Shayna Leib, whose artwork ranges from undulating undersea plant life to glistening, hyper-realistic French pastries, has appeared in 75 exhibitions since graduating from University of Wisconsin, Madison, with an MFA in glass in 2003. Her "Pâtisserie" series is currently on view in a group exhibition titled "Céramiques Gourmandes" at the Bernardaud Fondation in Limoges, France. While her impeccable desserts realized in glass and ceramic are the product of her intense precision and technical mastery, Leib's sea-inspired work is more spontaneous and flowing, inspired by her love of diving and attraction to the aquatic world. Her "Deep Aquarium" series was acquired for the permanent collection of The Deep aquarium in Hull, England.
Leib works with a long list of materials that include ceramic, stone, metal, photography, and fabric, though glass remains her professional preference for its "ability to express flow and movement," as the artist explained in an extensive interview with the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet. Below, we are pleased to present a conversation with Lieb about her present and past works, processes, practices, and motivations.
Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: Was there a pivotal moment when you decided to become a glass artist?
Shayna Leib: In my hometown of San Luis Obispo, California, the local university, Cal Poly, would put on a college fair every year when I was a kid. My parents took me to it, and, since I liked art, they wandered over to the glassblowing studio there. People were crowded in very close and I was little so I couldn’t see much but I could hear the roar of the fire, the tools, and the sounds of people working. My dad lifted me up so I could watch, and I think something clicked in me in that moment. If my life were a movie, the music would enter at that exact moment and it would be a slow-motion pan to my face which would suddenly light up. Hook, line, and sinker. I remembered that experience all throughout my childhood and teenage years. In fact, it was probably the most compelling reason I chose to attend Cal Poly when I wasn’t sure about anything else. I couldn’t decide on a major to save my life, but I was on the wait list my first semester of college for that glassblowing class.
Glass: Do you have a favourite piece of art from a medium outside of glass that inspires you?
Leib: I love Takahiro Kondo’s “Mist” series. He creates beautiful monolithic forms that are glazed with a silver dewdrop effect, as if the object is coated with a million individual dew drops. I think the thing I love about his work is the subtlety of his form, and the intelligence of his design. That’s just not something I do often, or well as an artist. My work is laborious, and hand-heavy, but he just effortlessly manages to bring me to the brink of some nostalgic emotion with simplicity and grace. I admire that with friendly jealousy and tremendous respect.
Glass: Can you talk a little bit about how you see music as metaphor for your creations?
Leib: Music is a huge part of my life, and I started classical piano very young. I’ll never be professional-level, and I play just for me, but I fell deeply in love with Rachmaninoff’s piano works and have played him more than any other composer. His work is texturally rich and complex, with layers upon layer of melody and sub-melody. When you study a particular person’s work, whether it’s a composer, artist, or anyone who creates, you understand a bit more about the potentials of their medium as a whole. There are layers of understanding you go through, and often, the deeper you go, the more you’re rewarded as a musician.
A musical composition has the same parts as a composition of art in terms of the part-to-whole relationships. The same can be said of writing, but I feel the connection is strongest between music and art. There is the overall composition that you take in when experiencing a creation: large sweeping areas, subtle supportive areas, a strand of melody (a sculptural mark), a strand of counter-melody (a detail or flourish of paint), and all of this gets fits together to form the composition. When I’m working a glass-cane canvas, I treat it similarly, with huge swaths of dramatic motion, a build-up in an area, contrasting and opposing directions, and smaller, defiant areas of motion that break from the whole. There is a balance of dominating and supportive elements.
I’m convinced if musical was visual matter, it would be made of glass.
Glass: How did you develop your fractal interpretation of beauty?
Leib: I find repetition quite fetching. I think that’s just my style. From an early age, I always loved things that possessed a fractal-quality. Like the plant genus of Alyssum, for example. As a child, I was mesmerized by how it is a flower made up of flowers. I didn’t know what fractals were until high school, but I just gravitated to things that possessed that quality. The detail is so fragile. Even just straight repetition I find comforting and appealing, especially fields of clover, hail-covered ground, and dew patterns on grass.
Glass: How has underwater photography impacted your development of glass work?
