Monday March 6, 2023 | by Andrew Page

CONVERSATION: Catching up with artist and former Pilchuck artistic director Ben Wright

The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet recently checked in with artist Benjamin Wright, who served as the Pilchuck Glass School's artistic director from 2019 through 2022, to check in about his tenure at the Northwest Coast outpost of glass art, and to find out about his future plans.

Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: It sounds like the Covid-19 pandemic, which hit before the Summer 2020 Pilchuck sessions began, really defined your tenure at Pilchuck in some ways, would you agree?
Ben Wright:  Well, yes, but not entirely. I came on in the Spring of 2019, arriving right before the Summer program, which was entirely designed and organized by my predecessor as artistic director, Tina Aufiero. In addition to helping to run that session, I was working to put together the program for Summer 2020, which unfortunately ended up pretty much getting canceled entirely due to the lockdowns. At first it looked feasible that there would be a full summer program in 2021, but in the end, we had to pivot to an intensive residency program for that summer. I am very proud of the programs we put together for 2022, which we ran during the summer of the various Omicron variants rising and falling. It was an intense experience in terms of our staff and students all dealing with people in isolation. It was challenging but also hugely rewarding, having worked on three different programs over three years, and finally getting to see all the magic happen for everybody who works there.  Having that put off year after year and finally seeing it run, it was phenomenal to see it actually happening at last in the Summer of 2022 and I can’t wait to see my last season of programs unfold this coming summer.

Glass: When you think about that summer, and the struggles through Covid, are there any things in particular that jump out at you as particular high points or things you are most proud of?
Wright: It’s something like when you go to an amazing wedding and you are left with a hazy happy memory, but it all happened so fast you don’t remember specific snapshots. There are so many things, but that being said, I would say that the work we did to make the programs more accessible and inclusive  was among the top accomplishments of my tenure there in my opinion.

I remember during our Better Together residency, just walking into the Pilchuck hotshop and seeing it full of Black artists. The 9 artists we had there during the course of that event were sadly, likely the highest number of Black artists we’d ever had on campus at one time, at least actively involved in a Pilchuck program, and I was happy that we could make that platform for exchange possible. Pilchuck has made a five-year commitment to the Better Together residency, and there has been some significant support to ensure that will happen.

I also loved working with the Hilltop Artists program, and, in fact, I might be proudest of the fellowship that we developed to create a new work-study program at Pilchuck that supports people coming out of all the youth programs – including Hilltop, YaYa, and also international students who qualify. These asynchronous fellowships offer a session of employment at Pilchuck followed by a second session purely as a student, with about a month on campus. 

We’ve had 30 fellows over two years so far, and it is stipulated as something designed to make the Pilchuck experience possible for people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate. I remember one session at Pilchuck where four of the studio coordinators were all Hilltop alumni, and seeing them move into leadership roles, maturing as people as well as artists, was definitely a highlight of the job for me.

But there are so many things. We started a new family session designed for artists with children, and just seeing everybody gathering for the first time for a session in the same place – seeing the kids there, families who haven’t been at Pilchuck for so long being reengaged as there’s a place for their children, was another high point. There is such a different air to the slideshows when you hear a kid saying “My Daddy or my Mommy made that!”

In many ways we’ve made Pilchuck open to a lot more people, a much more diverse population, and one of the things that’s been really gratifying to me is the calls I’ve gotten from almost every school asking how we did it. One of the key elements to our success was having a designated person on campus who is there to look out for folks who might not be having a good time for whatever reason. This “inclusion coordinator” position involved some mild therapy at times, but were primarily there for low-level conflict resolution. I got calls from board members of other programs asking how that worked, how well it worked. One of the many great things about Pilchuck is that it has always been an experiment, and never custom-designed as a permanent school. As a result, you can do new things, test things, and you learn from all the Beta testing. I wanted to add that one of the things I love about the glass community is how open-source it is, and information is really shared in a very open-source way, which I did with what we learned in our process.

Glass: Can you speak at all about the Pilchuck DEI committee, as I picked up at one point in 2020 there was frustration on the part of its members about some of the hiring decisions that were made, where a BIPOC candidate was not the winning choice for a senior position?
Wright: I would say the DEI committee was somewhat underutilized in terms of their expertise, at least when I was there. I started as the liaison to the committee and I felt we had started the beginnings of a wide ranging but  fruitful conversation but it was shifted to another director and I don’t think it ever met after that. But I think the issue around the hiring you’re talking about, is that representation of diversity on your staff and in campus leadership positions is a crucial element of folks feeling comfortable and should be a critical consideration for every organization on every hire, but that doesn’t’ necessarily mean you’re going to hire a person of color for every opening.

