Monday August 3, 2020 | by UrbanGlass Staff

Interview: Grace Whiteside talks gender queerness, consumerism and change in the glass community

By Julia Alteen

Grace Whiteside, a glassblower from Georgia, goes in depth about their work in relation to their identity and how the recent political climate has impacted them. A graduate of the Virginia Commonwealth University with a BFA in Craft/Material Studies and Sculpture, Grace hosted their own series of performances at UrbanGlass, titled Stacy’s Store. The series, including a performance centering around The Home Shaver, explores absurd consumerist values and capitalist themes all the while defying the gender binary. They state, “Kind of how I think about my work in general is, ‘How can I have this conversation with everyone?’ I know I can have this conversation with my close friends and peers, and people that think like me, but for me the most important thing is to have this conversation with people that may not already think about this or confront this in their daily lives.” I sat down with Grace during quarantine to talk about their personal experience and work moving forth from Covid-19. 

On your website, I noticed a lot of your work is glass but a lot of it is also performance. Most of the time, they go hand in hand. You like to pull audience members and engage them in the performance, what is a memorable encounter you have had with an audience member? 

My most recent show happened at the UrbanGlass gallery. I did this performance there where I basically turned this space into its own pseudo-department store. I did three departmental product reveals as a performance. The very last one I did, I made these glass razor blades that were meant to shave the walls of your home or kind of avoid any pre-prescribed gender norm of this domestic item. One of the best parts of that performance is that we had audience participation. We had a moment where we invited audience members to come and try out the product, kind of how they do on QVC. We had two people come up and part of that performance was that you would have to make the sound of the vacuum for the vacuum because it fails in its mechanics. I had an audience member come up and he got really into making the sounds of the vacuum. He’s a friend of mine so I can say this, but he was also a straight white man, which was kind of comical for my genderqueer storyline that was going on. That was a great moment. That performance in general was really exciting because the audience ranged from much older crowds, more traditional crowds, to young gender non-conforming people. There was a wide range of audience members and everyone was engaged and ready to partake so that was really exciting to see. Part of that performance was that we could all laugh at the absurdity of these gender norms that don’t even matter. 

I noticed that your work has a really common theme of lightly jabbing consumerist and capitalist values. I definitely saw that your products, such as the razor, are very mocking in a playful way. You even made a piece about shopper hysteria. What experiences have you had that make you want to poke fun at these themes? 

It all comes from very personal moments in time and personal history, and my own gender development. We kind of grow up with a little bit more freedom to explore gender and whatever. I remember being very happy as a kid, rolling around in dirt, driving go carts… It just wasn’t a problem. As we get a little older we start to be more traditional. Gender stereotypes become pushed on us- at least that’s how it was when I was growing up. I prescribed to that for a long time and then when I started to come into my own and figure out how comfortable I feel existing in the world, it became really hard to shop for stuff. I didn’t know what kind of clothes I wanted to wear. I would have personal experiences in the department store, I’d find myself in the men's section and then I would go try something on and I would be kicked out of the men's dressing room. It just became so frustrating because you want to feel comfortable exploring these different ways of existing and different genders, but then these capitalist structures, especially department stores, are so gendered. There’s a women’s section and a men’s section. Everything down to fucking Q-Tips. So it just became so frustrating and it just inherently made its way into the work because these were things I was trying to sort out through these personal experiences. Then I became obsessed with the QVC platform, and how that was kind of the top of the pyramid as far as inflicting these stereotypes through absurd products. 

You work a lot with other people, most of the time in your performances there will be other actors there. As I browsed your website, this name “Stacy Wallman” came up a lot. Is she one of your collaborators? 

Oh my god, I love the idea of her as a collaborator. Stacy Wallman is an alter ego name that I developed when I was in school. I hit this point in my work when I was an undergrad where I started getting into performance but I kind of didn’t really know how to perform as myself. My mother’s an interior designer and my dad has his own reality TV show, and he was developing his own reality TV character. And then my mom had these housewife clients... there was just a lot of stuff going on within my own family, and experiences that I kind of derive from my dad’s personality and these absurd clients who have my mom wrapped around their fingers. That’s where she came from. Then, she just was this vice for me to perform under because I could just create this character and write her story. But then, I kind of had to drop her at some point because where she came from is not where my work is going. I turned her into the store downstairs, the show I had was called Stacy’s Store but Stacy never made an actual presence in any of the performances. At the very end, we destroyed the store front. I don’t know if I made this very public but that was me kind of killing her off. I was moving on 

There is so much going on. The Black Lives Matter movement, Covid… It’s such a politically charged time. How have these events impacted you and your work? 

