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Through a glass, brightly. October 10, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood share a crowlike love of bright, glittery objects. OFB is a passionate marble collector, and Silence loves vintage and modern colored glassware, beads and jewelry, glass ornaments, and pretty much anything that sparkles. So this past weekend, when we decided to take a mini-vacation to Corning, New York to enjoy the beautiful area and peak foliage season, it won’t surprise you to learn that the first place we visited was the Corning Museum of Glass (www.cmog.org).

The museum was just a short walk from our hotel. As the brochure says, “The Corning Museum of Glass is the world’s largest glass museum, featuring live glassblowing demonstrations, 35 centuries of glass artistry, Make Your Own Glass experiences for all ages, and an international GlassMarket.” From Ancient Egyptian, Roman and Chinese glass through the Renaissance to African trade beads, Tiffany lamps, and modern glass by masters like Dale Chihuly, the enormous collection spans the globe and human history.

Despite being full of fragile, priceless glass pieces, the museum is surprisingly child-friendly. Kids and teens (19 and under) get in free. They can also make their own glass creations like beads and windchimes (for a fee). The most popular exhibit for the kids was definitely the Innovation Center, which shows the science of glassmaking from early microscopes through fiber optics and glass for space missions, with lots of hands-on, interactive displays. There’s even a “Science Top 10 favorites!” brochure to help kids find the most fun stuff. (The glassblowing demos also were hits with kids.) There are two cafes with indoor and outdoor seating and kid-friendly fare. Even the eight boutiques in the GlassMarket had some great stuff for kids, including age-appropriate jewelry and science kits, and a huge gizmo with all sorts of elaborate chutes and ladders that directed a continuous flow of marbles in every conceivable direction. Plenty of dads seemed mesmerized by this display as well, and Silence had to drag OFB away.

Speaking of marbles… Drat. Silence says I need to tell you that adult admission is $14.95 ($11.95 for 55 and older and folks with AAA) before I get to the marbles. She also points out that people might be more interested in hearing about the magnificent Louis Comfort Tiffany window, the impressive collection of Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and Arts & Crafts glass, and the superb collection of early European stemware than about marbles. Not to mention the Early American glass collection, including several portraits of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, and one of his musical instruments, the glass armonica. (Not to be confused with a harmonica; it looked more like an especially tusky piano, and was so popular during Ben’s life that Mozart actually composed for it.)  Or the special exhibits, including Beyond Venice and Glass in the Islamic World.

Sheesh! What’s happened to people’s priorities?! Including the museum’s. Marbles, those universally beloved, endlessly intricate, touch-friendly favorites were noticeably lacking from the museum’s extensive displays. Our friend Ben was expecting an entire display devoted to marble-making through the ages, with a timelined series of cases taking us from prehistoric stone marbles through the classic era of handmade marbles and the golden age of machine-made marbles to today’s marble renaissance, where both handmade and machine-made marbles have reached unprecedented levels of virtuosity and beauty. I was practically drooling with anticipation as we entered the museum.

But no. If memory serves, there were precisely two marbles in the entire museum. What a wasted opportunity to appeal to the child in everyone! (Paperweight lovers, there was an extensive paperweight display, so don’t panic.) Grrrrrrrr. But at least the two marbles were by one of my all-time favorite marble makers, Josh Simpson.

I first encountered Josh Simpson’s incredible “Inhabited Planet” marble series before I’d even begun to seriously collect marbles, aside from a childhood cache I’d been unable to part with. But the minute I saw these extraordinary glass worlds, I knew I had to have one. Mine, which is about an inch and a half in diameter, looks like a sister planet to our own Earth, with glittery green land masses and cobalt lakes suspended in changeable turquoise seas. I have owned this beautiful art marble for decades, and it never ceases to fascinate. I have yet to see another marble, even by Josh Simpson himself, that appeals to me more.

Silence didn’t give me nearly enough time to grumble before dragging me off to the GlassMarket. We both were on missions from God: I was looking for a few good marbles to add to my collection, while Silence was hoping to find a Roman glass ring to go with her Roman glass bracelet, pendant, and earrings. Sadly, we both were disappointed. There was tons of jewelry, but no Roman glass jewelry. There were a few Josh Simpson marbles (www.joshsimpson.com/), but none I could afford, and much more affordable marbles by Jody Fine (www.jfineglass.com/), whom I love, but none that were sufficiently different from the ones I already own to tempt me.

I did hit the jackpot with two books on Josh Simpson’s work, though: Josh Simpson: A Visionary Journey in Glass (Huntsville Museum of Art, 2007) and Josh Simpson: Glass Artist (Guild Publishing, 2008). Since the Visionary Journey is a beautifully produced retrospective museum catalogue, it lacks the depth and compelling readability of Josh Simpson: Glass Artist, but it does showcase more than three decades of work and contains this marvelous quote from Josh: “My challenge as a person and an artist is to find my comfort zone… and then stay out of it.” Needless to say, I left the museum with both books.

Silence and I were also disappointed to see a complete absence of one of our favorite glassmaker’s works, Blenko Glass of West Virginia. Our salad bowl and individual serving bowls are Blenko Glass, lovingly purchased over time in Asheville, NC, and Silence has quite a collection of Blenko’s uniquely designed water/juice/tea pitchers, both vintage and modern, and still has her eyes set on a ruby glass pitcher.

But overall, we were thrilled with the museum’s displays and learned a lot on our tour through the many exhibits. At the end, you could vote for your favorite of 60 selections, and, though I was tempted to vote for Josh and Silence favored a ruby-glass plate with the most amazing Greek revival scene in milk glass (think the greatest piece of Wedgwood ever created, but made with transparent and opaque glass), we both had to admit that the most amazing thing of all was the architecture of the museum itself, with its astonishing curving glass walls. We also loved the simple but dramatic landscaping of mixed ornamental grasses, at their peak of color and form when we visited, so simple, yet such a perfect backdrop for the glass.

Though Silence never did find her Roman glass ring, I found a treasure trove of marbles at The Glass Menagerie (www.corningmenagerie.com) on Market Street in downtown Corning’s historic Gaffer District. I succumbed to two, a Jody Fine clear marble with intricate, DNA-like white laciniata caning inside, and a fabulous milk glass and pumpkin-orange double spiral inside a big transparent turquoise-glass marble by Fritz Glass (www.fritzglass.com/). Silence admired but resisted the gorgeous, glittery displays of Steuben Glass up and down Market Street, but just had to go into a couple of antiques malls, emerging triumphantly with the perfect Christmas gifts for a couple of dear friends.

Would Silence and I go back to the Corning Museum of Glass? Absolutely. Would we recommend it to you? In a heartbeat. You could go when we did, in October, the peak of foliage season, or in May for the amazing Memorial Day Weekend GlassFest, when the whole “Crystal City” turns into a giant indoor-outdoor glass celebration, or (brrrr) the Crystal City Christmas Celebration, launching November 11 and extending into December. At any time of year, you could hit the road for a Finger Lakes Wine Trail driving tour, and/or take in the Cheese Trail and Cuisine Trail as you revel in the beauty of the Finger Lakes district. 

Look for more amazing adventures as the week goes on!

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