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Archive for Sunday, November 17, 2002

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 âÂÂ:quot; blue jeans, tennis shoes, no shirt, a brown leather belt with the name âÂÂVernâ stamped into it âÂÂ:quot; working in a back-alley garage in Lawrence.

The less-than-glamorous surroundings match glassblower Vernon BrejchaâÂÂs 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 ManhattanâÂÂs Beach Museum is a Chihuly, too.

Now, a Brejcha piece occupies a grand space âÂÂ: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 centerâÂÂs permanent collection, which also includes several other Lawrence artists.

âÂÂAll too often, artists are ignored in their own back yard,â Dorrell says. âÂÂThe Overland Park Arts Commission agreed with me that maybe itâÂÂs time to put a stop to this. Perhaps the Midwest has grown enough in sophistication where our artists are the sort of rank we canâÂÂt afford to ignore any longer.

âÂÂVernon BrejchaâÂÂs influence on the glass movement in the âÂÂ70s and âÂÂ80s was profound.âÂÂ

In the studio

On this particular day, Brejcha is working in milk glass, which hardens to an opaque white. But itâÂÂs 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.

âÂÂThereâÂÂs absolutely nothing like glass in the world,â he says, twisting the pipe to keep the glass from dripping onto the concrete floor. âÂÂIf I make this look easy, itâÂÂs only because IâÂÂve been doing it so many years.

âÂÂWhen it comes out of the furnace, itâÂÂs about as thin as honey. ThereâÂÂs no other material that dictates what itâÂÂs going to do like glass.âÂÂ

When all his equipment is fired up at his studio âÂÂ:quot; a garage in an alley between Vermont and Kentucky streets âÂÂ: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: âÂÂIt is not illegal to blow glass naked.âÂÂ

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

Twangy country music blares over the low roar of the barrel furnace thatâÂÂs burning at âÂÂoh, around 2000â degrees, says Brejcha, dripping with sweat as he moves a glass form in and out of the so-called âÂÂglory hole.âÂÂ

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

âÂÂNow IâÂÂve got a decision to make,â he explains. âÂÂI want this to be rough, like itâÂÂs got spores on it.â 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. âÂÂNow we have fungus that blew its spores.âÂÂ

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 centerâÂÂs glass tower. He calls it âÂÂGrowth.âÂÂ

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 âÂÂrootsâ the piece in midair.

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.

âÂÂIt scared me to death,â he says.

Not a single piece of glass broke.

Now complete, âÂÂGrowthâ 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 âÂÂGrowth.âÂÂ

âÂÂI was surprised how pleased I was personally with it when it was finished,â he says. âÂÂI was thrilled.âÂÂ

A quiet modesty

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

âÂÂI think thatâÂÂs going to be my greatest legacy,â says Brejcha, 60. âÂÂI turned out some of the best students in the world.âÂÂ

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 doesnâÂÂt 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 GovernorâÂÂs 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 âÂÂ:quot; glass vases, bowls and paper weights; glass peace pipes; life-sized glass fence posts âÂÂ:quot; reflects that.

âÂÂIâÂÂve told the glass a lot of personal stories,â he says.

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