Nancy Callan Essay by Robin Rice

Nancy Callan Essay by Robin Rice

Nancy Callan
2001 Fellow

Sky blue, chili pepper red, lime green and very black “Medicine Bottles” line a shelf in the studio of Resident Fellow Nancy Callan at the Creative Glass Center of America. The blown forms in strong solid colors are vaguely old-fashioned with cylindrical openings designed for a cork. Each is labeled with a square tile which was pressed into the hot surface. Words and simple pictures were ground from a layer of red and/or black over white. An underlayer of black makes as an irregular border on some pieces. A red cross looks faintly ominous on a tall black bottle. A single die identifies the iffy contents of a narrow green bottle. Its neighbor’s label edged in explosive angles of red, reads “Pow / Pow.” A dollar sign and a suitcase captioned “VIVA” suggest yet another remedy for whatever ails you. The bottles represent

culturally constructed, self-prescribed remedies–some perhaps benign, others dangerous, all more or less addictive. These cures and more displayed in an especially fabricated white metal medicine cabinet with a mirrored back and sliding glass doors will be the complete work of art.

A second medicine cabinet is a portrait of sorts. It’s dedicated to Callan’s father and will contain enigmatic rows of plain white bottles; however, a golf ball, and a strip of Astroturf on a center shelf will identify his favorite medicine.

Chuckling, Callan points out a large clear bottle with red horns sprouting from its shoulders standing near the medicine bottles. It’s labeled “SLRig,” in black letters, each one on a separate white tile. The bottle was supposed to say “giRLS,” but somehow the square tiles, which had to be heated upside down before placement in the surface of the bottle, got reversed and were irrevocably embedded–backward–in hot glass by the time the faces could be seen.

Although she doesn’t like “cold working,” and prefers “to put everything together on the pipe,” Callan laboriously grinding away a layer of colored glass to make each picture or letter. Her interest in language and lettering and two-dimensional design led to a 10 year career as a self-taught graphic designer right after she finished high school. Unfortunately, she says, “the computer came in and took the competitive edge.” So, she decided she’d better master computer graphics. Fortunately for the glass world, at the Massachusetts College of Art, she discovered she “hated computers and loved working with my hands.” She happily switched to ceramics, but one day she looked into the hot shop. Glass was even more fascinating than ceramics.

“I remember taking my first gather,” Callan says, “My hand was on fire but I came out saying, ‘I love this. This is what I’m going to do.'”

She pursued glass with passion. In a short workshop with famed glass-blower Lino Tagliapietra, Callan recalls “I built up my nerve. I said, ‘Lino, I want to be a great glass blower. I’m really serious about it.’ He said, ‘Okay’ and walked away. An hour later he said, ‘You should go to Manifesto in Seattle.'”

Callan couldn’t really afford to go to Seattle, but she told herself that if a certain piece she’d made sold, she’d find a way. The piece sold and she went. She now works regularly as an assistant to Tagliapietra, having graduated from lowly chores like opening the doors to the glory hole to tasks like picking up cane and bringing the punty.

“When you work that closely with someone for so long, the hardest thing is making the work my own,” she explains. Callan’s technical mastery is evident in a row of really large bottles, most clear glass with pale complex cane work. Their elongated curving profiles, all with narrow necks, range from inverted funnel shapes to high shouldered curvy tear-drops. “Pick it up,” Callan indicates the largest one. It is feather-light and threaded with a veil of fine color.

Callan says her series of “Genie Lamps” is “about fantasy,” adding, “I like them, but there’s something unresolved about them.” Clearly lamp forms, they have a biomorphic undulating quality and surface patterning from Murrini-like squares to caning. Unlike the ironic “Medicine Bottles,” which also reflect people’s needs, the lamps’ curvy attenuated silhouettes have a wistful sweetness, a kind of yearning which is explicit in an assemblage which augments a real telephone with an etched glass megaphone-like cone reiterating “iWiSHiWiSHiWiSH. . . .” in an endless spiral.

Intended for a projected installation, wall-mounted black and yellow striped Bee Butts point long black stingers into the room. Simultaneously abstract and instantly identifiable, they combine an almost Duchampian minimalism with a sense of the ridiculous.

In contrast to these and other sculptures incorporating found elements, is a functional set of Jetson Martini Glasses. Produced in several color combinations, the angular forms exemplify modernism with the kitsch futuristic elegance of tail fins.

Callan is in an enviable position for a glass artist. With an enviable level of technical skill which she continues to develop, she is able to address a broad range of functional and sculptural projects.