John Paul Robinson Essay
John Paul Robinson
Winter 2002 Fellow
John Robinson arrived at the Creative Glass Center of America for his winter, 2002 residence with a home-made eight-foot-long annealing kiln. In a week or so, he decided to make it a couple of feet longer. Even though the CGCA studios are well equipped, Robinson knew in advance that his blown glass trees would be too tall for any ordinary kiln. Soon, he had exceeded his own expectations. By the end of his residency, he was spiraling blown glass “tornadoes” which would challenge the capacity of his rebuilt kiln. When he left CGCA taking his long kiln with him, the studio was enriched with an eight-foot tall stepped platform designed by Robinson to facilitate his trees and tornado experiments (The platform was immediately put to another use by a kiln caster in the next group of fellows).
At CGCA, Robinson, a self-taught Canadian glass blower, concentrated on environmental sculptures relating to the forest. The works are environmental in two senses. They are celebrations of the primal environment in which he grew up and they will be assembled on an environmental scale as clusters of up to 50 trees seven or eight feet tall. He does not regard these works as installations because they will be self-contained, with the trees suspended in a pre-determined pattern not related to space where they are displayed. Some smaller forest works will be wall-mounted, but Robinson wants viewers to walk around and through most of them. Although glass is too fragile to allow people to move freely among suspended objects, he plans to offer a branching pathway, one which forces a choice of one direction or another. The number and density of the trees will hide the paths’ destinations.
“I tend to gravitate toward non-conventional means of producing things,” Robinson says. “I’m a firm believer in not visualizing a piece fully before you make it. In the first place, it’s going to look too contrived and in the second place, you can’t make the piece do something that it doesn’t want to do. It’s going to tell you, ‘Hey, that’s not the way I want to go!”
Through trial and error, he evolved his idiosyncratic and theoretically outrageous technique for blowing tall trees with twisting trunks and bent, Y-shaped branches. He ascends his platform with a textured but short trunk shape and uses gravity and an assistant to pull the top of the tree down. In minutes, the tube of glass has cooled to rigidity. He removes it from the metal pipe and takes the rod of still hot glass in his gloved hands: reheating the narrow end in order to add and shape small branches.
The temperature difference between the trunk and the branching top of the tree is such that about half the completed trees explode but Robinson accepts these losses as part of the process. Nevertheless, he admits, “There are hours of tedium doing it over and over. I have to accept the tedium. The advantage is that glass blowing is such a focused process; you can’t daydream and blow. When you’re deeply focused it becomes meditation. It clears your mind. Then the best ideas come because your head is not full of all the crap. When that happens, that’s the reward.”
Robinson’s interest in the forest is both personal and mythic. “What generates myth,” he says, “is experience with the environment. That’s universal. People who live in deserts have a different environment but the issues are the same: birth, death, aging, reproduction, food. The environment is the lens through which you see those issues.”
Robinson remembers camping trips and his father telling stories around the fire as light and shadow danced among the trees. “That’s a human experience that goes back a long time and generates ideas about what reality is. We live in a reconstructed environment now. For me, it doesn’t hold the same capacity to create a myth. At one time we belonged to the environment. Now the environment belongs to us.
Robinson’s sensitivity to astronomical time: the cycles of the moon, the solstices, and equinoxes, leads him to see our dependence on clocks as arrogant. Before turning to the forest theme, he made a series of non-functional clocks to illustrate this human-centered artifice.
Through the forest, he hopes to complete several projects addressing time in a more organic experiential way. Sunrise or sunset is symbolized by trees of translucent golden-yellow glass with base stained black with frit. Their color gold, is the “incorrupt substance. . . treasures we’ve lost the meaning for” as well as the color of sunlight. He planned red and black trees to symbolize a forest on fire, a feared disaster in the forest environment. The colors proved incompatible, but he finally made it work. “That’s the point of being here (at CGCA),” he reveals without self-pity. “At home, it’s too expensive to spend two weeks figuring out one piece.”
He hopes to continue the series with of black trees whose blue branches are sprinkled with white suggest the starry night sky. And white wintry trees will represent a “valuable experience. I love the snow and the lack of confusion in the quiet.”
In contrast to the large trees, Robinson produced a huge number of highly realistic feathers in dark topaz glass accented with black, layered over clear polished tips and quills. He assembles these into spiraling constructions relating to the mythic Raven and his profound teasing lessons for human beings. Raven’s tricks often illuminate humans’ proper and respectful relationship to nature, lessons which are mirrored in Robinson’s intuitive relationship to his chosen natural medium: glass.