A WCU professor fuels the fire of an American art movement and revives a North Carolina artist exhibit

What lured Western Carolina University art professor Joan Falconer Byrd to enroll in 1962 in the first glassblowing class ever taught at a university in the United States was the persuasiveness of the instructor, Harvey K. Littleton. “He said to me, ‘Something exciting is going on. Don’t you want to be part of it?’” said Byrd. What she and five classmates at the University of Wisconsin became part of was history: They were participants in the early days of the American studio glass movement, which Littleton is credited with founding.

“Harvey succeeded in taking glass out of the factory situation and putting it in the hands of the studio artist. In the factory, artisans produce pieces envisioned by a designer, but in the studio, an artist controls the entire creative process,” said Byrd. “The art of glass has seen an astonishing development over the last 50 years as a result.”

Byrd has chronicled the story of studio glass art and artists in dozens of articles over the years, and her biography of her professor-turned-colleague-and-friend, “Harvey K. Littleton: A Life in Glass,” was recently released in conjunction with the studio glass movement’s 50th anniversary. Also in honor of the golden anniversary, Byrd and Denise Drury, interim director of the WCU Fine Art Museum, are reviving the series of North Carolina glass art exhibits that Byrd started on campus in 1974. With a grant from the Art Alliance for Contemporary Glass, more than two dozen North Carolina artists’ work will be showcased at the Fine Art Museum in an installation that opens with a reception on Sunday, Oct. 28, and continues through Feb. 1. In addition, glass artist Fritz Dreisbach, who was in one of the first studio glass classes taught by Littleton, will host a glass demonstration at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in conjunction with the opening. Currently, an associated exhibit featuring glass and vitreographs, which are prints made from glass through a process Littleton invtented, is on display in the lobby of the H.F. Robinson Administration Building on the WCU campus. The Littleton family gave vitreographs by different artists to the WCU Fine Art Museum, which is host to the largest such vitreograph archive in the world. “The anniversary of this first experiment in glass demonstrates how the museum can be an important destination for innovation and experimentation in the arts,” said Drury.

Byrd’s students, too, say her connection to Littleton and the studio glass movement has been particularly meaningful to them. “I love glass, and it was as the result of assisting Joan with the exhibition North Carolina Glass ’76 that I was determined to pursue a career in museums,” said Mary Yakush ’76, who edits and produces books for institutions including the National Gallery of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yakush edited and placed Byrd’s biography of Littleton with esteemed art publisher Rizzoli. For Tracy Kirchmann MFA ’10, Byrd’s connection with Littleton and dedication to studio glass were what led her to enroll at Western Carolina and, with Byrd’s support, develop the glass studio at the Jackson County Green Energy Park. Today, Kirchmann teaches art and glass blowing at an arts-based charter school on the south side of Chicago.

“For me, Harvey and Joan are both very important links to my past and future,” said Kirchmann. “As I tell my students, you can’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you are from. I stress the importance of the American studio glass movement and its artists to my students. My students are a brand-new generation of glass artists. They are also some of the only young African-American artists to be working in glass. They are from a long line of trailblazers, and they will continue to innovate as their teachers before them.”

-By Teresa Killian Tate