That said, I believe many organizations, including Pilchuck take too-passive-a-stance on recruitment. I don’t think that these days you can just post a job and not spend money or energy on recruitment. It should be a way more active thing. In my last hire there, when we hired Raya Friday as the outreach and education supervisor, she was clearly the perfect candidate for the outreach activities, an area where Pilchuck was looking to grow but she was not initially interested in the job. I had to go out and recruit her for the job and then we had to wait until she was done with her graduate program but seeing her excel in the position makes those small inconveniences so worth it and it she will be a tremendous catalyst for Pilchuck’s future.

When I look back to our programs, they are the most diverse programs Pilchuck has every put on the table, any way you slice that pie, and I would say that representation in teaching and leadership positions is critically important to create an environment where there is diversity among all the people who own the space.

Ben Wright, The New Jurassic, 2022. photo: steve gilbert

Glass: Can you say anything about your reasons for leaving Pilchuck when you did?
Wright: The timing of my departure, right after the auction, was not exactly the way I had planned it. I gave what I thought was months of notice and had offered to work remotely until they had someone new in place, but the leadership at Pilchuck decided to take another direction, transitions are always difficult, especially when you’re getting ready for the next big session but I cannot imagine anyone better for the task then Jen Elek, who has bravely stepped in as the interim Artistic Director.

I loved the job and wish I could have stayed for many more years but It was really an impossible situation as the conditions under which I had taken the job changed leaving me with no avenues to balance work and family life and it was clear it was time to make a change. But overall, I would characterize my experience there as fantastic, and Pilchuck will always be a school for which I have a deep love and affinity. I am grateful to have had an amazing opportunity for a couple of years, but you get a certain point in your career where you want to make as much of an impact as you can. You can only spend so much energy navigating a toxic situation, and it takes away time not just for yourself, but for other people, it takes energy away from other pursuits and relationships.

I will add that we were able to get a lot done, and I’m very proud of what we were able to get done in terms of removing barriers to participation, and these are things that wouldn’t have gotten done without support from the organization, especially a lot of support from the board of directors and campus staff. We fought tooth and nail for every single inch that we gained, which is not unusual in an organization that has limited resources.

Ben Wright, Nurse Log, 2022. photo: jennifer hand

Glass: So, what are your future plans?
Wright: You know, I’ve navigated directly from job to job through my career, and this time I’ve made the conscious decision to not try to find the next thing, immediately. I’m helping support our household while my partner [Jennifer Hand] finishes up her graduate education in Critical Craft Studies, and, after doing the long-distance thing for four or five years, am looking forward to being in the same place and building a home. Also, I put on a show in Seattle [Method Gallery] right before I left, so even through my time at Pilchuck, I was able to keep up a pretty good practice. So, I’m glad to be focused on my artwork, and am looking to do a job that is a mix of doing some of the things that I’ve enjoyed doing. I’ve been approached about doing some educational consulting work, mixed with my curatorial and art practice, I plan to push along all of these things as opportunities present themselves.

I sold a piece to the Sea-Tac airport right before I left, and it offers me a little bit of financial flexibility in terms of not having to rush into things. I did interview for a really interesting executive director position recently, so we’ll see. You get to a certain stage in your career where you evaluate where you can have the most impact in your community, which is where I am now, in terms of considering administrative or teaching jobs.

I also think about how there’s a finite amount of time, and if I’m not doing one thing I’m doing another, or more often, if I’m doing two things, then I’m not doing a third thing well. I have a lot of stuff to catch up on at the studio, a sketchbook of starts, recently I’ve done some quilt-making. I also haven’t had enough time to spend with my parents.

Ben Wright, #Naughty By Nature", 2022. Installation at Method Gallery, Seattle. photo: granite calimpong

Glass: Tell me more about the quilt-making, that sounds like something different.
Wright: Actually, the quilt-making has a lot of similarities to how these things are generated in my studio practice, and I’m excited to see where that starts to merge in terms of pattern and image – how that emerges into three dimensions. I’m also excited to get down the basics of the sewing machine. There’s something nice about being a beginner again at a craft and have the same challenges. I’ve tried a little bit of everything in glass, from neon to flameworking to casting, and it’s nice to have a totally different medium with a whole set of techniques and role models. It’s inspiring to see all the amazing models to look at, and I can’t think of a more disparate
community of artists.

Glass: Any future exhibitions on the schedule, or is that still being figured out?
Wright: I just was accepted into the Ireland Glass Biennial, so I am currently figuring out how to navigate the transport of large fragile work abroad. The way I usually work, I just start generally generating a show, and with remarkable dependability, the opportunity to show usually just presents itself. That said, I apply to a lot of stuff, so it’s not just like the show appears, but when I lock it in, I’m just starting to think about what that looks like. I had a show in Poland in 2019 about being an invasive species, which was really one of the most rewarding art experiences I’ve had, and between the theme and everything else, the curators in Poland want to travel the show. That was on pause when I came back and Pilchuck got busy, but I think Prague might be the next step of that project, in addition to other possibilities here and in Europe.

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.