Tufts artists illuminate the beauty of glass with techniques both new and old, while speaking to issues of our time
Glass is an alluring medium for artists, able to refract light and convey both strength and fragility, but it’s also challenging to master. The following seven artists, all connected to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts, use skill and vision to shape this demanding material to dramatic effects. Their works pay tribute to ancient traditions—such as mosaics and the lost wax technique—and break new ground.
In honor of the International Year of Glass, Tufts Now asked these established and emerging artists about their work, the appeal of working with glass, and their ongoing search for meaning and beauty.
Going Beyond the Expected
Tanya Crane, professor of the practice at the SMFA, merges metalsmithing with enameling in her innovative works, and one part of her overall practice. Enameling is a process by which powdered glass is fused to the metal substrate (usually copper) at high heat.
Crane, who studied at the State University of New York at New Paltz under noted metalsmith Myra Mimlitsch-Gray, is a biracial artist who takes inspiration from her “experiences of duality: black and white, prejudice and privilege, suburbs and inner city.”
She was named a 2018 Emerging Artist by the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG) and her 2019 solo show, Tributaries: Polarity, Exposing the Tensity, at the Metal Museum in Memphis, further established her as an artist advancing new directions in metalsmithing. Her work was recently acquired for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston collection and the Stewart Foundation for Modern Design in Montreal.
“When I took my first metals class, maybe 22 years ago, it combined metalsmithing with enamel. I was instantly attracted to the color that I could provide with enamel; I could literally paint the surface of the metal and I wanted to explore how it could enhance the visual aspects of the piece that I'm creating. I was hooked.
“For most of my work in enameling, I’m borrowing from traditions in Western African graphic visuals by using a process call sgraffito. I sift liquid enamel for a base of white. I fire that in a kiln, and then paint over it with black. Then with a rubber-tipped pen, I scratch away that black paint to reveal the white enamel beneath, creating lines and patterns out of that contrast.
“I'm trying to move away from the expected outcome of enamel. My research is about identity. Currently It's about my family and the Great Migration. I'm telling their stories through a series of interviews, directly translating their spoken word onto my pieces—I can literally scratch through the surface of my pieces. It’s as if I have transcribed their interview. I'm also using that as a medium for symbols and symbolism. But technically, I'm using enamel in ways that aren't expected. It’s a way to make their stories permanent. They are literally baked in.
“As a contemporary artist who is influenced by the studio jewelry movement, I’m crossing the boundaries that have been set for craft and for art, making something that can’t be categorized. I’m also looking closely at the impact of my work on the environment, as traditional mining practices are very destructive.
“In some of my pieces, I also invoke a comparison with the natural world. I'm not trying to duplicate nature. I'm just being in conversation with it.”
In Peace March, a Voice Against War
Minoo Emami’s empathy for those who have endured the devastation of war has established her as an accomplished anti-war and anti-violence artist, one who translates outrage and grief into works that seek to transcend the indelible pain of loss. Her project The Peace March, started in 2013, is a series of sculptures that integrate blown glass limbs, both legs, and arms, with used prostheses. Her work also incorporates calligraphy, Persian tiles, tapestry, and textiles.
Born and raised in Iran, Emami, A19 (SMFA/BFA), witnessed the Iranian Revolution as a teenager; soon afterward the war with Iraq started. Originally a self-taught painter and sculptor, she creates art connected by a shared theme: to highlight women's stories and how ordinary people’s lives are devastated by the consequences of violence and war.
Her work has been exhibited worldwide, published widely, and has been collected privately and within the permanent collection of the Newport Art Museum, Newport, Rhode Island, USA, and at Lettre International in Berlin, Germany among others. She continues to build a practice as a multidisciplinary artist working across—in addition to glass—painting, drawing, photography, video, performance, and sculpture.
“My work with glass began at the SMFA when I started looking to talk with Iraqi women in Cambridge, a survival of the 1980s Iran-Iraq War. I wanted to translate trauma into art that would empower women and raise a collective voice against war and violence.
“My first inspiration was a pair of prostheses feet that belonged to a woman who used them for more than 20 years in Iran. It touched my heart; she had painted the nails with nail polish. I was thinking about her desire as a woman to be beautiful without having her own legs. So, I thought I have to make something beautiful and unique too—a beautiful work of art that would make women like her feel proud to have endured.