Leib: I became a diver about five years into my "Wind & Water"series, and an underwater photographer shortly after that. I expected to research my subject in person versus books, and come away with specific invertebrates I wanted to create. What actually happened was that I had these beautiful and specific memories of dives or dive environments that inspired my work, rather than the desire to create replicas of a particular species. I have a few works that came about because of a memory or an experience, like Laminaria, which I created after diving in the kelp forests of Catalina. It’s an abstracted work, not a direct copy of nature, but when I look at it, I feel the memory. Other works were inspired by finding anemones hiding in a rock formation in Cozumel (Crevice and Grotto), the water itself in Croatia (Stiniva), a beautiful tiny species of wire coral which I enlarged from a pencil to something almost 4 feet tall (Cirrhipathes Anguina), a memory of a bay in Maine (Penobscot) and a frozen field in Maine (Sunrise/Sunset over the Tundra). I do still find inspiration in particular species like entacmea quadricolor which I portrayed in Hexacorallia, or goniopora which shows up in panels in my Biochroma subseries. The pursuit of underwater photography as an art informed the format of the Biochroma subseries. Each of the squares in the grid format are snapshots of life, same as they are seen through my lens.
Glass: Have your studies in Russian literature impacted your art in any way?
Leib: Indirectly. There is a heaviness to life that is reflected in cultures that are non-American. American culture tends to be phobic of the substantive, introspective, or darker sides of being human. We like to watch from a movie seat as anti-heroes unravel, while in our daily lives we emphasize the positive and take pride in the facade. European and Russian cultures ask questions we might find unsavory or not suitable for casual conversations in their art and philosophy. I think that to be any kind of an artist means you become acquainted with a side of the human experience that asks what it means to exist, and that the awareness a being has of itself can be painful. Art, in all its forms touches upon these things whether you hear the art, read it, or see it. I floundered my way through college studying all of the things that you can’t make a living at — art, music, literature and philosophy — and not one of those things has ever been extraneous.
Glass: What do you think or feel when you look back on your earliest glass works?
Leib: Partly embarrassed. I was so lost in the medium itself that I couldn’t really maximize the properties of it. Fifteen years ago, someone once asked me why I use glass and make it look like plastic when I could be using plastic. That really got through. I was using all opaque colors in my work, enjoying the freedom of the forms I could make, without regard for what glass could do if you stopped trying to make it look like something it isn’t. I fell into the trap of just exploring the medium itself, and I was obsessed with color. Most of the obsession over color came from a time in glass when colors were not guaranteed to be compatible with your batch. So like any normal person susceptible to reverse psychology, I gravitated to that which was difficult and forbidden. We used to have to test every color, every single bar, in fact, for compatibility before the companies got on board and made everything 96 or 90 COE compatible. It was a drag, everything cracked, and people coveted their color test results. No one wanted to share back then.
There are only a few things I’ve made as an undergraduate or graduate student that I look back on with any kind of fondness. Mostly I just see reflecting back at me a very lost artist that tried too hard.
Glass: Have you had moments of questioning your career as an artist?
Leib: Funnily enough, no. I suppose I never thought it would take me this far in the first place, but more than that, I haven’t had a lot of stability in my life and it’s not as big of a deal to not have that in a career. I’ve learned to go with the flow, adjust, and adapt. Art is the only area where I don’t question myself. I question everything else in life, to an annoying point, really. But my ability to create and adapt, not so much. Creating things is what I do and I can’t go for long without making something, it just doesn’t work. Some people need to bake. Others need to run. I need to be doing something with my hands. We’ve all got something.
Glass: What is your favourite thing about being a glass artist and why?
