More and more in Washington, when art collectors speak of glass houses, they think of the artist Therman Statom, whose renown is growing.
Statom does not live in a glass house. He makes them. His glass houses and ladders and panels contain painted areas, found objects and free-association scribblings in a style that draws on dreams and memories and is reminiscent of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
But if Statom, who grew up in the District, is not a household name yet, he is at the apex of a career that has broken new ground and changed perceptions about what makes a creative piece a work of art. Along with several other glass artists, Statom, 46, has elevated glass from the netherworld of craft to a place where critics and collectors are beginning to consider it as just another material for fine art rather than the stuff of functional vases and other forms.
On Friday, when the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery unveiled "Glass! Glorious Glass!," its overview of glass art, a work by Statom was prominently displayed.
The piece, Statom's "Arabian Seasons," is not a vase or other glass form. Forget that it's glass, and it could be an abstract painting.
Statom's participation in the Renwick show caps a very good run for the artist. In April the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk featured a huge installation by Statom alongside works by two other glass artists as well as by the genre's reigning master, Dale Chihuly. And in May Statom showed his newest work at the Maurine Littleton Gallery in upper Georgetown. Most of the pieces were snapped up before the show opened, with prices starting at around $4,600 and reaching $18,000.
"Therman is at the top of the ladder," says Littleton, his Washington dealer.
"He comes out of an assemblage tradition that includes Larry Rivers, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg," says Kenneth Trapp, the Renwick Gallery's curator-in-charge. "There are those who know how to make glass. Then Therman comes along and says, 'I'll just cut these panes because I want to make a statement with glass.' So he reconstitutes and rearranges the material. He's a major figure."
The artist, who lives in Los Angeles but visits Washington often to see his dealer as well as his parents and siblings, affects a down-to-earth, hangin'-out image, usually sporting a baseball cap or a black Red Buttons-style hat, plaid shirt and jeans, all of which seem to indicate a casual, fun-loving maverick. But cast aside the hat, the grin and the self-deprecating humor, and he's a very serious guy.
Now that the artist can name his price, he demands that museums that commission him allow him to do on-site workshops with inner-city kids, including hiring them to help paint and assemble the installations.
"All this stuff," he says, speaking about art in general, "is so self-indulgent. Working with the kids gives me greater meaning. The artist has an obligation."
About his work, Statom says the most important thing is process and evolution.
"For me, it's more about the content than the perfection of form," he says. "I'm interested in new ways of seeing the use of the material, in helping to redefine the boundaries of craft because I believe a craft person is an artist."
Statom's approach is resonating with art patrons and museums. Three years ago, the Toledo Museum of Art commissioned him to do a large glass installation alongside a work by the famous pop artist Jim Dine. And now, some African Americans here have also become collectors, which pleases the artist.
"This has meant a whole lot to me because it has to do with acceptance," says Statom.
Acceptance is not what Therman Statom might have expected based on his early life. His father, a physician, moved the family from Florida to the District (near 16th Street and the Maryland line) when he was young. The Statoms were, he says, the first African Americans on the block.
Statom jokes that he bounced in and out of six high schools. "I got more attention when I got into trouble than when I didn't," he says, refusing to elaborate.
He finally graduated from the Canterbury School in Accokeek, which at the time, says his mother, Laurena, was aimed at "seeing problem kids through difficult parts of their lives."
"Therman was a very sweet kid," she says, "but too quick to follow behind others till he found himself."
Early on, though, Statom knew he wanted to be an artist. He attributes that to a bit of serendipity. The realization came when he met Katy Noland, the daughter of painter Kenneth Noland, at Georgetown Day School, one of Statom's many stops as a student.
"Katy introduced museums and galleries to me in a very informal way," says Statom. "I remember rummaging through some of Ken Noland's target paintings under the staircase in his home. So I went home to see if I could do better."
Thus began a career of heavy hooky playing. "Here in D.C.," says Statom, "when you play hooky, you go to the museums." Or you did in those days.
