I didn’t realize it was tempered safety glass as I swung my hammer at the window on the side of the front door. I was helping my uncle demolish the dilapidated house where he grew up in northern Minnesota. And instead of the knife-like shards I was expecting, a cascade of tiny cubes of clear glass came raining down. Sugar glass. As I looked down at the pile of glittering, broken fragments, all I could think of was how captivating it was, like a pile of cubic zirconium at my feet. I knew then that I had found a material of consequence.
Later, when I lived in Chicago, I was faced with a challenge to come up with a new type of mixed-media collage. Not satisfied with the usual array of magazine cut-outs or found-object constructs that are normally associated with such imagery, I began to think about techniques from my past experience as a home builder. Suddenly the pile of broken safety glass at my uncle’s came to mind. I was living in the lower income neighborhood of East Garfield Park. Broken glass speckles the ghetto. I began to sweep it up from the curbs where car accidents or vandalism had occurred. Eventually I began to gather glass from auto window repair shops, where the material was more easily acquired. Glass was the perfect metaphor for the fragile, tenuous society in which many of us live.
So how was I going to transform this material? I washed the buckets of glass I had collected and sorted it by color; light green and dark green auto glass here, clear glass from buildings there. But how could I transpose it into something that would distance it from its tragic past? I had been collecting foil chocolate wrappers for years. Now was the time to use them. Foil chocolate wrappers in blue, gold, red, and silver would provide my color and contrast the jagged terrain of glass.
I drew from my home construction background again and headed to the hardware store. Knowing these pieces would be heavy; I built cradled wooden panels for the support, and bought cases of caulks and adhesives. I experimented with the materials until I found the right combination of translucency, strength, working time, and durability. As I worked on developing encrusting techniques, I also began manipulating the shards and fragments to create undulating waves of translucence and color to simultaneously seduce and challenge the viewer.
Glass and chocolate. It is deceptively simple. I have seen people squeal with delight when looking at my work. Some dance slowly with the textures and changing reflection of light. Still others say, “I want to touch it,” and yet they can’t bring themselves to do so. Even though I file any sharp edges, the glass is still intimidating. Broken glass can make you bleed.
Here in Memphis, I have expanded my sources of glass to include demolished churches and broken-out storefronts as well as the dustbins of hardware stores and frame shops. By breaking down a material that is imbued with the energy of its past into pieces close to its elemental basis, I create a malleable medium perfectly suited for lyrical abstraction. And by fusing it with chocolate wrappers, I add an element of whimsy and form it into something aesthetically surprising: objects of deceptive preciousness that tease light with a reflected, intimate space and belie their tragic origins. In this process of transformation I stretch the paradigm of painting and offer a visual, metaphorical commentary on the relative emphasis we place on value, culture, and materialism.