Thursday March 28, 2024 | by Andrew Page

REVIEW: An exquisitely crafted film examines Paul Stankard's elevation of the paperweight form, as well as the life and times of the man behind the torch

The film Paul J. Stankard: Flower & Flame quickly sets itself apart from many documentaries about glass artists with its opening scene. With sonorous Baroque chamber music as the soundtrack, a close-up lens tracks across the artist's softly lit studio, passing over a pair of gloves on a workbench, plates arranged with botanical components waiting for encasement in glass, a library of color rods, and an unlit torch. Then the moving camera comes to rest on a set of hands poised to light the burner. With a bright flick of the sparker, the flame comes alive as the film begins, cutting away from the jet of flame to Paul Stankard himself, facing the camera in the first of many intimate interviews about his life and work that are inter-cut with archival images, shots of process, and experts who extol what Stankard almost singlehandedly accomplished -- to bring the botanical paperweight to another level.

Art dealer Doug Heller, who has shown Stankard's work for decades, recounted his first encounter with Stankard's early paperweights and being impressed even though he disliked the genre in general."He transcended the paperweight world," Heller said. "Paul takes it somewhere else completely."

Close camera work, as in this shot of components readied for encasement in clear glass, give filmmaker Dan Collins' documentary a visual richness that enhances its power as an in-depth look at an artist's life and career in glass. film still courtesy: paul stankard: flower and flame

The hour-plus documentary by filmmaker Dan Collins captures the artist approaching his 80th birthday, still making work in his Mantua, New Jersey, studio behind his home, and in a highly reflective mood about his life and work. The interviews with Heller, Corning's Bill Gudenrath, WheatonArts Museum of American Glass former curator Gay LeCleire Taylor, and WheatonArts' executive director Susan Gogan as well as its glass studio director Alexander Rosenberg, establish the film's subject's significance and provide some perspective on his long career.

The film offers fresh appreciation for Stankard's work in the form of these super-close-up fly-overs of the glass encasements arranged on a table, and set to a soundtrack of probing music, such as plucks of a guitar or ambient soundscapes. Quotes from Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, and Walt Whitman appear on screen to provide transitions between chapters of the film, which include especially touching interviews with Stankard's wife, Pat, and longtime assistant David Graeber (who is also listed as executive producer in the film's credits). 

What comes through loud and clear is Stankard's affability, and his eagerness to share with others (and the filmmaker) his enduring wonder at his own success, which he is careful to credit to his wife's unconditional support. In one touching scene around the couple's dining room table, they recount how they met at their shared Catholic church, first impressions, and their long-enduring marriage.

"Her faith in my abilities was so refreshing," he says, his voice trembling with emotion, which he disguises with nervous laughter.

"I was very excited for him," Pat says, then, looking over at her husband of more than 50 years, "It brings tears to your eyes, you're bringing tears to my eyes, too!" 

"Just say thank you, that's the only thing," she adds, and he doesn't hesitate for an instant to say the heartfelt words on camera, understanding what her sacrifices meant for his success.

Paul Stankard, assisted by David Graeber, at the WheatonArts glass studio doing a public demonstration. film still courtesy: paul stankard: flower and flame

The film returns to the studio several times, documenting Stankard working with his eldest son, Joe, and his long-serving assistant Graeber to make an elaborate piece in a skillfully-edited sequence that compresses the days and hours of the process into a few minutes. Stankard is ecstatic as the cube goes into the annealer, but, when it emerges the next day, the disappointment in the results is palpable. By showing this failure, the filmmaker Collins propels the movie beyond an easy feel-good story, and gives more depth and insight. In observing the failure, we see the true nature of Stankard's success -- his work ethic, indefatigable hope for the future, and high standards, all of which come together with the still-unpredictable process he has pioneered with the uncertainty and spontaneity that coauthors all his work.

When, in the second half of the film, the camera returns to the studio to track another work through its process, this time it emerges triumphantly, one of Stankard's best, and the success is sweeter having caught a glimpse of the challenges overcome to achieve it.

Other areas covered in the film are Stankard's support of Salem Community College's glass program, or the Creative Glass Fellowship Program at WheatonArts in Millville, New Jersey. A demo with Stankard and his longtime friend Lucio Bubacco changes up the pacing and adds energy and excitement, opening with the Venetian artist playing an extended drum solo prior to the demo.

There is a poignant moment with Graeber as he rinses the final polish off the finished orb and shares his excitement about presenting the final polished work to Stankard, "I wrap it up in bubble wrap and it's sort of like giving him a present."

But perhaps the most touching of all was the interview looking over Stankard's grandfather's toolbox, which his mother gave him when he went into business for himself. When he confesses he wants to be buried with his grandfather's hammer, and how spiritual a connection he feels with his grandfather's engraving tools, Stankard is overwhelmed by emotion and, for the only moment in the film, tears up and goes silent -- a rare moment the voluble artist is at a loss for words.

"Feeling his tools, I can feel the spirit of the man who cared about his craft and dedicated his professional life to engraving," Stankard explains, betraying a deep modesty for the scope of his own accomplishments. "It brings back memories of my grandfather, but also makes me proud to think that I was a professional craftsperson."

For more on the film, visit the official Website. To read more about Paul Stankard, see the Fall 2023 edition of Glass (#172).

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.