October 1, 2009
By Leopold L. Foulem
For the past twenty-five years, an old abandoned fire station, situated somewhere between two bridges in a semi-industrial zone, has become an effervescent laboratory devoted to glass art. It has been the constant proponent of a system whereby the student and the material, experimentation and training are at the heart of the mission. This continuous confrontation between knowledge and know-how, questions of why and how-to, constantly fuels and renews the creative process, all the while maintained by a rigorous process of transmitting pertinent and specific information.
During the three-year educational program, the students learn and experiment with an array of techniques used to make glass pieces. These can range from the most utilitarian objects to freeform structures, and can be the result of any or several processes, from blown glass to kiln work. Far from being bucolic, the set up is nevertheless convenient, even efficient. The meticulously clean and well-equipped studios are distributed amongst the three floors, interspersed by a gallery space and a comprehensive specialized library, making this a self-sufficient location to provide an incomparable education in this fiery art form. Visibility and promotion are essential aspects of the services Espace VERRE offers its graduates. In addition to being shown regularly in the institution’s own gallery and its glass showcases, almost each year their work is also included in exhibitions in professional art galleries or art centres, making all the more concrete the links between production and marketing.
For the past thirty-three years, a Montreal based commercial gallery has devoted itself to promoting and showing glass art, while constituting an important benefactor, sponsor and influence for this field. Significantly, Galerie Elena Lee represents many of Espace VERRE’s teaching staff and graduates. Also worth mentioning are the glass collections now being exhibited by the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts, most notably the spaces devoted to contemporary works. These institutions are providing welcome opportunities for glass artists, while promoting glass art to the general public.
Conceived from the start, by its visionary founders François Houdé and Ronald Labelle, as a place of experimentation and education, Espace VERRE has managed to stay faithful to its original mission while broadening its mandate considerably. As an exemplary school/studio, it has always been an important hub for exchange between masters and students, local residents and foreign visitors, artisans and artists, and has become a generator of exciting and beneficial emulation. This is without a doubt the most remarkable facet of the educational program that has been developed, improved and supported by the school throughout its existence. Furthermore, thanks to the encouragement of Espace VERRE, both students and instructors are frequent participants in international conferences. While reflecting on the body of work of the practicing glass masters that form the teaching staff, one is struck by the contemporaneity of their processes. Modern and demonstrative of greatly refined skill, their work earns a distinguished place in the great panorama of international glass art, be it Donald Robertson’s mythological sculptures, Michèle Lapointe’s architectural integrations or Carole Frève’s mixed media sculpted vessels. This spectrum of varied and accomplished work provides the students with great inspiration and incentive to create their own artistic work.
Unique in North America, the Fusion:Transitional workshop was created by Susan Edgerley to support the emerging artists of Espace VERRE’s glass program. It provides opportunities to acquire production experience, marketing skills, and further their research. To this day, one hundred and twenty-two students have completed the requirements of the glass program, including eighty-nine of whom were women and thirty-three men. Another interesting and very conclusive statistic, sixty-three, or almost half, of these graduates are still involved in glass arts, whether full or part time. Some of the distinguished members of the younger generations to have succeeded abroad are Sylvie Bélanger, Maude Bussières, Annie Cantin, Carole Frève, Catherine Labonté, Patrick Primeau, Stephen Pon and Cathy Strokowsky, to name just a few. Every year, master glass artists are invited to Espace VERRE to share their prestigious skills by offering specialized workshops to professional glass artists. Some of these artists come from the English speaking parts of Canada, the United-States, Europe, Australia, etc., such as Lino Tagiapietra from Italy, David Reekie from England, or Philip Baldwin from Switzerland.
The broadening of our view on the world, or should I say worlds, is at the core of the atypical education offered by Espace VERRE. This dynamic pedagogical model has borrowed, amongst others, some of the didactic methods of American universities, and still gives surprising results, twenty-five years worth of surprises and commendable success. A quarter-century of progression merits being highlighted and celebrated. This success also reinforces the importance of objectively evaluating the future direction of the school, especially if it is to remain relevant. Any educational program left to rest on its laurels too long can quickly become obsolete.
Virtuosity cannot be denied as essential, but it easily becomes a handicap. If technical prowess establishes itself as the principal “raison d’être” for an artist’s work, the result may be that it will loose any inkling of soul it may have possessed.
A great challenge will play a determining role for the future of glass art in Québec and for Espace VERRE: following the completion of a solid education, wherein learning by emulation is prioritized, it becomes absolutely necessary that all protagonists be able to, and incited to, broaden the scope of their ambition in a university setting. This is the only way to assure that the next decades will not only overflow with creativity, but also with innovation.
Léopold L. Foulem has been recognized for his prodigious talents as an educator, writer, lecturer and, above all, as an artist. He received the Jean A. Chalmers National Crafts Award in 1999 and the Saidye Bronfman Award, in 2001. In 2003, he received the Prix Éloize, a prestigious Acadian cultural award. He is among the first Canadian ceramists to have his work collected by the Victoria and Albert museum in London, England and the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, Ontario. He divides his time between teaching fine arts in Montréal, Québec, working in his studio in his hometown of Caraquet, New Brunswick, and a busy international exhibition schedule. Espace VERRE will be hosting the Glass Art Association of Canada Conference in May 2010, while Montreal Museums will present exhibitions on glass from April to December 2010, for 2010, Montreal, City of Glass.