“It was a challenging idea because I've never worked with glass. But then it had so much resonance. By its nature, glass is firm, it's hard, and then we melt it, and then we make it hard again, and at every stage, it's very vulnerable. In case of damage, we can melt it again and remake it. That process of renewal, remaking, and rebirthing felt right. It’s like our journey through life. With every political and social violence and exchange, we break, we shatter, and then we must rebuild our lives, and heal from trauma. We must find each other, unify, and grow together.
“I was lucky that on a trip to Iran, I found a blowing glass artisan. He was a practicing Muslim, liked my concept, and let me into his male-dominant glass shop. However, he challenged me: ‘If you make the mold, I will help you learn how to blow the glass.
’Within weeks of experimentation in my home studio, I made perfect traditional sand molds for the glass pieces. First, I cast my own two legs because those two feet I had were my size. Then made a two-part sand mold (in wood boxes with hinges) for each leg and transport them to his shop. During the process of making the casted glasses, I assisted him. At first, I was not comfortable as the only woman in the space and burned my face and hair! But eventually, I was successful.
Another quality that I love about glass is its fragility. Down to the last second that you are casting, painting on, or even moving the piece, you must be careful and thoughtful. To me, that speaks to a profound concept: how we experience being humans in relationship to each other and the world.
“As an artist, I believe in the power of storytelling to help us transcend the pain and tragedy of war. I connected these sculptures with stories of Iranian and Iraqi true resilience and share them, beyond language and culture, with whoever cared about humanity and peace. I believe art, a performance, or a painting, can connect our hearts, and share perspectives, a chance to heal or feel, or a part of a larger humanity.”
Lisa Houck. Photo: J&S Photography
Enlivening Public Spaces with Lively Mosaics
Over the past 20 years, Lisa Houck, AG89 (MFA), has been bringing fresh and vibrant designs to the ancient art form of mosaics, especially as she expresses her view of nature through color and pattern. Her glass of choice is Mexican smalti tile, whose subtle color variations—evocative of watercolor paints—maintain a rough or natural quality. One of her first mosaics, a landscape for a Boston park and playground, includes free-flowing trees, waves, flowers, and “zany birds of all stripes, patterns, and colors and every avian species, known and unknown.”
Houck works these days out of her studio in Maine and takes special delight in collaborations that result in large mosaics in public spaces. As she says, “Success for me is if a piece earns its place and becomes an integral part of the community, as a meeting place or point of reference.”
Her artwork has been exhibited widely, and is in numerous public and private collections, including The Boston Athenaeum, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston Children's Hospital, Fidelity Investments, four libraries in Broward County, Florida, the Boston offices of the international law firm Hale and Dorr, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Lisa Houck’s mosaic journey began in Boston’s South End, when she was selected to create an outdoor work of art for Boston's Frieda Garcia Park. Her spirited and colorful glass tile mosaic, "A Friendly Flock Touches Down," incorporates birds drawn by local schoolchildren. Other public mosaic works include "Lighthouse at High Tide," in the collection of Boston Children's Hospital. Photos: Clements Photography & Design
“My mosaic journey began when I was selected by John Hancock to make a piece for an outdoor space in Boston’s South End, . They wanted to bring original children’s art into the park, and I realized that I was going to need to work with a material that was durable; it was going to have to live outdoors in New England, and so I proposed two colorful mosaic landscapes. Local children made prints, drawings, and collages of birds that I then placed in a piece called "A Friendly Flock Touches Down."
"I had never made a large mosaic before, but I had help; in New York helped me fabricate my design, and in the process of watching them and working with them, I discovered I really loved mosaics. It was just a perfect beginning: They respected my design and helped me to learn a new way of making art.
“I have always loved a lot of strong color and patterns, and mosaics check all those boxes. I like to put a lot of dots and dashes in my paintings, and once I realized that mosaic is basically a bunch of dots and dashes, it was a perfect way to interpret my paintings. It felt very natural to me.
“When I teach mosaics, I tell my students to try to vary the shapes and sizes of their tiles to make sure the movements of the tiles accentuate the elements in their designs. If you're trying to create an ocean, you want the tiles to kind of undulate. There are also different ways to fill in the backgrounds.
“I'm often chosen for hospital jobs. I think it’s a good fit because, if you're going to the same waiting room multiple times, you can see something different every time, and it’s going to help you take your mind off what's going on. I've had people write me letters after visits to hospitals and repeatedly walking by my artwork, and say, ‘It meant so much to me to see your work.’ I think the color and the playfulness is meaningful, especially in a place where it’s good to have a little humor and a little joy.”
