James McLeod Essay by Robin Rice

James McLeod Essay by Robin Rice

James McLeod
2003 Fellow

“I fell in love with glass. It was so exciting I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. It can almost be too enticing sometimes.” Nevertheless, James McLeod, a 2003 Resident Fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America knows that his first allegiance is to the integrity of the artwork as a whole. For the last six years McLeod has worked as a glass-blower and fabricator for other artists, some primarily involved with glass and some not. They include Bella Feldman, Tracy Glover, and Therman Statom. McLeod’s understanding of glass’s potential has been enriched by trying to bend the “rules” of technique to realize another’s vision. “It’s exciting to see what artists who don’t work with glass do. Bella Feldman, for example, just doesn’t know any better. It’s nice to see what she comes up with.”

With this kind of experience, McLeod is well-positioned to envision a broad range of sculptural possibilities for his medium and he plans to explore some of those next year as a graduate student at New York University. At CGCA, McLeod truly focused on glass, by taking glass objects as subject matter, continuing an established interest. Perhaps the original spark came from noticing discarded articles which, though once functional, have become mysterious artifacts over time, bearing the scars of their former use as narratives lost to understanding. Such an object “once had a purpose, but is no longer usable. It sort of hums with life. I want to get the feeling that somebody wants to take the time to explore it and investigate it.”

McLeod began making these “Memory Containers” years ago, but certain canning and vacuum-sealed fruit jars he saw in the Museum of American Glass at Wheaton Village triggered a new sub-set of the series. “I thought I had completed the series, but I think it’s something I’m always going to come back to.” Some of the blown, mostly clear glass “Memory Containers” exaggerate characteristics of traditional lidded storage vessels. Others are formally single units. Irregular and organic, they almost mimic the simplest of natural objects, such as water-worn rocks or shells.

Although McLeod describes them as “containers of an ephemeral moment or experience,” the contents are unspecified. “Memory surfaces in a lot of my work–a moment between myself and another person that I don’t have physical evidence of — a ‘moment’ of at least ten [experiential] minutes when everything stopped moving, when the wind stopped blowing.” McLeod wants viewers to project their own memories and imaginations into the transparent or frosted sealed containers, but one memory he admits to enshrining is First Kiss, a light bulb-shaped vessel ornamented with wire and linen twine. “It’s scratched, gnarled and awkward,” he observes. “It was a good thing, though.”

Some of these vessels are wrapped with rows of waxed linen twine, a natural, coarse, yet very measured textural contrast to the smooth vitreous surface. Such bindings may conceal and mark the place where two pieces of glass meet. These connecting cords express a tension which McLeod enacts more dramatically in larger multi-part installations. Here, large hollow glass elements are suspended or partially suspended in groups. The expansive organic curved forms sometimes incorporate rattan or canvas or small metal rods.

The relationship to memory is highly abstracted. “When you try to envision a lake you visited last summer, the lake you remember is probably the first or second lake you saw–archetypal. The memory has become archival. I’d like to hold on to the relationship based on real memory. It takes twenty or thirty drawings to get to that point. It’s a fairly scattered path.” At one time, McLeod tried to develop a language of form, but he abandoned that kind of specificity as confining. He opts now for a more open-ended sensibility. He says, “It’s a more beautiful thing when somebody can find themselves in the piece.”

At CGCA, McLeod grouped tall, perfectly cylindrical vessels on especially fabricated metal shelves and began a series of blue functional-seeming domes which will be placed over dark cone shapes related to “political prisoners in our country.” He hopes to complete an installation of 50 to 60 of these forms.

The largest bottle ever blown, now in the collection of the Museum of American Glass, was made at Wheaton Village; so, the hot shop there was the ideal place for one of McLeod’s most ambitious undertakings: blowing very large cocoon-shaped vessels using a graphite coated mold. The hinged plaster mold with concentric ribs was prepared and placed near a platform so gravity could be utilized in making the piece. With Don Friel acting as chief gaffer and six or seven assistants, two versions of the form, which McLeod describes as a “honey dipper” shape were successfully completed in a light amber –honey-colored — glass.

McLeod has always been an artist. He’s painted, made ceramics and done illustration. He looks forward to graduate school when he will be forced to think of glass as “just any material;” however, it is impossible to imagine that he will abandon the skills both technical and communicative that he has developed with glass. Or that he will forget his love for this unique medium.