By high school's end, Statom was throwing pots. "His talent was really discovered at Accokeek," says his mother. By the end of his senior year, he had made so many "gorgeous pots," she says, that he was allowed to sell them at graduation. He donated the proceeds to the school and then left for the Rhode Island School of Design. But his career in pots was short-lived. "Ceramics were all brown and ugly then," he says. He switched to glass, which was much more experimental and taught by Chihuly, the master himself. Summers were spent at the Pilchuck Glass School, founded by Chihuly, in Seattle. Glass, at that time, was beginning to enjoy a renaissance led by Chihuly and others. Before then, blown glass--with the molten glass stuck on the end of a blow pipe and blown into functional vessels--was almost universally decorative. As artists have chosen glass as their medium, there has been a flowering of techniques, with blowing, casting and flame-working now the most common.
After a brief stint as a graduate student at the Pratt Institute in New York, Statom leapt into the art world, fashioning huge glass installations in public and counterculture spaces and teaching art at UCLA. Although he had mastered glass blowing, he preferred to work with sheet glass that he glued together with silicone and painted.
In the mid-1980s, a gallery owner in San Francisco saw a large painted glass chair by Statom that had been part of an installation. The dealer wanted pieces like the one she saw, and Statom began to fashion individual objects based on elements from his installations.
And he began to sell. By 1989 he was showing his work in Washington. His pieces were unique: large sheet glass constructions resembling collages as well as glass houses, glass ladders and glass wall panels. All had painted elements as well as found objects and bits of writing. Themes overlapped. Five glass cubes were toppling off the ladders, bobbing and weaving in the glass panels. The writing was indecipherable. The painted back of a faceless, vacuous hatted man turned up in many pieces, a self-portrait, Statom says.
Like many artists, Statom is reluctant to discuss his work. But in a recent interview at his Washington gallery, while wolfing down Thai takeout food and sipping coffee, he offered verbal bits and pieces.
"The ladders and the houses have an eerie content," he explained, "an implicative symbolism. The ladder is about growth and change. The house is a toylike object. It carries a lot of meaning."
In recent years, Statom's wall panels have featured personal renditions (Statom calls them appropriations) of the classics of his childhood: Cezanne mountains, Mary Cassatt mother-and-child scenes, Vermeer stares, all from paintings he saw at the National Gallery as a child.
"That's what I looked at when I played hooky," he said. "The pieces are also about color, form and balance. They're compositions and studies. I'm sorry to beat around the bush," he says as he trails off.
Although Statom feels a sense of mission about helping inner-city kids, depictions of African Americans and political statements have been absent from his work. He says he doesn't feel he has an ethnic history.
"The work can only reflect who you are at the time," says the artist.
Nevertheless, "with the escalation of polarities," he says, "some of the issues need redefining." Now, he says, he wants to take a look at "the processes of resolution and how people stop hating each other." He says a friend who has a farm on the Chesapeake Bay gave him a pre-Civil War slave shack; he says he intends to use it in an installation someday.
Part of getting in touch with his own history is a longing to spend more time in Washington, where his parents still live in the home on Orchid Street NW. A brother and two sisters also live in the area.
"After school, I didn't want to come back here," Statom says. "I thought of it as a conservative city. But in the last few years I've felt something different going on here. Maybe it's an interest in not being only a political city. The interest in my work says something about the consciousness of the city."
And so Statom has turned his parents' back yard into a studio. The artist uses Washington as his home base when he has work on the East Coast, which is often. Just a month after taking down the Norfolk installation, Statom will be in Corning, N.Y., where he was commissioned to do a permanent installation at the headquarters of Corning Inc., which founded the Corning Museum of Glass. The piece will be dedicated tomorrow. Only 10 other glass artists have been honored this way by the company.
What has Statom contributed to the world of art or craft? There's a pause. "I'm promoting experimentation. Hopefully, it ain't over yet."