Leib: The challenge. Those who know me tease me about this all the time. I don’t gravitate to easy things, or even simple things, and I really wish I wasn’t this way. Life would be that much easier. Glass is immensely challenging. It has so many aspects to it. I work in other materials such as metal and ceramics, and even with how deeply I respect those materials, it just doesn’t compare to the challenges of glass. There is glassblowing, solid sculpting, lampworking, casting, etching, fusing, neon, and scientific glassworking. It runs the gamut of knowledge-based art applications and practice-based applications, and each could take a lifetime to master. Then there is the hazardous aspect to it and the endurance. Ceramics is soothing and comfortable, and metal is methodical and precise. With glass, I’ve been electrocuted 16 times, burned hundreds of times, lit on fire twice, felt the impact of a fireball as the glory hole pilot light finally kicked on, singed my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, banged every inch of my body, and almost passed out twice. It’s been a wild ride and my body bears the scars, but it is also rewarding, exhilarating, and keeps me out of my head. In a way, it’s the most mindful of all of the arts because it’s a bit dangerous and bad things happen when you lose focus for too long. It’s the same as driving fast, it’s exhilarating and calming all at the same time, because you shut down the exhausting analytical brain. If I don’t drive fast, I think too much. Or fall asleep.
Glass: Can you please describe your work space?
Leib: My work space is fairly organized for an artist since I tend to get irritable in messiness and chaos. I have a hotshop, with simple equipment: a moly furnace, one glory hole, pipe warmer, kilns, marver, bench, and quite a bit of torchworking supplies. I have a section for coldworking equipment which is all smaller versions of their larger counterparts due to space limitations in my studio. I’ve got quite a few 10-foot high cabinets which house all my cane which has been organized according to color and thickness, as well as a supply area and a large storage rack for hotshop materials like frax, molds, extra bricks, etc. There is a “clean room” that is off the main room where I do most of my assembling. Lanterns decorate both the main area, and the clean room as well as a few posters and shelves with some of my blown work. I’m blessed with a lot of windows so wall space is minimal. I have two kayaks in the studio as well, one on the ceiling, one on the wall.
I usually assemble on tables in the clean, adjacent room, or I clear out the hotshop once all equipment is down, and set up tables as I need for whatever project I’m working on. I have I beams to hang chandeliers off of during construction, since it’s an industrial-type space. My studio is only about 600 square feet so I’m always rearranging it depending on the project I’m involved in.
Glass: Are you afraid or critical of certain subjects or styles?
Leib: Not really. I can appreciate anything but a copycat.
Glass: Do you think you see the world differently than non-glassmakers?
Leib: Absolutely. I see all water as glass, all ice as glass, all candy and confections as glass, nature as subject matter for glass, and anything having to do with the ocean as a project in glass.
Glass: Is the end result more important than the process? Or the process?
Leib: I fall into the category of a non-glamorous glassworker. My processes are laborious, often repetitive and not very interesting to watch. I see glassblowers doing roll-ups and flashy demonstrations which wow the crowd, and that’s just not me. I go into art with a vision for what I want to create, and the process is almost always not in any way glamorous. It’s just the way it turns out, unfortunately. But what drives me is the idea of this thing I want to create, and how neat the end result will be. I hold onto that through the hours of (usually gratuitous) labor. I had a college professor once ask me that if I had to choose between a glamorous process and a glamorous final product, what would it be. I wanted the glamorous process but my answer was: a beautiful end result, regardless of what it took to get there, even if it isn’t YouTube-worthy.
Glass: Can you describe the process of conceiving of and creating your "Patisserie" series? You describe the series as a “therapeutic exercise in deconstruction.” Can you expand upon that?
Leib: The patisserie series came about as I was watching the Great British Baking show during the winter of 2016. I’ve never been much of a baker (or a cook, for that matter) and I never gravitated towards cooking shows because they are such a tease, but there was something soothing about that show. Before this time, just for fun in the studio, I was making glass chocolates at the end of my workday. I fell deeply in love with the glass chocolates of another artist and wanted to trade so bad, but they wouldn’t give me the time of day which broke my heart, so I decided to make my own. It was important to me to not replicate their designs, so over the course of a year I had to really study chocolates to find something they hadn’t made. There was this shift that happened when I made those chocolates, and it was a noteworthy shift for me. At that time in my life, and still to this day, I was suffering from a lot of reactions to food that went beyond gluten or dairy sensitivity. I am only able to eat about 10-12 foods without a major reaction, and the foods that cause the most severe reactions are chocolate, nuts, coffee, wine, cheese, most fruits and veggies, and anything fermented. I began to regard chocolate with my brain and not my stomach. My friends used to ask if making the glass chocolates was painful, since I couldn’t eat it, and I would always reply, no, because my maker-brain kicked in whenever I saw chocolate in order to figure out how to make it in glass. My mind simply switched to a different mode.
