Isola Glass, the name of Scott Benefield’s highly regarded glass studio is apt. Isola (island in Italian) refers to the location of the studio on Camano Island, Washington, but the name Isola also hints at the isolated practice of an artist who has devised unusual methods and machines which allow him to single-handedly complete processes usually tackled by glass-blowers with at least one assistant.
Near the end of his sabbatical as a 2002 fellow at the Creative Glass Center of America, Benefield reflected, “I was questioning the possibility of sculptural applications, but being here,
in a rich environment of resources, and having time to experiment and fail and adjust, reconfirmed my commitment to making vessels. I wish more people felt that just blowing glass [as opposed to making sculpture or environmental art] is okay. My interest in it is holistic. It’s about having a studio and having your whole life revolve around glass.”
Benefield’s approach to art glass is exacting. His vessels incorporate several colors using Venetian techniques of fusing. In many, spiraling bands of transparent color cross creating what Benefield calls “a virtual plaid.” These individually blown multiples are, as he says, “the furthest extension of hand craft,” dependent on an exacting process and virtuoso skill. Each form is lucid, and symmetrical without the exaggerated scale shifts of tiny perilous feet or constricted ungenerous mouths which brand anti-functional objects of decoration. In Benefield’s work, concave contours echo convex ones with a simplicity that allows the eye to savor color effects, layers and patterns which seem easy to understand as they weave into rhythmic complexity.
Last year, Benefield studied with Davide Salvatore at Centro Studio Vetro, San Servolo. He recalls “What I saw was simple and subtle form executed con brio, a lot of patterning through the repetition of certain design elements, but it was stripped down. There were not a lot of handles, for example.”
His current work similarly reflects the clean, almost machined-look of Italian glass of the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. At that time architects who were active on the international scene elicited from Italian glass artists a style of vessel which was essentially Modern and sensuous. “Italians,” he says, “understand fluidity and transparency better than anyone. They use glass in the transformative state. Novacento (20th century) glass strips away the ornamentation of the 19th century.” Benefield is intrigued with the collaboration between designers, glass workers of virtuoso skill and even painters in developing vessel forms at the “furthest extension of hand craft. The only reason you have that vocabulary [of traditional glass technique] is so you can say something original. If you don’t know grammar you can’t construct a good sentence.” His devotion to simple forms is shared with primary figures of the studio glass movement including his teachers, Dick Marquis and Lino Tagliapietra.
Reflecting his affinity for clean geometry and carefully controlled color patterning, Benefield’s studio at CGCA exhibited possibly the most profound orderliness of any resident fellow’s ever. Though he describes it as “organized but not clean,” shelves and storage are systematized into categories of tools and supplies, each beautifully arranged in suitable containers or stacks. This display, as artful and visually satisfying as any installation, is intrinsic to the artist’s methodical work processes.
Benefield has to be methodical because in his own studio he works alone. Earlier in his career, especially as a founder of Studio Inferno in New Orleans , LA, he must have blown glass in the usual way, helping others complete their work and making his vessels with assistants who bring tools, reheat glass, and generally facilitate operations which take more than two hands. He now, on the metaphorical other hand, uses a machine to turn the blowpipe so he can single-handedly attach a punty. Benefield admits that designing and organizing his studio and equipment in it, is as important to him as the finished pieces. He likes to “adapt and evolve the environment” to suit his needs.
Benefield “was not so happy with the result” of one idea he had been considering since his graduate school days and finally tried at CGCA. This was the use of interlocking pipe-like modules which can be stacked into a variety of shapes. This “speculative experiment engaged the machine aesthetic, but with the hope of making it on the scale of the human figure.” Ultimately, Benefield liked the “playfulness” of the idea but “It seemed like I was forcing myself to do something I wasn’t really inclined to do. It was important to do it and find out that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Failures are necessary.”
At CGCA, Benefield also hoped to introduce “an element of chaos” into some of his vessels, a chaos which he describes as “making a disorder that refers back to a grid structure.” He experimented with fusing glass in several ways. He fused stacks of colored sheet glass and sliced them to fuse again in blown vessels. He tried fusing gold leaf within decorative mosaic tile. “It didn’t work [in practice] but on paper it was working just fine,” he said. He hasn’t given up on tile. “It has promise. I’ll probably continue with it and working with sheet glass and blowing.”
Another “insanely labor intensive and not commercial” fusing process was a success. Collages of pinwheel roundels cut into squares or wedges were fused and blown, producing a brilliant syncopation suggestive of Matisse: playful yet harmonious. The technique is incredibly demanding. “Failures outnumbered successes three to one easily,” Benefield commented with a kind of satisfaction. “That’s the exciting thing about working here. It’s a way a mid-career artist can step back and reassess. It’s just R and D. I’ll go back to my own studio refocused.”