Stephen Paul Day Essay by Robin Rice

Stephen Paul Day Essay by Robin Rice

Stephen Paul Day
1992, 1997, 2004, 2009 Fellow

[P]eople look into the glass globe without really seeing it, but rather unwittingly gazing beyond it into their own unconscious, the fears and desires that wait silently until the least-expected stimulus triggers their remembrance. Souvenirs trigger the prefabricated wish image of commodities through the personal involvement of their consumers, a personalization that, no matter how clichéd, momentarily “resurrects” the dead possession.

Celeste Olalquiaga i

―I’m sulphide crazy,‖ announces Stephen Paul Day welcoming a visitor to his studio at the Creative Glass Center of America. During his third Fellowship (Fall, 2009) at the Creative Glass Center of America, Day is making sulphides in a contemporary interpretation of the spirit of the 19th century. Invented in the eighteenth century and linked with the Classical Revival style, the technique of inserting a three-dimensional cameo-like medallion in glass is well-suited to the inclusion of text of an advertising or commemorative nature.

Sulphides are an ideal vehicle for Day’s interest in nostalgia and kitsch.“Souvenir,” Day says, ―is a key word. It conveys a kind of reciprocity.‖ It conjures up kitsch and also the tender sensibility of a memento or a remembrance. Cultural critic Celeste Olalquiaga, one of Day’s favorite theorists, says that the souvenir presents a fixed and unambiguous idea about the past. Because it is literal and easily understood in its referents the souvenir idea lends itself to ironic interpretation.

Day likes to focus attention on the way the past with all its contradictions quietly infiltrates the present. Like Olalquiaga, he sees the heyday of the sulphide (a form still practiced by some traditional paperweight makers) as a moment of transition in which we looked back to the vanishing Antique past dominated by nature and forward to a modern, technologically sophisticated future, exemplified by monuments like the Crystal Palace (1851). Letter writing, now an affordable pastime for the middle and even working classes, fueled the production of paperweights and related accessories.

Day’s interest in the Victorian era of transition led him to sulphides and snow globes. The historic sensibility of Wheaton Village (built as a reproduction of a nineteenth-century glass factory that burned down) and its collection of functional antique iron molds fueled this focus. In place of porcelain inserts, Day uses a space age refractory material, Zircar. It can be cast and or formed into flat paper-like surfaces suitable for the drawing. Day makes his drawings in a naïve style. The delicacy and innocence of execution and image bridge the gravitas of history and the crisp aura of modern technology. He plans to use the old iron dies from the original Wheaton factory to cast the paperweights. The drawings have an immediacy suggesting direct access to the unconscious, an unfiltered, unfixed dream state frozen within the solid fluidity of glass.

He intends to display the sulphide paperweights in a traveling ―Souvenir Shop‖ – simultaneously an art performance, an installation, and a real shop— for the 2010 Prospect (1) Biennale in New Orleans, where he lives part of the year. This will be the second version of theMobile Mementos, Souvenir Shop that Day and his wife, sculptor Sybille Peretti, organized for the 2008 Biennale. Day, who has explored the souvenir motif for some time, especially in conjunction with work related to playwright Tennessee Williams, aims to eventually establish a Souvenir Museum.

He earned a degree in printmaking from LSU and studied stained glass. Of course, for a native Louisianan (Baton Rouge), Paris is the mother country; but as a student in Paris, Day was disenchanted with the then prevailing art fashion, Minimalism. He was more impressed with artists like Delacroix, Ingres, and David. Loving light and the way colored glass moves light around, he attended the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris where he took up architectural glass, studying with Alain Bernard, the man who fabricated the stained glass windows for Matisse’s Chapel of the Rosary in Vence. In his mature sculpture, Day has not restricted himself to stained glass or, even to glass, but he often returns to glass, especially for cast work.

In spite of his current indubitable enthusiasm, one cannot assume that Day will be working exclusively with sulphides in the future. He has always been mercurial in his interests and sulphides could be abandoned for something else, only to be taken up again. ―I try to do what I want to do without any agenda,‖ he says. ―It never was a question of what you were going to do as a kid. It’s just, ―Give me a piece of paper and I know what to do.‖ After some thought, Day recalls that once he had a boring job flipping burgers but that, otherwise, virtually all his mature life has been spent doing exactly what he wants. Right now that is to happily immerse himself in the studio at WheatonArts and the exploration of sulphides.

i The Artificial Kingdom. University of Minnesota Press, 1998. 78