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Heroic Folks

This couple honors their working-class roots through detailed glass art

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What are working-class heroes doing in a high-art gallery like Philabaum?

A saintly fireman is emblazoned on a red glass sculptural flame, an orange glow surrounding his head like a halo.

Deer hunters aim their rifles at a horned buck in a forest, and the whole scene is sand-blasted into a piece of gray glass shaped like a hunter's bullet.

And on a series of faux beer bottles rendered in brown glass, a plumber sprawls underneath a kitchen sink, a bricklayer lays his bricks and a cleaning lady wields her cart.

These humble folks, pictured on glass art costing thousands of dollars, are paying homage to the artists' roots. The distinctive pieces are collaborative works crafted by a husband-and-wife art team, Rick Schneider and Nikki Vahle. MFA graduates of the University of Wisconsin, both artists now teach art at Salisbury University in Maryland.

But they weren't always so ensconced in the boho middle. They both sprang from the working class, and they've made these intricate sand-blasted pieces in celebration of their own backgrounds and families.

They've cleverly merged emblems of popular culture and working-class life with high-art forms. For instance, a glass baseball piece ("Charging the Battery") is set on a medallion and hangs on a wall like an MVP plaque. The horned deer in the hunting scene, "Thirty Ought Six," calls to mind the hokey stuffed deer heads you might find down at the hunters' bar. But all of the pieces, from the glass bullet to the glass baseball bat, draw on an art historical tradition going all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

The Greeks commemorated their lives and loves on vases, illustrating the exploits of heroes and the machinations of gods in delicately painted drawings on fired clay. The artists at Philabaum explain in a statement that they see no reason not to follow suit, to honor a contemporary welder or a football player or a housepainter by blasting his image onto glass.

But in one sense, the gifted Greek potters had it easier. They simply took up a brush and painted their brave discus players or poets onto the ceramic ware. Glass art is much more complicated, and these artists had to figure out a way to create narrative drawings in glass.

Their MO is to divvy up the labor, with Schneider blowing the glass to create the basic vessel, and Vahle doing the drawings. (He teaches glass art and sculpture at Salisbury, and she teaches printmaking, painting and drawing.) But that description makes the process sound easier than it really is--because every piece has multiple colors, and every drawing has to be translated from paper to glass.

"Working Day to Day," the beer-bottle piece, has six larger-than-life beer bottles in brown and six drawings of workers in black and white. To get the triad of color, Schneider first fired the original shape in the furnace in opaque brown. When the brown glass hardened, he added an overlay of white, then black.

Vahle's drawings, which serve as the beer labels, are quite wonderful, their deep contrasts and simplified forms reminiscent of woodblock or linoleum block cuts--or of comic-book drawings. To get them onto the glass, she had to make "resists" of rubberized tape, and apply those to the beer bottles. The resists create the shapes and mask the colors she wants; once they're in place, Schneider goes in with the sandblaster and blows off the unwanted glass. For the beer bottles' glass, he blasts through the layers of white and black to get all the way back to the brown. The resists protect the black and white, and allow glass drawings to emerge that are 3-D to the touch.

Vahle's gotten surprising detail for drawings so laboriously obtained. The car hood slants at a strong diagonal over the engine where the mechanic is toiling away. The cleaning woman, working after hours in an office, pushes a cart loaded with carefully piled towels and even stacks of toilet paper. The masked welder labors against a backdrop of crisscross metal girders.

Similarly, the baseball players cavorting across the bat in "Charging the Battery" are beautifully rendered, with the pitcher impressively twisting his whole body into the vanishing point. "On the Gridiron" illustrates players confronting each other on one side of a glass football; their fans scream high in the stands in a drawing on the other side. Dick Cheney would surely be taken with the meticulously drawn birds in "Flushed From the Field," a cylinder that depicts hunters and prey against a distant horizon and a red glass sky. The deer in "Thirty Ought Six" is nothing short of amazing; its body is wrapped around the silver bullet, and Vahle has managed to draw an entire landscape in glass in between its twisted limbs.

Other works, less heroically perhaps, re-create drugs and containers. Two pill bottles are filled with capsules decorated with flowers and letters in "Drugs by Design." "Fear the Pain" is a giant pill box divided up by days of the week, each cavity filled with a tablet marked with bones blazing red with pain. Each day comes with its own ache; the spine throbbing on Monday, the neck on Tuesday, the hip on Wednesday.

If the designer drugs seem like the playthings of the idle rich, then the tablets in "Fear the Pain" are the salvation of manual laborers. A working-class hero is something to be, but cleaning women and bricklayers and firefighters don't scrub our floors and build our houses and put out our fires without cost. These works honor those who labor for the rest of us with their bodies, crunching their bones, wearing down their joints and sometimes giving their lives.

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