Sculptures Reflecting the Essence of Kaleidoscopic Lives
Talifarro Jones, a 1998 graduate of the Tufts/SMFA combined degree program, pushes the boundaries of glass. Her fluid, vivid sculptures are cast in the ancient process known as lost-wax, typically used for casting metals; the name of the process refers to how the wax cast is destroyed to create the piece.
Jones describes her work with glass as an exploration of “the lyrical dance of light, space, and color” and a means to reflect on deeper metaphysical implications of her art—including our physical connection to water. “We're really all made of the same stuff,” she says.
After many years working in Toronto, Jones today maintains her practice in Hawaii and also works as an art consultant to nonprofits. One of her pieces is in the permanent art collection of Rideau Hall, the official residence in Ottawa of the governor general of Canada.
“If I had to pick one word to describe glass it would be luminosity. I want the light to spin around within my work. That ability to be alluring is what helps me overcome the difficulty of working with glass, and with the lost wax process, because it’s so tricky and time consuming.
“The lost-wax process is typically used for metals—silver, gold, and bronze—but I wanted to see what I could do with it with glass. I thought I’d create the intricacy and delicacy that I am looking for with that technique. It’s very complicated, but basically it starts with a sketch. I then create a mold of wax, and surround that with plaster that is then fired in a kiln. The wax is melted out and forms a cavity where the molten glass flows in. After the glass is allowed to cool, the plaster is dissolved and scraped away, revealing the piece that I then polish by hand.
“I have always been interested in the light within the glass and the light within ourselves, the light that's reverberating out. We ourselves are these kaleidoscope beings who are always walking through the world. I have been playing with that concept in multiple ways.
“I'm constantly asking: How do we communicate kindly? Or how do we find calm in ourselves or in this world? How do we shine in a positive way? I think that's what art can do.”
Juyon Lee’s work "Tilted Box 1," a multi-channel video, integrates a tilted box holding a glass orb, illuminated from behind by a projector., with imagery and the repeated ticks of a metronome, to explore ideas of perception, space, and time. Photo courtesy of Juyon Lee
Glass that Redefines Function
Juyon Lee, AG22 (MFA), this year is a postgraduate teaching fellow for the senior thesis program at SMFA. Her works aim to coax the viewer to ask metaphysical questions about perception: How do we know what we think we know? To this inquiry, glass – in the form of an orb – allows her to creatively explore the nature of perception in new and unexpected ways.
The South Korea-born artist, who has exhibited across the United States, has taken her fascination for glass well beyond the SMFA. She furthered her understanding of glass this past summer with a fellowship at Pilchuck School of Glass in Washington state followed by a residency at KulttuuriKauppila Art Centre in northern Finland.
“A lot of my work has to do with light and light projections. With glass, I was interested in making lens—not the normal lenses—but something that creates some sort of distortions in the way you see things. I did some simple glass blowing at Diablo Glass School. Then I started using the ones that made, and they became like characters in my video piece. I wasn’t looking to make that perfect object or perfect sphere.
Juyon Lee, AG22 (MFA) Photo: Alonso Nichols
“I wanted to create something that recorded the creative process through its imperfections and the traces left behind by the maker. Glassblowing is the perfect way to do that because glass records itself in the process of making it; when it cools down it gets fossilized at that temperature. That’s why I love glassblowing: it’s so process oriented.
“What I thought about as I developed my thesis was how I could transcend the everyday functional expectation of objects, or what is prescribed. I was interested in abstracting (seemingly) concrete things and how abstraction gives room for the unknown and new meanings to arise. I was interested in taking objects that have this history of being functional, but then distorting that idea.
“The orbs in my work, “There is Mystery in Everything,” have reflective, refractive, and transparent qualities that make it ideal to show innate interconnection to other things around them. Also, the round shape—not spherical or perfect, but more ellipsoidal—allowed it to have a circular motion, a cyclic quality. I placed this cyclic motion against a linear sound from the metronome so that the orbs make clinking sounds when running into each other, indicating a kind of an event happening when two things encounter each other.
“Making work that is constantly in flux where meaning-making occurs is what intrigues me. And the acceptance of the unknown, that there is always the unknown even in the concrete things, is what I'm grappling with through my work and life.”
Jewelry in the Context of the Body
For Anna Neiblum, A23 (BA/BFA Combined Degree Program), the gateway to glass was through loom beading and making wire jewelry.
