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Happy Accidents

Inspired by Picasso, Tom Philabaum is exploring new frontiers in glass art

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In Off the Wall, at Philabaum Glass Gallery downtown, Tom Philabaum is showing off a brand-new form of glass art.

Despite that title, the works hang on the walls, part painting, part collage and a tiny part sculpture. Bold, painted circles and diamonds and stripes ricochet between two layers of flat fused glass, and bits of wire and foil and copper mesh glimmer between the panes.

"I used all these elements before, but in a different way," Philabaum says, "But now the time is right.

"It's basically a sandwiching of glass," he adds, half-joking, though he's given these mixed-media innovations a more formal name: fused collaged paintings.

The artist is best known for 3-D glass sculptures: luminous vaselike vessels that stand on a pedestal, opaque colored spheres that rise up from the floor. And he's done his share of glass window art and he's experimented with painting on rounded glass sculptures. But as soon as he saw glistening flat glass art in Paris last year, he knew that he had to try to make it himself.

He and his wife, Dabney, were on the Paris subway. The City of Light is renowned for its elegant underground metro stations, and when the Philabaums' train glided into the Franklin Roosevelt stop, "we saw these glass paintings," Philabaum says. "They were illuminated glass, lit from behind. They kind of glowed."

Philabaum knows glass—he's been working with the medium for more than 40 years—and in those few moments looking out the metro car window he could see that the French artist had fused together big sheets of glass.

As soon as he got back to Tucson, he began tinkering in his studio downtown, trying to work out the technical problems. Just months into his experiments, he got fresh inspiration from another unexpected source.

Late last summer, news broke that the small Evansville Museum of Art, History & Science, in a riverfront town in Indiana, had rooted out a rare Picasso painted glass work. Hidden away in the museum's storage rooms for a half-century, "Seated Woman with Red Hat" is one of about 50 forgotten glass "gemmail" works Picasso made in the 1950s.

In gemmail, the pieces of glass are painted and fused, and they have a glow, one dealer said, that's impossible to find in ordinary paintings on canvas.

The discovery "spurred worldwide discussion," Philabaum says, and ignited a scholarly and artistic debate on the methods and materials Picasso used. The new interest in Picasso's techniques mirrored Philabaum's own investigations, and he joined in the conversation, consulting historical documents, fellow artists and the experts at Corning Glass.

"I started painting and playing," Philabaum says. "I have all kinds of scrap glass in the studio."

Through trial and error, Philabaum worked out the system that eventually yielded the dozen fused collage paintings now hanging in the gallery.

For each work, he uses two pieces of ordinary sheet glass, tinged green on the edges. That green is iron, he says, and "I like what iron does to the color. What colors do chemically appeals to me."

In the first phase of the complicated process, he paints a different image on each of the two panes of glass. One pane eventually gets flipped over the other, and the images shift and merge.

On an overcast afternoon last week, Philabaum gave a minidemonstration of the painting phase. Counteracting the gloomy day, he chose hot, bright colors—sunshine yellow, yellow orange and red—in paints specially formulated to withstand temperatures up to 2,000 degrees in the glass furnace. He worked rapidly, wielding a loaded brush in one hand and pots of paint in the other, painting bold geometric images—circles and zigzag, darting stripes —on each piece of glass.

Next, he said, he would "bake" the paint in the kiln at 700 degrees, and when it was dry he'd arrange the fillings, the shiny foil, wires and screen, onto one of the panes of glass. Then he'd flip one piece of glass over the other, and cover the whole glass sandwich with a medium that "ensures a glossy smooth finished surface."

Then the work would head for the oven to get roasted. It's at this stage that the Philabaum technique deviates from the Picasso method.

"Gemmail apparently requires three months in the oven at low temperatures," Philabaum says. "I couldn't afford to tie up my machines that long."

He tried various baking times, and the formula he settled on calls for the work to be roasted for just 24 hours, at a blazing 1,485 degrees. In the heat of the furnace "glory hole," the glass melts and fuses. Once it's done, the piece takes 10 hours to "anneal" or harden and cool to room temperature. Bubbles and blisters might form on the surface, giving the whole piece a look of serendipity.

In fact, Philabaum sees the project—from its accidental beginnings to its finely honed step-by-step process—as a kind of happy accident.

"I'm always looking for accidents—for hippie art," he says with a grin.

Philabaum is also working on two other projects. He's in a group show of glass artists at Mesch Clark & Rothschild, opening next week. And he collaborated with father-and-son glass artists in Wisconsin on still another controlled improvisation. He met Wes Hunting and Wesley Hunting in the cool north, and the trio went into the Huntings' hot workshop to experiment with wrapping shiny copper around slabs of colored glass.

The artists will exhibit the new work, Wired, in October, after Off the Wall comes down. They'll kick off the exhibition with two days of free demos, showing the public how they wire-wrap hot glass.

"We blow the glass, and all this stuff is going on inside," he says. "We get more complex as we go along. It gets convoluted."

Just the way he likes it.

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