Glass+Sparkles+in+the+Winter+Garden


Article by Jeanne Lesinski
Photos by Gary Anderson

Craig Mitchell Smith marries metal and glass, resulting in dazzling sculptures often inspired by the natural world. It might seem reasonable to consider glass sculptures decorating a summer-time landscape, yet these rare blooms on display at the WinterGarden Glass Illuminated show at Dow Gardens in Midland can survive in the winter garden as well. "Though we often think of glass as being fragile, windows and windshields are made of glass too," Craig Mitchell Smith explained. "As long as the glass object sheds water, instead of collecting it (like a bowl or birdbath), winter weather won't damage it."

Since 2005 when the self-taught artist discovered the joys of working in glass, he has created a varied body of works, including bas relief and freestanding glass sculptures inspired by natural forms, as well as multi-media hybrids for interior and exterior spaces. Coming from a background in painting and theatrical and floral design, it is not surprising that Craig Mitchell Smith should combine these disciplines. Nor is it surprising that the public should find these works interesting for their novelty, creativity and craftsmanship.

At the beginning of his experiments with glass, the Lansing resident took a class in glass-firing offered locally, and he spent five months refining his knowledge and skill of glass-making techniques before offering his work to the public. Glass art is made in a kiln that differs from the ceramic kiln many people envision when they think of a special furnace for baking an inedible product, like pottery or glass. The working surface of the largest non-commercially available glass kiln measures 25 inches wide, 45 inches long, and 14 inches deep. In a sense, the glass artist is required to "work within this box," but like the poet who chooses to write metered verse, these confines don't have to hinder creativity.

Fortuitously, Craig Mitchell Smith discovered that Delphi Glass, the largest distributor in the country of fine art glass was located nearby. Like the painter he already was, he was able to choose from a vibrant palette. He cut brush-stroke shaped shards from sheets of colored glass and arranged them in the floor of the kiln, much like a painter laying down brush strokes or a puzzle amateur assembling the pieces of a puzzle. "When I get into the zone, sometimes I'm just watching my hands do it"  the artist said, a faraway look on his face. "I'm just watching it."

After laying the pieces of glass out on the floor of the kiln, it takes 12 hours for the glass to slowly heat to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit and stay at that temperature for 8 minutes. At this point the glass is quite liquid, so it acts like a liquid. "If you put 8 inches of glass into the kiln, it expands itself to be a 1/4 inch thick; if you put 1/8 inch of glass in the kiln, it contracts to a 1/4 inch thickness," he said. This behavior results from surface tension, and the artist has had to learn to work with this aspect of physics. During the cooling period (from 960-800 degrees Fahrenheit) the liquid glass regains its crystalline form.

To achieve the three-dimensional topography of works like  "Blue Star Rising" and "The Iris Gift" requires a second firing; Craig Mitchell Smith creates an elaborate array of ceramic, terra cotta or stainless steel items around which the glass can bend when it is reheated to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.  He explained, "I visualize how the glass is going to react when it turns to liquid. It's going to slide off here and land there." He may use as many as 50 different items to get the desired effect. After cooling and removing the individual pieces, Craig Mitchell Smith attaches the glass pieces to the non-glass elements using bolts or a heavy-duty adhesive.

Craig Mitchell Smith designed the works for the current show specifically with the site in mind. On Friday, February 12th and Saturday, February 13th, from 5:30-8:30 the Dow Gardens will host WinterGarden Glass Illuminated; at this time luminaries will light the path and 25 glass art pieces, making for an enchanted stroll. On February 26, the artworks will be sold at auction from 6:00 p.m.-9:00 p.m. in the Midland Center for the Arts Garden Room. Then, some fortunate bidders will take an enduring piece of spring (and winter) wonder home with them.

For more information, visit Craig Mitchell.com.

© Jeanne Lesinski, 2010