Several years back I happened to catch a little of a documentary on PBS about a glass artist named Dale Chihuly. An amazing showman as well as an innovative creator, Chihuly was taking huge glass spheres he designed in a studio in Venice and surreptitiously dropping them into the canals, where they became an impromptu floating art display.
When I later spied a DVD set about Chihuly at our library, I brought it home to watch with the kids. My younger son, who was probably 8 at the time, became fascinated watching the craftspeople and artists lifting enormous globules of molten glass out of ovens on long metal tubes and blowing them into Chihuly’s trademark flowing bowls, tentacled chandeliers and over-the-top cavorting cherubs. When Anthony declared that he wanted to try making glass sculpture, I could only chuckle at the thought of my kid, who can’t walk through the kitchen without banging into a corner of the counter, manipulating a heavy lump of glass glowing at something like 2500 degrees Fahrenheit.
But our interest in glass art remained. Through the years, we took any opportunity to see a Chihuly piece. (One afternoon trapped by a raging lightning storm in a small gallery filled with glass artworks costing tens of thousands of dollars will live forever in my memory of barely-avoided parenting disasters.) But such opportunities to see the Pacific Northwest-based Chihuly here in our corner of the Northeast are rare.
So I was very excited when the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York treated my family to a tour of their facility, complete with a chance to make our own glass. Despite what you might think, there are plenty of things that even families with young kids can see and do. (Admission is free for anyone 19 years old or younger; for adults, it’s a reasonable $14). In fact, the Corning Museum turned out to have so much to offer that we had to go back two days in a row to catch everything we were interested in — and still we didn’t see it all.
The exhibit “Voices of Contemporary Glass,” on view through January 2011, introduced us to a whole range of modern artists who, like Chihuly, use the medium of glass in humorous and striking ways that traditional craftsmen never dreamed of. My history-buff husband enjoyed the collections of ancient glass stretching back to Roman times and before. The whole geeky family appreciated the displays of naturally-occurring glass created by lightning and meteor strikes, and enjoyed learning about the technical uses of glass in the Innovation Center, which focuses on lenses and mirrors, car windows, and fiber optics. (Sadly we didn’t get a chance to see the glass-breaking and other neat-looking live demonstrations there.) And we all oohed and aahed as we watched glassblowers put together an intricate vase in the Hot-Glass show. (Interestingly, the museum attracts so many tour buses with visitors from the People’s Republic of China that shows are regularly offered in Mandarin.)
But without a doubt the highlight of the trip was the “Make Your Own Glass” experience. There’s something for kids and adults of any age. Everyone can create frosted designs or lend their lung-power to blown ornaments or sculptures. Ages 4 and up can assemble fused glass pictures or hangings. Ten-year-olds can try flameworking their own beads. And teens aged 14 and older can don full protective gear and shape hot glass into flowers. Three of us made sculptures, while GeekTeen John was brave enough to create a flower. The museum glassmakers were friendly and informative — as was everyone we encountered at the museum. Best of all, I didn’t have to hold my breath while my family explored all the wondrous and delicate objects on display. (Well, I admit I cringed a little when the GeekDad strode through the gift shop swinging his oversized camera bag over one shoulder…)
Altogether, our trip to the Corning Museum of Glass was one of the most unexpectedly delightful museum experiences we’ve ever had. I’m amazed it took us so long to arrange a visit — and I’m hoping we get another chance to go soon.