Nancy Callan, one of the most accomplished American glassblowers taking the Venetian tradition in bold new expressive directions, is amused by the urban legend that's sprung up about how she got started in glass. It goes something like this: Lino Tagliapietra walked into a pizza shop and, so amazed by Callan's expert handling of the long-handled pizza paddle as she whisked pizzas in and out of the oven, immediately offered her a job working the pastorelli in his own studio. Nancy’s actual road to her decades as a core member of Team Lino, and her burgeoning solo artistic career, is just as fascinating (read about it in the "Lessons from Lino" feature in our Winter 2021 print magazine, Glass #165). The true story of how she got the coveted position on the maestro's team involves a degree from MassArt and proving herself in a class with Lino at Corning. But she really did work for a time at a pizza restaurant, which she says helped her master timing and high-temperature working conditions, both of which jump started her glass education.
Graduating from MassArt in her early thirties, Nancy quickly made a name for herself as part of Lino’s elite team, where she spent years mastering exotic Venetian techniques, especially cane work, from the master, himself. Callan has fused tradition with innovation in her own unique approach to glass vessels which offer a dazzling array of approaches -- from shapes that reference bee stingers or spinning tops to elaborate patterning that pushes the technical boundaries. Some of Callan's latest explorations are currently on view at San Francisco's Montague Gallery, where her three- and two-dimensional explorations document keen observations of the natural world.
The exhibition "Phenomena" at the Montague Gallery in San Francisco is Callan's first solo exhibition open to in-person visits since Covid-19 forced artists and galleries to put a pause on most activities. The Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet was able to speak to Nancy about her upcoming exhibition and working as an artist during the pandemic through an email interview.
Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: What does it mean for you to be exhibiting at the Montague Gallery?
Nancy Callan: It is exciting to have a show in San Francisco, I haven’t been to the city in a number of years and it is great to visit and see what the art scene is like here. Montague has a gorgeous showroom with great visibility from the street. During the pandemic we really missed out on seeing art in person…I make sculpture and there is really nothing like seeing something physically, being able to walk around it and experience how light interacts with the work. Even the wall panels have an interactive quality that is never really conveyed in a photograph.
Glass: What has the preparation process been like for your first show in San Francisco?
Callan: “Phenomena” was curated from a studio full of work, which is a luxury I don’t often have. The pandemic was a time of experimentation for me, a time to develop some new forms and techniques for patterns and to make some one-off pieces. All of this is reflected in the show. For example, the tall “Spires” are an elongated teardrop shape that I am debuting at Montague. I am also showing some new wall panels. These are like drawings in glass, and I love making them, I feel like I have the freedom to experiment with all different techniques and really explore drawing in a three dimensional way. For this show I introduced color with a large diptych called “Energy Map”, and reprised a black-and-white panel grouping called “Schema”. Both wall pieces explore different kinds of line, notions of repetition and variation and how lines can convey energy.
I definitely wanted to include some “Droplets”, a series that has been a big focus for me over the last several years. These have a hand-sanded surface that seems to collect the light inside the piece, illuminating the layers of color and pattern. Every piece in the show is unique, but they are connected by a preference for subtle colors, the use of line and pattern and references to natural forms.
Glass: What was it like working on and curating your show during the pandemic?
Callan: Like most artists, I haven't had the opportunity to show my work in many venues since Covid. A lot of the Art Fairs were cancelled and that was a big loss for artists and galleries. I did a lot of virtual tours and Zoom studio events, but my last exhibition was in 2020. It feels like the right time to do something in-person. The Montague Gallery has a beautiful entry space and I knew that the changing light from the big windows would be perfect for my work, so I planned the exhibition around that feature. Montague Gallery also has wonderful wall space which could host the large-scale installation of "Schema".
Glass: Would you describe yourself as wholly Venetian-inspired? What other glass influences do you draw from?
Callan: I would describe myself as a technically-driven artist in a lot of ways. I’m not purely a Venetian-inspired artist, although techniques like cane, murrine and incalmo continue to inform my work. Throughout my career, I've been fortunate to learn different techniques and meet artists from all around the globe. For example, I learned about the hand-sanded surface from Australian artists whose work I really admire, like Mel Douglas and Clare Belfrage. I’m also inspired by cast glass, the layering and depth that artists like Libensky and Brychtova achieve is so interesting. Light is so important in their work and in a different way, it has become central to mine. Outside of the glass world, I find inspiration in all sorts of artists, designers and imagery. The ways that Agnes Martin and Sol LeWitt worked with strategies of repetition is something I think about a lot. I also love the drawings and sculpture of Louise Bourgeois; “Mesmer’s Tear” and “Labyrinth” in this show reference her spider-web works.
Glass: From "String Theory" to "Droplets" to "Quilt" and now "Phenomena", how has your glassworking style evolved?
Callan: I like to keep moving forward. I’ve always been interested in layering effects in glass and this aspect has become even more important to my current work. This makes the production of the work really complex and of course there is a lot of risk of failure, but that is where I seem to thrive as an artist. The material of glass has magical qualities--there are things that I don’t even understand, the way certain colors react etc, and I love that element of mystery. I want the viewer to be drawn in to take a closer look, and maybe lose themselves for a moment. I think as time goes by and I continue to search and explore, the work will always evolve to reflect that experimentation.
Glass: Can you speak to “elemental processes” and “animating forces of all life” in your exhibition?
Callan: A sense of movement and change is something I strive for in my work. Right now, I'm not interested in perfect patterns so much as variation, complexity and irregularity... these qualities reflect the beauty I see in the world. I like that contrast of a complex pattern contained in a really clean, elegant form. We know that all living things grow, change, mature, decay and eventually die; this gives rise to the next cycle of life. Moments in this cycle—flowers turning to fruit, leaves unfurling and eventually dropping to the ground, the change of the seasons and weather – remind us that we also grow and age, we are part of nature, not apart from it. In glass, we can capture a moment in time and enjoy all that it contains. This is a fragile and wonderful thing about glass. I think you can say the same thing about many art forms to an extent, but for me glass physically embodies this in a really visceral way.
Glass: Where do the names of your pieces come from?
Callan: It’s fun coming up with the titles. My partner (painter Julia Ricketts) and I usually collaborate on naming the pieces. Each series has a theme – it might be color-oriented, or capture the mood of the piece, like “Firefly Droplet”—the title reflects the glowing orange and citron colors and the soft, fluttering quality of the cane drawing. I prefer the titles that are evocative but not too specific, to leave room for the viewer’s imagination to kick in. For example, “Energy Map” has two glass panels, rose-colored and deep indigo blue, with contrasting white line drawings that seem to record specific movements. Are these sound waves, the path of birds or insects, paths traced in space or seen under a microscope? The title “Energy Map” allows for different interpretations.
Glass: Do you have a favorite piece that is featured at the Montague?
Callan: It’s hard to pick a favorite, of course! We chose “Aurora” as one of the lead images for the show because it captures so many of the elements I am working with – the subtle layers of cane drawing, the blending of colors to create subtle shifts and the changing qualities of light. I love the way the cane fragments seem to just float inside this piece; it's very dimensional and dreamy. Although there are elements here that I will continue to explore and adapt, I know I’ll never make a sculpture exactly like this again. That’s the magic of glassblowing.
IF YOU GO:
"Nancy Callan: Phenomena"
445A Sutter Street