research the pottery in Spain. I worked there for four months in a pottery workshop. Franco was in power and had just begun the first of his public trials. We had to leave that political climate so we all packed up and went to France and then to Italy. In Naples we found a little glass factory where there were only about six men blowing glass. They told us about other small factories in the area and so I went about exploring. When we got back home in Wisconsin I melted some glass in one of my stoneware pots and found that the process was really easy. In 1961, at the Conference of the American Crafts Council I gave a paper, “A Potter’s Experience with Glass.” In March 1962 and again in June I was invited by Otto Whitman to lead a seminar at the Toledo Museum with Dominic Labino. We set up a workshop and blew glass in a studio situation. As a result of that and a grant from the University of Wisconsin’s Research Committee I was able to spend the summer of 1962 researching the possibilities of studio glass making. The following year I went back to Europe, this time to research how glass blowing was taught there. I had by now made a few little pieces and took them with me. There I found furnaces in the schools but they were not really teaching the students how to blow glass. They would bring in people from industry to blow from the designs the students had made. The students were not allowed to do very much.

Thompson: Why was that so?

Littleton: It’s that old apprentice system. You have to understand, in an apprentice situation the basic aim is to keep a kind of hierarchy going. Apprenticeship is a form of slavery in the first place, it’s involuntary servitude. Parents sold their children in the middle ages to be apprentices to the master craftsmen and runaway apprentices were vigorously pursued. They were hunted down with bloodhounds just as the slaves were that you read about in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The system evolved. especially through the unions, to hold people down in order to hold the big paying jobs for the masters. The American Flint and Glass Workers’ Union allows the apprentice to make only two gathers a day.

Thompson: And what exactly is a gather?

Littleton: To put an iron in the furnace and gather glass on the end of it. Some of my pieces, for example, have as many as eighteen gathers. In a production company where there are 600-800 pieces made a day in one shop with three workers, two gathers are nothing. So when they say it takes someone twenty years to become a glass blower, what they are talking about is the years of apprenticeship under this very repressive system. And this is the system that has been and is accepted. When I wanted, in the beginning, to start blowing glass, all of the books, and everyone I knew said, “No, you can’t blow glass on your own. You can only do that in a factory, it takes a team,” and so on.

Thompson: Ignoring the system, you then went on to form a class in glass blowing for the students at the University of Wisconsin?

Littleton: Yes. In 1962, we started a class in my farm studio off campus. The University paid me for the use of gas and the students came out to classes one day a week in the beginning and later we held classes twice a week. Then we received an anonymous grant to buy equipment and supplies. After that the University kicked in about $18,000, for the workshop. In 1963, I shamed them into renting a studio and this began the glass blowing workshop on campus. We were able to bring in people from industry to help us with technical things. Teaching this course in glass blowing was like all of my teaching: I was always just one jump ahead of the students. Some of the students carried this on to very great results. Today there are glass blowing artists whose work one can point out and recognize as having been a part of our workshop. Today, there are little glass blowing studios all over the country where glass artists are working on their own.

Thompson: At the time when you were trying to get this all together did you know of any other artists who were working as you were?

Littleton: In 1962, in the Bavarian village of Frauenau, with its more than 600 year old glass making tradition, I met, by chance, the artist Erwin Eisch. He had just had an exhibition at the Glas und Porzellenhaus in Stuttgart. He had done an apprenticeship in glass engraving and studied glassmaking at Zweizel and then went on to study sculpture at the Art Academy in Munich. With his two brothers and parents, he owned a small glass factory where they did a lot of experiments with hot glass. When I first saw his work it really blew my mind. His pieces were very untraditional, free and beautiful. They were nonfunctional and the visual examples of what I wanted to do. At the time it was astounding because there was nothing like this kind of originality going on anywhere in Europe.

Thompson: Were you able to develop and maintain a relationship with Eisch?

Littleton: Oh yes, we are still in close contact. In 1964 I was co-chairman of the glass panel for the World Congress of Craftsmen in New York and we were able to bring him over as a participant and introduce him and his work to the American Crafts Movement. We set up a workshop with a small furnace my friend Nick Labino made and donated to us. For two weeks we were blowing glass right across the street from Columbia, in a courtyard, right in the heart of New York City. Erwin and I have had many exchanges since then. I have been to Frauenau for exhibitions and workshops many times. He comes here and has made several series of vitreographs, editions that we have co-produced.

Thompson: What was the World Craft Conference like? Do you find these big conferences on the arts really useful?

Littleton: Well, first, this conference was brought about by the great generosity of Aline Osbourne Vanderbilt Webb, the godmother of American Crafts. The conference was supposed to include the making of crafts, a working situation with workshops. But the glassmakers were the only ones with a setup. One of the big problems I find with these big conferences is that the people that most of the Third World countries send as representatives are almost always government officials whose offices are concerned with the arts; the others are all art school people. It seems that there are never enough real practicing artists at these things.

Thompson: Arts, crafts, fine art, primitive art, what do you think of these now very controversial distinctions?

Littleton: All of it is a dead horse. The works describe themselves and should stand for what they are. We have here a few pieces my wife, Bess, collects. In Morgantown there is a little arts center/gallery that sells them. There are two Black men who come in to town from time to time with a pick-up truck loaded with these very fine carved pieces. They are crafts because they are carved in wood, but they are art because they portray something of the African-American spirit. We cannot say that this is not art. We have to look at each work and ask ourselves if it rises to the level that we expect in terms of breaking barriers, in terms of enriching our lives. We have people in our society who are more sensitive and spend their lives developing a super sensitivity to materials of one sort or another. When they go beyond a certain point, the barriers are broken and all of a sudden we are all given a new kind of vision that we had not known before.