So, fast-forward to the winter I began watching the GBBS. I was deep into the season when the Entremet episode came on, and the desserts in that episode were exquisite little works of art. I had never seen dessert that unusual, expressive, or elegant. I was looking at them from a purely formal perspective, and decided to try a few experiments in the studio. When I made the first few glass entremets I noticed the same shift happen and the deconstruction tendency take over, and it made life a little easier anytime I saw dessert I couldn’t have. The series took off from there, growing and morphing. I started depicting French patisserie, because to me it was the most exotic and mysterious. I followed hundreds of pastry chefs on Instagram and did quite a bit of research to get those desserts just right. For me, teasing my audience was important, and playing with their desire was only possible through photo-realistic art. Equally important was the feeling of longing- a feeling I share with them- and the sweetbitter of that feeling as experienced by people who have food issues.
For a while, I had been considering adding a culture to the series, and thought it would be fun to do American desserts with how tacky and garish they are. The personal aspect of creating my favorites from childhood appealed as well, or maybe it was just that I was looking for an excuse to make glass gummy bears, I don’t know. But I got an email from Helene Huret from the Fondation Bernardaud in Limoges, France asking me to join a ceramic food exhibition she was curating. I ran the idea by her, of comparing French and American cultures through their desserts, and she loved it. It had taken me 2 years to finish around 90 French desserts and I had only 8 months to create 40 for the American counterpart for the show. We decided on a balanced exhibit of 40 vs. 40 on opposing walls, and I began the American dessert series. It became interactive in a way, with both installations depicting the same items: cookies, candies, hot chocolate, cake, “cup desserts”/verrine, and the classics of both cultures. I went a bit deep down the rabbit hole, even changing the color of glass for the chocolate elements in both cultures, since American chocolate is dull and fake-looking compared to French chocolate. The cherries in the American series are bright dyed-maraschino red, and the French cherries are natural and dark. There are little hidden details and nuggets sprinkled throughout the series that only those paying close attention will pick up on. The chocolate Easter bunnies have a bite taken out of an ear and a butt, with my teeth marks (because who doesn’t bite the ear or the butt off first). I had to wipe down my teeth to get all the clay off. Same with the ice cream sandwiches.
The "Patisserie" series was a project of love that took three years to create. I was in a financially stable place to have taken those years off to follow that project to its conclusion, though it was definitely a risk to produce something I had no intention of commercializing. It allowed me get back to the fun parts of being an artist, and focus on exhibiting a body of work that is very close to me.
Glass: What is the difference between working with porcelain vs working with glass, in terms of your experience and synergy with the materials?
Leib: Good question! Glass and porcelain are both fighters if you push your will on them. Regular stoneware is straightforward compared to porcelain. Porcelain, being thixotropic, has a memory, and that poses an uphill battle not unlike glass. Whenever I’m teaching someone to work with glass, there’s a moment where they get frustrated and try to assert their will over glass. They smoosh-marver, or they flip the blowpipe back and forth wildly on the rails, trying to center the glass, then use the jacks to push their piece on center rather than letting gravity do the work. That moment is always there, and it’s one of those important epiphany moments if you can get the student to internalize what is happening. If you fight the glass, it always resists. Becoming successful with it means learning when to tame your impatience and meet it on its own terms. Porcelain is similar. It’s a seductive material: buttery, silky, beautifully white. But it is stubborn, and bossy, and does whatever it wants. Even when you think you’ve tamed it, you haven’t. It will crack and bow. It will warp from perfectly round to wonky in the bisque and glaze firings. Most porcelain elements, I had to make 3 or more times over in the series because the first one or two just won’t obey me when I’m going for perfection. It’s defiant, and fickle. But most importantly, glass and porcelain both come down to the last moments in their creation. Often, when you’ve got a glass piece on the bench and you’re taking a final reheat, there are 10 things that can go wrong in those final 2 minutes. You can be too hot, too cold, accidentally touch the rail stop, bonk the punty off the yoke, your partner can drop the piece on the way to the kiln, etc. With porcelain, you can have a perfect form, straight, or round, and it makes it through the bisque firing still straight or round, and then it all comes down to the glaze firing. You pull it out of the glaze kiln and it cracked, bowed, warped, or has a speck of kiln ceiling stuck in it. Game over. They are equally unforgiving, often brutal, materials that require patience and fortitude.
