Thirty-six years ago, when Tom Philabaum was studying ceramics in grad school, an art teacher made an astute observation about his work.
"Your ideas are too fluid for clay," Jack Cannon, a professor at Southern Illinois University, told him. "Why don't you try glass?"
That simple question changed Philabaum's life. He recognized the truth of what Cannon said, switched media, switched grad schools and devoted himself almost entirely to the fluid, translucent, magical medium of glass.
After studying with glass eminence Harvey Littleton at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Philabaum moved to Tucson, where his distinctive last name has been linked to glass ever since. Not only has he developed a rep for his own glass pieces around the country; he's done whatever he could to help other glass artists and the art form itself.
"I've given my life to glass," Philabaum says. "I've been a glassblower for 36 years. And we've been a gallery for 25 years. I've promoted about 400 glass artists over the years."
And a few years back, in 2001, he co-founded the Sonoran Glass Art Academy, a now-successful enterprise on the southside that offers glassblowing classes to adults and to high school and college students.
But now, approaching 60, Philabaum's about to make another life change.
"I want to spend the rest of my working years on my own art," he says. "We're moving back downtown. We're pulling back. Our commitment to hundreds of artists is over."
At the end of March, he'll close his elegant uptown gallery at St. Philip's Plaza, run by his wife, Dabney, and several employees for the last five years. The Philabaums will regroup at the old gallery, just south of downtown, a small space attached to his longtime glassblowing studio. After they renovate the showroom, Philabaum intends to put his own work on view, along with pieces by just 15 of his top gallery artists. He'll no longer stage the time-consuming changing exhibitions.
"We'll just be an ongoing gallery, with no specific openings or shows," he said. "I don't have enough time."
He's making the move partly for business reasons. He and his wife own the downtown property, but they've been paying $4,000 a month for the St. Philip's space. ("In five years, I paid a quarter-million bucks," he says.) The business did well in the upscale plaza for the first four years, but last year, with road construction on nearby River Road tying traffic in knots, profits took a nosedive. Plus, the landlord was about to raise the rent.
"St. Philip's was a stretch for us," he says. "We were hoping we'd do better than we did. Last year, we lost an astounding amount. I couldn't afford to subsidize the gallery with my work."
A scheme to move last fall into the booming Warehouse District at Sixth Street and Sixth Avenue didn't work out, Philabaum said, when an architect who'd planned to move his office out of a Mark Berman building decided to stay instead. Philabaum was disappointed, but he thinks the move downtown, where he also lives, will simplify his life.
"That was a lot of time and trips up and down Campbell. We work seven days a week. Our business is our life."
Still, he hasn't lost his passion for creating new art. In fact, he hopes the downsizing will give him time "to make art, to grow my spirit." In recent years, he's been picking up large-scale commissions that will allow him to make a permanent mark on his adopted hometown. Right now, he's in negotiations with the UA regarding a 30-foot-long glass sculpture that will dangle in the central atrium of the new BIO5 science institute near Campbell. He's also been combining light with glass, and not long ago created an installation with 110 light fixtures in McMahon's Prime Steakhouse.
But he'll only go so far into commercial art.
"People keep coming to me and asking me for custom sinks. I don't want to do that."
What he does want to do is keep up his own artistic experiments. Lately, at his home studio, he's been working on reverse glass painting--brushing bright colors onto the back sides of transparent glass. He's always been an artist who constantly pushes at his medium, finding ever new ways to twist and shape molten glass. In his grand finale at St. Philip's, he shows off his latest techniques. (The show is called 25 Years of Philabaum, but in a gesture typical of this generous artist, he's included not only his work, but pieces by many of his gallery artists.)
Interestingly, his newest works, in "scavo" and fused glass, have brought him back to his older medium.
"Scavo hints at my clay roots," he says. "It has an almost ceramic surface but with the happy color of glass."
Taking their name from the Italian for "unearthed," the scavo pieces are glass balls with a textured, antique-looking surface. A scavo chemical powder--made of wood ash--is dusted onto the finished surface of the glass, and then gets burned into the glass through repeated trips to the glass furnace, or glory hole.
The lovely scavo "rocks," as Philabaum calls them, are brilliantly colored in opaque orange and gold, teal and green; mottled white textures and golden spots are sprinkled over the surface. The balls are arranged vertically, stacked one atop the other in almost human configurations.
"Reluctance" is a set of two columns, each made of three stacked balls, tilting shyly away from each other. "Precarious" is exactly that: a column of four scavo rocks perched one atop the other, looking almost--but not quite--ready to fall.
But the fused glass works don't just suggest clay; they require it. Philabaum first makes the figures out of clay, shaping the soft, yielding surface with his fingers. Then he constructs a mold around the clay, and pours the molten glass into the mold. The final works--simplified human and plant forms, including saguaros--are in luminous colored glass.
"The Light Within" is a female figure with a pale pink streak glowing inside lavender and turquoise. "Hands On II" is a striped turquoise and lime-green saguaro.
But the outer layers of both are marked with the artist's own hand, his prints in the clay transferred to the hard, glistening glass.