FROM 1972 until 1977, Tom Patti made glass in every spare moment. And when the pieces were finished, he destroyed them. "There's a danger in objects. Too many are visual pollution."
But in 1977, the money ran out. "My wife was pregnant. I was backed up to the wall," he said. "So I wrapped up a few pieces of glass and walked the streets of New York, stopping in all the galleries and shops I thought might buy my work. Finally, I met Douglas Heller and he liked my work and gave me a show. I wasn't really aware of what was happening."
What was happening? The Museum of Modern Art bought some of the first pieces, the second went to the Metropolitian Museum of Art.
Now a glass by Patti is on the cover of the New Glass book, the catalogue to the much-acclaimed survey of today's glass that's now at the Renwick Gallery (through Aug. 24). He is one of the glass artists/craftsmen who have suddenly emerged to put the United States in the lead of the emergence of international studio glass. He will lecture Thursday night at the Renwick (see Etcetera). And he has a major show, with Dale Chihuly, of his glass at the Fendrick Gallery in Georgetown through Saturday. Patti's glass sculpture sells for $4,500-$10,500.
Patti came to Washington not long ago with his wife and 10-month-old daughter, Scarlett, to arrange his current show at the Fendrick Gallery. He is 36, a small man with black curly hair and a fierce mustache. His wife, Marilyn, is a photographer as well as chief entertainer of Scarlett and Sienna Rose, 5. We talked over a lemonade in a snackbar. When he unwrapped two of his pieces, both valued at several thousand dollars, Scarlett's eyes grew round under her extravagantly frilled bonnet and reached for them. Sienna Rose has been blowing her own glass in the workshop since she was 2 1/2.
Like many of today's artist/craftsmen, Patti prefers to have his work counted as art, not craft. The new group worry that if their work is thought to be functional, they will not be considered seriously as "artists." They forget that even Benvenuto Cellini made salt cellars and Louis Comfort Tiffany lamps. Though most of Patti's glass works are actually containers, he doesn't think of them that way. "If you put a flower in one, it would add another visual element. My work isn't meant to be functional. I blow the air into the glass to make a form, not a container. But I can't control what people do with it."
Patti does admit that his art is work. He can only make about 15 or 20 pieces a year.
He has thought a lot about how to make glass. "Air is the tool that sets the glass into motion. Air works within the package, expands it symmetrically. The air is constant. The glass is set in motion as air moves through the form, developing in sequence.The length of the blowing iron allows me to study the form in space, manipulating it.
"I start with a sketch, to help me understand visually what I want to do. My work is not a sphere or a core but a transformation from one to the other. I work with other materials, too. I've experimented with wetting fabrics and freezing them outside to see what they would do."
Patti keeps his pieces for one or two years. They sit around the dining and living room, and he stares at them a great deal. He's even developed techniques for changing the glass, cutting, grinding, reheating, even adding more glass, in subtle or even dramatic modifications a year later. "Lots of things I do can't be done," he said, with the grin of a boast. "I work below the melting temperature range. And I need little sophisticated equipment, a propane-gas-fired furnace is the primary thing."
Art/craft is dangerous, as Patti found. "I become so caught up in experiments, I forget to take precautions. While I was building a tall two-story studio of salvage materials, I fell and broke my back. I was in the hospital in a cast for five months. But I kept on working."
"Patti's first severe accident during an experiment came when he was 8 and working with centrifugal force -- a string with a sharp-pointed metal weight. The sharp end flew off and hit him in the eye. He had operation after operation, but to little use.
"In some ways, losing my sight in that eye has helped me to see more clearly," said Patti. "All you need to see is one eye, the second is for depth perception."
Ironically, Dale Chihuly, the great glass master who is sharing the show with Patti at the Fendrick, also has only one eye, the result of an automobile accident after he was well on with this career.
Patti and Marilyn Patti both majored in industrial design at the Pratt Institute in New York. "We had second generation Bauhaus teachers," he said. "We studied sculpture and painting, formal art in industrial techniques." Patti has worked seriously as a sculptor since 1963. "But I never used work to support me, I wanted my work to be as pure as it could be. I did all sorts of other work to live on. I designed stores, galleries and taught part time."
The Pattis recently bought a 70-acre farm in Plainfield, Mass. About 20 acres are in meadow, another 50 in woods. He has converted the big three-story barn into studios, with a beautiful view of the apple orchid. The seven-room house was built in the '40s. It has a pink and black bath, '40s wallpaper and furniture, knotty-pine paneling and a fireplace. The cookstove burns either wood or gas. The outside is brick and clapboard.
Currently, he's working on a large steel and glass sculpture, with wire cable buried in the glass. He also has been working with stone and glass. His two big commissions now are for a library and a city hall, and he's submitted sketches for a steel and glass piece for a New York City office building.
"I make glass for me," said Patti. "But I like sharing it. I'm secluded, working in my studio in my farm in Plainfield. But when my glass goes out, it's me going out."