Saturday May 2, 2020 | by Farah Rose Smith

INTERVIEW: Nancy Callan on her recent virtual artist talk and exhibit, as well as the challenges of making glass art during a pandemic

Nancy Callan’s artistic voice as a glass sculptor reflects her high-level training and talents. Callan attended the Massachusetts College of Art (BFA 1996) and lives in Seattle, where she is part of the vibrant Northwest glass community. On April 18th, 2020, she conducted a Virtual Tour of her Seattle studio. She showed attendees how she creates complex glass patterns. She also highlighted several of her popular series: "Droplets", "Panels", and "Palomas".

Callan gave a sneak peak of her newest works, which include new applications of gold leaf. The tour concluded with a talk with the artist, allowing questions from viewers. The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet spoke with Callan about the event and her current works. 

Glass: How did you conceive of the Virtual Studio Tour event? Do you feel it was a success and do you anticipate doing other virtual events?
Nancy Callan: When the reality of the Coronavirus pandemic hit us all, we began to think of ways to adapt to the situation.  We all knew that we had to start thinking outside the box and come up with creative ways to keep working and keep the precious vitality of creating art alive.  When Sandra Aisley (of Sandra Ainsley Gallery in Toronto) called me and proposed this idea, I happily agreed to share my studio and works-in-progress.  It was a lot of work to clean our space and choreograph how I wanted present myself and my work.  Sandra and Daniel Ainsley did a great job in hosting the event and had over 100 people join the Zoom event. I feel it was a great success--I never could have fit that many folks in my modest studio at one time!  We got wonderful feedback from people; they really seemed to enjoy the whole thing.  

It is so hard to predict what is going to happen in the coming months.  I think virtual tours and openings will be an important element in keeping folks involved and interested in what artists are making and thinking about in these times.  I see more virtual events in the future regardless of the “stay at home” situation.  These events can reach more people than an actual event and it is easier on the environment.  Of course seeing art in person and having actual interactions with our audience is so valuable.  We just need to find a balance in our lives and be aware of our impact on the environment and the world.

Glass: How has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the Seattle glass community?
Callan: Washington was one of the hardest states hit when the virus first affected the United States.  We started to shutting things down sooner that a lot of other states.   It seems like so long ago that we closed down the hotshops in Washington.   I remember speaking with friends in other states who were still blowing glass and thinking that their states were taking a big risk.  It has been frustrating to see how the lack of national leadership has affected this crisis and even contributed to the spread. 

As for the Seattle glass community, I think we are all trying our best to be patient and understanding that we need to abide by with restrictions and we need to all do our part to social distance and not spread Covid-19.  There have been so many zoom chats and facetime with friends!  We are all trying to stay connected to one another in different ways.  I’m doing virtual workouts with a few close friends, that has been really fun.  I never thought I would lead a workout class!!  Maybe it is my new calling.  We have shared many birthdays on Zoom chat.  We are all trying to keep spirits up and support one another as best as we can.  I love our community and I know that we will survive this and become stronger.

Glass: How has the pandemic and quarantine impacted your work, specifically? 
Callan: For me, when we first began to self isolate, it felt like I was starting a residency.  It felt like I was going to have so much time to do my work without interruption.   But alas that is not the case.  I have been so busy with all the virtual projects, moving forward on shows that I have on the calendar and keeping up with family and friends.  The uncertainty of all of it is kind of exhausting.  I have a show scheduled with the Heller Gallery in June that I have been preparing for almost a year, and I am very excited to share the work. What is June going to look like in NYC?  We don’t know, but I am working with the gallery to find a good solution that protects the health of our friends and collectors.  I also have a collaborative show lined up in October at the Bainbridge Island Art Museum in Washington.  Katherine Gray and I have been developing this show for about 3 years and we are so excited to see it come together.  We are hopeful that an audience will be able to experience it in a variety of ways, in person and from afar! 

The virus has impacted my practice in many ways; I actually feel optimistic about the positive impacts this has had on my work and the environment.  At the same time I am saddened by all the loss and suffering that has affected so many people.  We owe a huge debt to health care workers, grocery workers, and people on the front lines of this crisis. 

I am starting to look at my work in a new light and really see its value.  I have so much gratitude for my team and the skill it takes to create the work.  I miss my friends and blowing glass.  I miss the community. I feel like what I do is so precious and it takes so many resources to make art in glass….I really do have a new appreciation for what comes out of my studio.

Glass: Has it impacted your communications with other artists, gallery owners, and collectors?
Callan: We are all impacted by the situation and need connection.  I have been talking and texting a lot more with everyone--galleries, collectors, family and friends.   I continue to collaborate with other artists and keep the energy going with my galleries.  Everyone is struggling right now, we just need to breathe and take it one day at a time and know that we are all in this boat together.  We need to have empathy with dealing with each other.  Some people are being hit harder than others, we don’t know fully know how they are suffering, so it is important to be gentle and kind.

Glass: Are you using the time for any specific technique explorations or experimentation?
Callan: I have been using my time to experiment with some new techniques, for example, I have been wanting to do some gold leafing on some panels that I made with the Granulari technique.  This is a technique where you make murrine that combines stiff and soft color.  It creates a nubby surface with peaks and valleys that is quite intriguing to me. I wanted to use gold leaf and fire it onto the surface of the panel.  I was inspired by the work of Yves Klein, I have a new fascination with his work these days.  The “stay at home” quarantine was the perfect time for working on this technique because it is very slow.  It has been a labor of love, and boy, I have had some highs and lows with the process.  It is never easy when you are trying something new.  Glass is a fickle material and you never know when something will break, but you always have to take it was a grain of salt.  We all know how difficult glass can be to work with, but we love it anyway!

I have also taken up sewing.  I bought a sewing machine right before we were shut down here in Seattle.  Best purchase of 2020!!  I love to sew, it is so forgiving, unlike that other material.  I am enjoying the freedom it offers and I am sewing some clothing.  I think it will inform other things in my work, but right now I’m just getting to know the material and machine.  

Glass: Do you have any words of encouragement for glass artists at this time?
Callan: Stay creative, figure out other materials that you can use safely at this time.  Think about other ways you can use glass; consider the environment and our impact on it.  Think about what you want to do and say with your work.  Take time and consider new possibilities. Don’t take chances with your health. We may never get another time like this, or maybe we will, but for me it is time to slow down and think about what is important. 

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.