Thor & Jennifer Bueno, Water Cairn, Sand-etched blown glass, wood, steel, 60 x 18 x 13-1/2 inches
Alysia Fischer is an author, artist and anthropologist who lives in Weaverville, NC. She received her PhD in Anthropology from the University of Arizona and her MFA from Miami University (Ohio). Her research on crafts includes the books Hot Pursuit: Integrating Anthropology in Search of Ancient Glassblowers and Myaamia Ribbonwork (co-authored with Andrew Strack and Karen Baldwin). Alysia is also an accomplished maker, as both a glassblower and metals artist. Below, Alysia interviews glass artists Thor & Jennifer Bueno.
AF: Hi, Jennifer & Thor. I am intrigued by your work and partnership. What drew each of you to glass?
Jennifer: I was in college at Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), majoring in Industrial Design because I wanted to do special effects for movies. When I was coming along it was about model making and all the fun stuff like puppetry. I’ve always been fascinated with otherworldliness and fantasy. After the first semester in Industrial Design I realized that it was not my bag. We were doing engineering drawings of milk cartons and having critiques for four hours about it. That was the major if you wanted to do special effects, but I was coming along in the 90s when everything was shifting to computers. I realized I wouldn’t actually be making stuff and I wanted to be the maker. I didn’t want to do a drawing and send it out for someone else to make the thing, so I switched to majors. There was an Industrial Design class that did a lighting semester. I saw that exhibit and thought ‘This glass is really beautiful’. It had that same otherworldly feel, that light through the glass. It was just so alien and magical looking to me. Then I wandered into the glass studio, and that’s how I ended up working in glass.
Thor: That’s easy. It was more fun that surfing. What kept me in glass is that it’s still more fun than surfing. There’s a whole stock answer about the spontaneous moment of clarity, the meditation. All that stuff is true. It’s difficult for me to focus on one thing. I get that clarity and that calm from glassblowing. It involves every part of me simultaneously, physically as well as mentally. I started blowing glass in 1979. My instructors at the junior college were all potters so they were really good potters and they knew how to build a glass studio because of pottery. As far as blowing glass was concerned, they didn’t have a clue. So, my instruction was, ‘Lips on this end, glass on the other, and figure it out.’ That’s how it was for me for the first seven years. I started in ’79 and then I went to Pilchuck in ‘86 for the first time and then pretty much relearned everything the Venetian way.
AF: Can you tell me about the dynamics of your artistic partnership?
Jennifer: Thor is really high energy. He’s one of those people who doesn’t slow down, doesn’t stop. So, glass really suits him that way. Thor is just like ‘Do it.’ It’s great because he has that momentum, always moving forward. If he didn’t have me he’d be all over the place, and if I didn’t have him I’d just be staring at my navel and not moving. Glass is a funny thing. That’s one of the challenges I’ve had, the struggle like jumping off a high dive. You’ve got to commit. You’ve got to be in that moment, which is wonderful, but my nature is more that I like to sit and look and change. So, with our Bueno Glass stuff, that’s how it really works. He’s out cranking in the hot shop. The nice thing is that these forms are so fitted to Thor’s personality. There are glassblowers who are goblet makers and make a lot of components and hot sculpt them together with torches and they spend hours on one piece, and that’s not Thor. He’s all ‘Get it hot and spin it, and let it go, and do it again, and do it again…’ We’ve really seemed to find a way of working that matches our personalities. I’m in a different studio doing drawings for proposals, and I’ve got all the pieces organized into color sets. For all of our wall pieces, we do templates. So, I’m doing templates and I’ll go down to the hot studio and say we need a range of this color. Thor says that he makes the brushstrokes and I make the painting. We do blow glass together for R&D, like if we need to find a new color. We’ll talk and get ideas and troubleshoot stuff and, in that case, we work together in the hot shop. We both enjoy doing that kind of thing and it works.
Thor: Jennifer can do anything, she’s so freaking smart. She won’t brag about it, but she got two MFAs in three years. One from Bard, where it’s all about thinking, and then one from Alfred where it’s all about making things with your hands, and she kind of did both in three years. Over the last decade she’s gotten so good at making those compositions. Because there’s so many thousands of micro-decisions involved in the relationships between the pieces-the big shapes, little shapes, the patterns, the negative space, the colors, it just goes on and on. Jennifer works really hard to make it look effortless. She creates in a very contemplative way; she’s very thoughtful. She comes from the RISD mindset where you think about the thing for 45 minutes and then you take 15 minutes to do it. That’s the ratio of thought to work. It’s a good thing, but that’s not really me. I’m super frenetic and can’t go slow. That glassblowing thing fits well with me. I work superfast and really hot and I enjoy it when the piece is about to drip off my pipe; I can make something better out of it when it does that. That aspect of our partnership is really great because she does the meditative part where (as Jennifer mentioned) she creates the painting out of my brush strokes.
AF: What can you tell me about the piece, Gilded Azure, that will be in the upcoming Momentum show “Reflections”?
Jennifer: We had this problem of making big installations where you can’t really see the details of things. Many of our bigger pieces have been in awkward spaces, because that’s one of our strengths. We can do these pieces in a hospital where there’s a narrow strip or strange space, but it’s really tricky to get a good photograph. We’ve been making these new metallic pieces that are a hybrid of the silver and the stone. I was playing with the different compositions and started making circles. It was nice because you could see the form and see that each stone was different and see the colors. When we heard about the Chihuly exhibit, you always think of Chihuly glass of having such a presence. And it’s not just because they’re big but they just have this presence of being almost otherworldly. We were inspired by that and thought it would be nice to make a piece that would be big enough that you could enter. You can see it as one thing, so it’s like a meditation. You can enter it visually.
As far as Biltmore, when I think of it I always think of the Gilded Age. Gilded seems like an appropriate word for Biltmore Estate. The blue in the piece reminds me of North Carolina, the sky and the water and the river stones. It all comes together into one atmospheric space. The vein of gold running through Is reminiscent of a river but also a blue stone with a vein of gold. I think of Biltmore as this sort of gilded thing in the middle of the wilderness. There’s this natural place but you also have this glittering object, something precious and rare, running through it.
Thor: The big concentrated dot is a bit of a departure from our usual work. A lot of the compositions we make are customized to fit very specific parameters. Typically, our work lives on the architecture and is kind-of growing there. This new direction is more like a piece of jewelry that can be anywhere. A giant brooch, like architectural jewelry, something you wear. And that becomes like a Chihuly chandelier being a giant pair of earrings for a building. And I think that’s where we are trying to go.
Thor & Jennifer Bueno, Zen Branch, Sand-etched blown glass and wood branch, 31 x 65 x 17 inches