1985, 1990, 2002 Fellow
Among the top tier of glass blowers working today, Tom Farbanish exploits a broad range of hot glass techniques. His recent work synthesizes a polarity of expressive forms, contrasts which could interpreted as bridging and even challenging habitual cultural norms distinguishing functional vessel traditions from “high art” sculptural traditions.
In 1985, Farbanish was among the Creative Glass Center of America’s earliest resident fellows. His fall, 2002 residency was his third at the CGCA. His familiarity with the facility allowed him to maximize his time. “I think of this as a nine to five, five days a week opportunity to make as many things as I can. I came here to hunker down and make specific things.” He brought along an assistant, Ben Ostrom, to help him complete the work to his satisfaction. Farbanish knew in
advance that the Wheaton Village hot shop has a larger glory hole than that in his own studio. He was partly drawn to CGCA because of the potential to work bigger.
Farbanish appears to be relaxed and even casual as he sketches shapes in chalk on the floor, briefly consults with Ostrom and settles in to work, pacing himself comfortably like an experienced mountain climber. However his apparent nonchalance is deceptive; this artist did not arrive “in the upper echelon of being able to get a shape accomplished.” by luck. He is a severe self-critic. “I don’t want to waste any time or money,” he says. “I only analyze the deficiencies. I just want to eliminate the weakest point.”
Farbanish has broad experience in making his own work, helping other artists, such as Kiki Smith, to realize their ideas, and in teaching. For the last couple of years he has been involved in projects for others and has not shown his own art.
“The idea of understanding how things work” is intrinsic. “I am a maker of things; that’s what I am,” he says but he rejects classification as “craftsman as yeoman.” Such distinctions are not just words. Like so many artists working today, Farbanish juggles competing commitments. Becoming a father caused him to become more concerned with economic security. “Years ago I never questioned what I was doing. In first grade I was the one who did the bulletin board. I always knew I’d be in art.”
Nevertheless, he knows that “Most successful artists are phenomenal businessmen. Successful artists are driven, focused, determined. A very successful artist is extremely selfish,” but how “selfish” can a parent permit himself to be? At CGCA Farbanish was given the opportunity to be “selfish,” to concentrate for six full weeks on his own gallery-oriented work.
Almost as a warm-up, he completed a number of frankly traditional functional vessels. They were generous, symmetrical and classical in form with curling handles. Compact bases in one contrasting color, usually black, and lip wraps in a third emphasized vibrant body colors like lime green and royal blue. However, these were peripheral to Farbanish’s more ambitious production which draws upon the vessel tradition as subject, expanding and improvising on the vessel forms.
The bodies of the vase-like shapes are composed of stacked geometric parts: spheres, cylinders and cones. In contrast to the symmetry of the central sections, exuberant, fantastical handles are fluid like drapery. They are made by solid-working hot glass on a metal punty rod: twisting, pulling and forming a shape which will pair with another freely-formed handle, compatible but not identical in form.
The assembled pieces literally enlarge on the vessel idea by becoming objects beyond function in scale. By exceeding practical human scale–that is the size at which an object can be easily shifted from one display point to another, lifted by the handles or used as practical containers — they command a certain kind of attention. Likewise, they expressively contradict their formal description by acting like sculpture with fluid, spatially expansive Baroque handles and a patterned, gestural painted surface. Handles combined with painting can utterly contradict the symmetry of the central form, suggesting a secondary layer of meaning superimposed on a marginally compatible proposition.
The vaguely liturgical shapes and subsequent painted decorations of these sculptures make myriad references to vessel traditions from Greek to Islamic. Farbanish’s parents were Russian Orthodox and early experiences of church art, which carries significant meaning through decorative embellishments, may have played a part in forming his aesthetic. “Most successful work (in crafts) is utterly digestible or is based on beauty,” he proposes. “It’s not the intent of my work to be solely beautiful but I intend the object to be with people.”
There are many sources for this observant artist, but the link between Farbanish’s work and textile art is notable. In his own studio, using glue and metal screws, Farbanish will assemble the components he made at CGCA. Then he becomes a painter looking at glass as a surface to be composed with color. His expressive painting is somewhat reminiscent of artists of the Pattern and Decoration movement like Robert Kushner.
In some ways, Farbanish resembles a master Baroque artist like Bernini. He orchestrates a broad panoply of form and materials to achieve a finished work which transcends them all. Nevertheless, though he’s been known to use metal as a sculptural component, he identifies primarily with glass. “I like the idea that I’m involved in a material that has an enormous history. I think of the vessel as a painter thinks of a 2-d format. I use the vessel as the same kind of starting point.”