My practice has taken a shift. I’ve been in New York this entire time. I’ve been here since the beginning of the shutdown to the middle of the pandemic to when the protests started. It had been a very tumultuous and eye opening couple of months. It has totally shifted the way that i’m thinking about work and the one thing that has totally stood out through this time is a sense of community and collective action. Working together to keep each other alive, and make change and get shit done. I think I’ve felt these things in my day to day life and have made a lot of personal changes. It is affecting my work. Before, I was making statements about things. Now, I feel like my work is about actively engaging in what’s going on. It’s not going to look like how it used to. 

What do you dislike about the glass community, and what do you like? Is there anything that can be improved? 

Glass as a community at large, and what’s being shown in the glass community, is a bit far behind in terms of diversity and content. For a while, a lot of spaces have just been showing the same kind of work. Which is just a beautiful glass object on a pedestal, and not to shit on anyone that’s making that kind of work, but if we’re all going to talk about actively engaging in things that matter like what we’re all going through right now, then the work that is being shown in the glass community should reflect that as well. It’s behind as far as how many straight white men are still dominating the field. We need more people of color. It should be about, “How can we make our learning spaces more accessible to people?” Glass is an expensive medium to get into. I don’t have a position administratively to facilitate that change, but I also see my position as ‘I can be in a conversation about it’. I don’t have the button to click, but the community at Urban is so wonderful and everyone is very open to hearing these conversations and I’ve seen changes start to happen in the glass community. The things I love about the Glass community is that it’s very close knit. There are a lot of great, amazing people. Collectively, we all want to see this change happen which feels good. 

Glassblowing is an ancient technique, it has been around for thousands of years. How do you think the practice has changed over time and how do you make it your own? 

I can only speak in terms of my own relationship to it. And maybe that’s one of the things that has changed, there's more room for people to have their own intimate relationship with the medium which can land wherever it wants. Whether it be fine art, or interior design, or performance… I think glass as a material lends itself to so many different possibilities. Glass is extremely performative in its own right. The way that we have to make anything, out of hot glass especially, is that glass has its own bodily chemistry in the way that it moves. It’s neither solid or liquid. It’s this amorphous material and I identify with it that way, glass is super gay! It’s like a nonbinary material, so of course I’m obsessed with it because I see my own identity in the way it works. 

What do you like about your work, and what do you dislike about it? 

I like that my work is engaging with a lot of people. I showed my entire family, who are very conservative, my show. They were all laughing, everyone I’ve been able to show those performances to, they could relate to it and find the humor in it. Even if I was making fun of things that they prescribed to. That’s my favorite part. What I’ve disliked in the past… This is kind of something I had to shed, and I had a realization about this over quarantine. I feel like I put a lot of pressure to put my work in a category, where I made decisions within the work that were not all for myself. It was for somebody else in the sense of trying to make it look like it would fit in that kind of gallery, or this kind of gallery. I’m so over that, I think it’s utter bullshit. We all started to be artists because that’s what we needed to be. I think I lost track of that in some moments, and I can see it in the work where it’s less genuine. 

What would be your dream artwork or performance to create, if you had unlimited resources and time to put it together?

I have this obsession with the trick goblet. It’s these goblets and dinnerware that were made in the victorian era, based on a joke. This was at the time where parlor games were happening, so people would throw tomatoes at each other to entertain. People would drink from the goblet, then it would spill on their shirt and everyone would think it’s hilarious. They would go to the glassblowers and ask them to create these goblets that basically have interior chambers so it would look like a regular drinking glass, but it would all spill out as you drink. I became obsessed with this idea, and I would love to go find a remote place where we could host a giant dinner party and make all these trick dinnerware. We could try to figure out how the table itself could also be a trick. You sit down, maybe that pressurizes your glass to fill up. But when you go to drink your glass, it goes away. I think having that on a larger scale and inviting all kinds of people to come, so it can be this engaging community moment. Also entertaining, and fun! 

Professionally, what is your ultimate goal? In twenty years, where do you see yourself? Who would you want to be compared to in the glass community, and which galleries would you want to show your work in?

I’m currently trying to buy a farm with two of my best friends. I have this dream to create a space where a bunch of people with different skill sets come together. A space where we can bring people who wouldn’t normally have access to farmland, or farm animals, or a glass studio and be able to create accessible learning environments in one place. You could learn to harvest crops, then make a bowl to put your crop in! Something that is community engaging. As far as my practice goes, I’m definitely not trying to tickle the pickle of any gallerist at the moment. I’m not opposed to it, I just feel like it’s more important to keep fostering community. Maybe even work in the city with places like UrbanGlass! I have other friends who want to buy land as well, it seems like there are pockets of people in rural areas who are interested. Which is exciting, because a lot of the time rural America is conservative, homphobic land. If we can change that by helping people learn about glass and creating, then let’s do it!