Tufts student Anna Neiblum. Photo: Alonso Nichols
Now in the fourth year of a five-year combined degree—she is majoring in anthropology for her Bachelor of Arts as well as earning a bachelor of fine arts—she is exploring enameling in the metalsmithing studio led by Tanya Crane. This past summer she interned in the Egyptian department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she researched silver wire jewelry from the ancient Egyptian empire, and this semester she is interning in the Egyptian department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“The first time I ever worked with enamel was in Tanya's class my freshman year, and it was definitely out of my comfort zone. Glass is unpredictable and, in a way, it’s uncontrollable. Most enamels are in powder form and they have a mind of their own. You have to be very precise about where you put it and sometimes, you’ll be surprised by the reaction it has with the metal. It has been challenging for me to kind of relinquish that control, but it was also fun to experiment with color and metal, which I'd never done before.“
In a class with Tanya Crane that focused on building skills with enamel, Anna Neiblum made a series of enamel pins inspired by Egyptian iconography. Photo courtesy of Anna Neiblum
"Jewelry has always spoken to me. I think part of it is because of its context is the body and it interacts with the body in a way that I think a lot of other art spheres don't. The Egyptians were among the best jewelry metalsmiths in human history. Sometimes I'll look at a museum artifact and have no idea how they made it! I've definitely been inspired by their techniques and their styles.
“I felt that to create a unique piece of jewelry it had to be meaningful to me and, if I could, I wanted it to express social commentary. That is why when Tanya asked us to create a project, I made a brooch that integrates the ankh hieroglyph, a symbol of life, with the symbol of femininity. This way, while I’m learning a technique, I am creating a decorative piece that is also a call for bodily autonomy.
“Learning to enamel has added endless possibilities to my repertoire of metalsmithing knowledge. I feel like I’m now able to bring so many more ideas out of my head and into the studio, because I have the flexibility and versatility of glass to help me do so.”
With "Transparency," Rebecca Wakim reimagined shattered glass that remained after the Beirut port blast. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Wakim
Extracting Meaning from Shards of Glass
On August 4, 2020, a powerful blast shattered the city of Beirut when two tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the Port of Beirut exploded, killing around 218 people, injuring thousands, and leaving an estimated 300,000 people homeless. Rebecca Wakim, AG22 (MFA), a native of Lebanon, returned to Beirut during the pandemic lockdown, and was struck by the quantity of glass that remained as evidence; piles of shattered glass littered the streets of Lebanon’s capital city. With encouragement from a friend, she gathered up glass pieces and create her first work in glass, "Transparency," one that helped her process her grief and outrage and expand on her belief in art as a means toward building a stronger, more just future.
Before attending graduate school at Tufts, Wakim received her bachelor’s degree in studio arts from the American University of Beirut; she’s now based in California. In one of her earlier projects, Everyday’s Fortune, she created and glazed porcelain coffee cups, then hand-painted what she calls “hopeless fortunes” on them, in a twist on the traditional optimistic reading of one’s fortune in coffee grounds.
The piece was selected for inclusion in UCLA’s New Wight Biennial 2022: Between the Self and its True Home, which explored ideas of exile, diaspora, and migration.
“I returned to Beirut during the pandemic, and I was really having a difficult time as an artist. I had already taken and developed photographs of the aftermath of the blast but I just didn’t know what to do with them. I was in a dry spell. But as my friend and I were walking around the city, shattered glass remained everywhere, and my friend said: 'Why don't you gather this glass?’ So we got some gloves and collected bags of glass.
Rebecca Wakim, AG22 (MFA)
“I had never worked with glass at all. But I started to do what every visual artist would do. I tried to extract meaning: What is this material? What is it serving? What has it served? What is its purpose?
“As I started to think again about those meanings, I was struck by how transparent that glass looked, but how much of our country’s leadership is not transparent. I wanted to bring together words and their meanings—manipulation, control, transparency—as I brought the pieces back together in a new way.
“I started to play with that meaning of glass by starting to create the map of Lebanon. I decided to call the piece ‘Transparency’ because glass is so transparent, but there's a huge lack of transparency in my country.
“Glass is so fragile, in some ways like my country. But my country is also very strong, and glass is strong.
“Working on this project was in some ways a kind of closure to me as an artist and a Lebanese citizen. Making a work like that gave me the peace of mind that I was able to commemorate my country.”