Thompson: When did you begin making vitreographs?

Littleton: Well, I really began at the University of Wisconsin in 1974, but the people there couldn’t see me making prints. But when I came down here I continued working for myself. I worked with a printer, Sandy Wilcox, and we made a lot of experiments together. David Lewis, an artist who was Sandy’s husband, was here too working and decided to paint on the plate with printer’s ink to see if it would hold up under the sandblasting and preserve the image. The ink stuck to the glass and kept the image in place. It worked. We had tried everything before—Elmer’s glue, hot glue, electrical tape, and so on—but none of this was the same as being able to paint directly on to the glass.

Thompson: The possibilities seem to be limitless. I have spent the week exploring the technique to achieve similar effects that I have been able to get in etching and lithography. I am very satisfied with the results. I like that I can draw so freely on the glass and that I can get all of the same rich textures, tones, and values from black to white. I am eager to see where I might be able to push it from here.

Littleton: When you lay those prints out side by side, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and so on, you can see that in the first one you were on unfamiliar ground and it was not resolved and you did not like it. We had not yet found the vocabulary to get you beyond that thing that you did not like. So you went back to the kinds of things you had done in other mediums. Then slowly it evolved to this very last one, which has an overall vitality and movement that really exploits both line and form, which doesn’t show up in those previous prints. And that’s what we are after, a joint exploration that allows us to gather experience which might be helpful for other artists. All of what we have learned together can be passed on to help open up the medium for someone else.

Thompson: And this is what I enjoy so much about working so closely with other artists in these great collaborations. My experiences with the Bob Blackburn Workshop in New York and Wayne Kline’s Rolling Stone Press in Atlanta have all been very meaningful and very productive experiences, just as this is, for me. How long have you been doing the collaborations and co-productions with other artists and how does one get to come here to work?

Littleton: In 1981 we started with whoever we could invite or trick to come up here. Once, Jane Kessler, who was the curator of American Art at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, came by to see the place and I tricked her into making a little print. After that she decided to write a grant and try to get some good painters here to experience the process. She was able to get grants from the National Endowment and the Mint Museum. The grants made it possible for several artists, Ed and Linda Blackburn, Herb Jackson, Hollis Sigler, and others to work here along with two experienced printers: June Lambla, who had been with Crown Point Press, and Paul Maguire, who now owns Flatrock Press. Afterward, the prints were exhibited at the Mint Museum in an exhibition, “Luminous Impressions.” The co-production is done by arrangement with the artist. This gets pretty expensive for me. As long as I was selling the glass and making the glass, it was research for me in the studio. Now I am no longer able to summon the energy to live with that fire-breathing monster in my studio. It’s not that I can’t handle the glass physically, at my age, but it’s the burden of the furnaces out there waiting for me…demanding.

Thompson: Are you able to sell many of the prints?

Littleton: We don’t have the marketing structure for the prints yet. For the glass we had to develop a market. The galleries are not really interested and they already have people. If you co-publish, the artist takes his prints, goes to his market and sells them. When they are all gone he either comes back to have you co-publish more or goes to some other print shop to have his prints made or have some other experience—which is fine, but it doesn’t do me any good. I don’t have his market and my market is for glass, and the collectors who buy the glass seem to shy away from the prints.

Thompson: You have an interesting collection of art works. The collection of perfume bottles is especially interesting.

Littleton: I collect all kinds of art but I make decisions about collecting glass much easier than other things. But that’s not the kind of collecting I’m talking about. The big collectors in any field are building images of themselves through the art they collect. I started buying the little perfume bottles when I was teaching in Toledo, Ohio. I taught there for two years. The bottles are all from the Devilbis Factory, which operated in Toledo, but the museum there couldn’t care less about the bottles. It was too close to home for them to recognize them as collectibles. But I found them very interesting, and after I found the first one I began to find them everywhere. I could see after a while later that they all had the stamp of one individual. They were all designed by the artist Villemonot. All of the illustrations in the catalogs, the advertisements, bore his stamp. He even developed a little cottage industry where he had local women crochet covers for the atomizers. The glass for the production of the bottles came from Steuben, Imperial, and other companies from all over.

Thompson: When did you begin the collection?

Littleton: Oh, in about 1971-72. I needed glass pieces for my students in Madison, Wisconsin to see. There was just not enough glass available to them. I had a few pieces of Steuben I had inherited from my parents and kept them out so that they could see examples of glass.

Thompson: Do you think that the current popularity of studio glass making and glass collecting is due to the overall accessibility of new materials?

Littleton: I think that a lot of collectors are buying studio glass because the art nouveau and art deco glass is no longer available. Factory glass like Steuben and Orrefors were higher or selling for the same prices that the young people were getting. For the past fifteen years, interest in studio glass has been growing and more and more students are learning the craft. It was the museums that gave us the first recognition. The market came afterwards and then came the collectors. You have this artist/museum/gallery/collector partnership and without all of these elements you just can’t exist.

Thompson: Would you call your glass works sculpture?

Littleton: Yes. They have no function.

Thompson: And the vitreographs…what is your plan, where do you want to go from here?

Littleton: I want to do with vitreography what I did with glass blowing. I want to see it added to the language of the arts.