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Archive for Sunday, November 17, 2002

Handle with care

Lawrence glassblower’s ‘Growth’ sculpture takes root in KC

November 17, 2002

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This guy has achieved legendary status in some sets.

Yet here he is :quot; blue jeans, tennis shoes, no shirt, a brown leather belt with the name "Vern" stamped into it :quot; working in a back-alley garage in Lawrence.

The less-than-glamorous surroundings match glassblower Vernon Brejcha's no-frills personality. What you see is what you get.

Inside these walls, though, Brejcha creates works of art that soar beyond the ordinary.

His work is part of more than 40 major museum and public collections, as well as numerous corporate and private collections throughout the world. But in Kansas, where he was born and raised and taught at Kansas University for 25 years, Brejcha has been passed over by museums looking for major glass installations. Most end up with pieces by world-renowned Washington-based glass artist Dale Chihuly.

The Spencer Museum of Art boasts a Chihuly in its center court. The giant glass tornado chandelier in the entrance to Manhattan's Beach Museum is a Chihuly, too.

Now, a Brejcha piece occupies a grand space :quot; a 70-foot glass tower at the brand-new Overland Park Convention Center. Kansas City gallery owner and art consultant Paul Dorrell commissioned the sculpture as the signature piece of the center's permanent collection, which also includes several other Lawrence artists.

"All too often, artists are ignored in their own back yard," Dorrell says. "The Overland Park Arts Commission agreed with me that maybe it's time to put a stop to this. Perhaps the Midwest has grown enough in sophistication where our artists are the sort of rank we can't afford to ignore any longer.

"Vernon Brejcha's influence on the glass movement in the '70s and '80s was profound."

Retired KU glassblowing instructor Vernon Brejcha installs a glass
bulb onto the stalk of his 35-foot hanging glass sculpture in the
Overland Park Convention Center, 6000 College Blvd. The theme of
the glass piece is growth, and it is the signature piece for the
facility, which celebrates its grand opening today.

Retired KU glassblowing instructor Vernon Brejcha installs a glass bulb onto the stalk of his 35-foot hanging glass sculpture in the Overland Park Convention Center, 6000 College Blvd. The theme of the glass piece is growth, and it is the signature piece for the facility, which celebrates its grand opening today.

In the studio

On this particular day, Brejcha is working in milk glass, which hardens to an opaque white. But it's molten, glowing and transparent when he retrieves a glob of it from the furnace. The blow pipe in his hand seems to melt into an extension of his arm; he handles it with the familiarity of one of his own limbs.

"There's absolutely nothing like glass in the world," he says, twisting the pipe to keep the glass from dripping onto the concrete floor. "If I make this look easy, it's only because I've been doing it so many years.

"When it comes out of the furnace, it's about as thin as honey. There's no other material that dictates what it's going to do like glass."

When all his equipment is fired up at his studio :quot; a garage in an alley between Vermont and Kentucky streets :quot; he burns well more than $500 a month in gas. He has the bill tacked to his wall to prove it. A placard posted next to it reads: "It is not illegal to blow glass naked."

Brejcha is half-clothed today. He seldom wears a shirt in the heat of his studio.

Retired Kansas university glassblowing instructor Vernon Brejcha
twists wire to the end of a glass "root" before attaching it to the
bottom of his 35-foot sculpture, "Growth," at the Overland Park
Convention Center.

Retired Kansas university glassblowing instructor Vernon Brejcha twists wire to the end of a glass "root" before attaching it to the bottom of his 35-foot sculpture, "Growth," at the Overland Park Convention Center.

Twangy country music blares over the low roar of the barrel furnace that's burning at "oh, around 2000" degrees, says Brejcha, dripping with sweat as he moves a glass form in and out of the so-called "glory hole."

Each reheating allows him to get closer to the fungus shape he has in mind for this piece.

"Now I've got a decision to make," he explains. "I want this to be rough, like it's got spores on it." All at once, he puffs out his cheeks and blows a thin balloon in the hot glass he just attached. He shatters the resulting bulb, leaving a jagged opening. "Now we have fungus that blew its spores."

A few more details, and he taps the piece off into an annealing oven. All this in less than 30 minutes.

Growth spurt

It took him months to make all the pieces of the 35-foot-long glass sculpture that hangs in the convention center's glass tower. He calls it "Growth."

At the top is a cast glass piece that represents the sun. Below that is the moon. Then begins a long shaft of bulbous bud forms in a rainbow of colors attached around a center steel rod. Triangular glass pieces set around a ring come next, and a cluster of tendrils "roots" the piece in midair.






Lawrence glassblower Vernon Brejcha's sculpture "Growth" includes 178 pieces of glass.¢ It's about 35 feet long.¢ The top of its sun is 47 feet high.¢ The bottom of its roots are 12 feet high.¢ It hangs in a 70-foot-tall glass tower and is visible from College Boulevard.¢ It weighs about 1,500 pounds.

Brejcha helped with the installation, which took four October days, a cherry picker, scaffolding and steady hands to complete. The entire 178-piece glass sculpture had to be assembled in the air.

"It scared me to death," he says.

Not a single piece of glass broke.

Now complete, "Growth" looks alive, like its still-moving glass that will always flow at an imperceptible pace. The brilliantly colored sculpture is visible from College Boulevard through the tower windows. It will be lighted at night.

Brejcha, modest about his successes, is proud of "Growth."

"I was surprised how pleased I was personally with it when it was finished," he says. "I was thrilled."

A quiet modesty











See Vernon Brejcha's glass sculpture "Growth" " and the other 61 pieces in the Overland Park Convention Center's permanent collection " at the grand opening of the center, on the corner of College Boulevard and Lamar Avenue.The opening event will be from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. today, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 5:30 p.m.Here are the other local artists in the convention center's collection:¢ Jim Brothers¢ Louis Copt¢ John Gary Brown¢ John Hulsey¢ David Vertacnik¢ Matt McCoy¢ Gerald Lubensky¢ Matt Kirby, Baldwin

Still, weeks later at his studio, Brejcha brags most about his students.

"I think that's going to be my greatest legacy," says Brejcha, 60. "I turned out some of the best students in the world."

Brejcha directed the KU glass program from 1976 to 1991, the final year of the program. He taught ceramics for the last decade of his teaching career before retiring in 2001. Three of his former students have had work on the cover of Art Magazine, an honor he has yet to achieve.

But he will fess up to a few accomplishments. Every three years, artists are chosen for the International Exhibition of Glass in Japan. Nine years ago, 47 Americans were chosen. Brejcha was one of them. This year, only three Americans were chosen. He was still in the pack.

He doesn't mention he also has work in the Smithsonian, the Museum of Contemporary Craft in New York City, the Kunstmuseum in Dusseldorf, Germany, and the Corning Museum of Glass in upstate New York. He won the Kansas Governor's Art Award in 1985.

Before coming to KU, he taught at Circle High School in Towanda; Edgewood College in Madison, Wis.; and Tusculum College in Greenville, Tenn.

Brejcha, born and raised on an Ellsworth County farm, draws inspiration from the prairie. His work :quot; glass vases, bowls and paper weights; glass peace pipes; life-sized glass fence posts :quot; reflects that.

"I've told the glass a lot of personal stories," he says.

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