Glass: Can you discuss the significance of frozen time in your work?
Leib: Hot glassworking is one huge exercise in freezing time, with the “frozen” just being the natural process of cooling past the softening point. That’s the way I see all glass. The final product is just a snapshot of the split seconds where THAT piece stopped moving. What we see as viewers, is a mastery of the technique of “freezing” where the artist honed their particular type of glass craft from a solid state, to molten in order to form it, and to that frozen moment, where they decided it was done and let it return to a solid. With that perspective, I picture my cane canvases swaying and moving till I yell, “Stop!” — and that’s where my work ends and the viewing begins. It was a natural segue to marry the lifetime obsession I had of repetition and tiny parts, with my love of movement and music to create these frozen moments of time in my work.
Glass: How do you interpret the synchronicity between glass as a material and seas/oceans as a subject?
Leib: Even more than the obvious characteristics of transparency and the ability to portray flow which both glass and water share, I find that the most interesting aspect of the two materials is that they are both capable of multiple states of matter depending on temperature. They are more alike than different, just with shifted temperature ranges. From a frozen block of ice, water turns liquid, then gasses at temps when glass is just starting to get warm. Glass goes through a different range of temps but moves along from solid to near gas when you get it boiling hot in a torch flame. They couldn't be more perfectly analogous.
Glass: Can you discuss the significance of the sea in your work?
Leib: I grew up with a powerful connection to the sea living on the central coast of California. It became a backdrop to my life. Having spent so much time in the sea and in water, naturally my interests were shaped by it. My work focuses on many aspects of the sea, from flow patterns to marine invertebrates, to hydrokinetics. Depending on which aspect I'm working with, my interests shift back and forth between water itself and how transparency of a wave changes as subtle tones of blue are compounded with depth, to the way water creates soothing patterns when it flows over colorful sea life.
Glass: Are there particular techniques that lend themselves well to sea and ocean themes? Have you gone through a process of discovery with your technical approach?
Leib: I find that the techniques which lend themselves best to portraying the sea are lampworking techniques. We don't think of the sea as fragile since it is so vast, but the fragility and preciousness of lamp work fits more than any other type of glass work.
Like most artists, my work evolved from where it started. It began with studies of flow and the patterns that wind and water currents impart on nature. When i became a diver, my interests shifted to species, specifically marine invertebrates, but I still maintained my original connection to flow patterns. The invertebrates then became vehicles to show the influence of water.
I approach technique based on what will best lend itself to what I want to portray. If there's something I need to learn, I learn it. Boredom is my downfall, I don't do well with it. I usually wind up outrunning it by trying to think of new things to do, different directions or techniques to keep me from feeling it.
Glass: Is there anything else you would like to share with us about yourself or your process?
Leib: My process for assembling my sculptures is a bit weird. I assemble my wall pieces from one corner to the other. I have to think like a 3-D printer. There are no revisions or edits possible. I have to hold the composition in my head and do one section at a time. It would be like painting an entire painting from one corner to the other.
Céramiques Gourmandes, curated by Olivier Castaing, remains on view through March 28th, 2020. The exhibition includes works from Chris Antemann, Bachelot & Caron, Anna Barlow, Charlotte Coquen, Christina Erives, Jae Yong Kim, Juujuu Kim, Yuko Kuramatsu, Kaori Kurihara, Shayna Leib, Susan Nemeth, Marie Rancillac, Dong Won Shin, and Jessica Stoller.
IF YOU GO:
Group Exhibition: "Céramiques Gourmandes"
Through March 28, 2020
Fondation Bernardaud | Limoges, France
27, avenue Albert Thomas, 87000 Limoges (France)