Glass eye 

McElroy shows fleeting flameworks

The kitchen of glass artist Christopher McElroy smells like exotic spices and the earthiness of strong tea steeping. On his stove sits a large kettle made entirely of clear glass and he offers me a glass cup marked by textured layers—some parts smooth and others bubbled. The cup’s colors blend into one another, a mix of oranges, blues and browns. On the table next to a vintage typewriter is a lime-green tea mug made of opaque glass.

“For awhile I was really interested in tea and all the paraphernalia that goes with it,” says McElroy by way of explanation. “I was interested in Eastern culture and Japanese tea ceremony and I started making tea pots that were really influenced by that.”

At 29, McElroy’s already been around the glass block a few times. He grew up making glass art in southwest Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. He taught glass art at several reputable institutions, including the Bezalel Academy of Art & Design in Jerusalem, Pratt Fine Arts Center in Seattle, Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina and Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash.; Pilchuck is considered to be one of, if not, the best glass schools in the world. He’s won various awards—including first place in a Hot Beverages category in a 2004 show—and exhibited his work across the nation.

But McElroy’s style is hard to pin down. Not too long ago he began to grow uneasy with the tea objects he’d been making for a couple of years. The style began to define—and confine—him as an artist. On one hand, McElroy says, the tea theme seemed like a route to financial success. But he’d seen what happens when other artists went the safe route, sculpting what they were comfortable with rather than taking some chances.

“Often what happens in the fine craft world is that people develop a style and then they call it a series and then they do it for 20 years and every collector gets one,” he says. “I was making the tea pots pretty steadily for awhile and that’s when I realized that I could just do that if I wanted to. People recognized me as, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re the tea-pot guy.’ And I was like, ‘Shit. I am.’”

McElroy calls his move away from tea paraphernalia a “derailment,” though a subconscious one, more like an emotional reaction to being pigeonholed than a deliberate action.

In an adjacent room to his kitchen sits a table full of wood and glass objects, some half finished, many with moveable parts. Almost all of them are flameworked pieces made with an oxygen propane torch rather than heated in a furnace. After McElroy moved away from tea he started making and filming glass art performances with objects that are more like machines than anything. One called “Sustain/Maintain” is a glass structure covered with newspaper and powered by a small motor that makes revolutions around a brick track until the paper catches on fire. Another shows a borosilicate glass machine that pedals forward drawing a line of fuel as it goes, which eventually catches fire.

McElroy will head to Seattle this year to attend the University of Washington. The move will allow him to experiment with more tools and provide access to a metal shop, things he doesn’t have in Missoula.

“I want to learn how to fail miserably,” he says laughing. “I want to do really risky things, not like I have to risk my career or my life or anything, but just to explore so many ideas that a lot of them are bound to fail. I could make photovoltaic cells on my glass to generate electricity or I could study the acoustics of glass. Anything’s possible there.”

Meanwhile, his First Friday exhibit in Missoula, titled Vision > Place, will display glass art that he affectionately considers purgings—clean cut, mostly sedentary pieces that he’s had in his head for a long time. One is made of ultra-violet reactive glass that glows. Other pieces pair glass and wood, and one spins in circles making loud sounds, which like his other moving machines may or may not last long. “My machines are pretty temporary,” he says. “I’m not too concerned with them being archival. I’m okay if they fall apart or blow up.”

That sentiment might aptly describe McElroy’s approach to art. And it might describe his approach to life, too. But it doesn’t mean he won’t return to the pieces and places he cares about. McElory points to a glass piece emulating an anchor. He says he made it after coming back from Seattle and staying on his professor’s boat.

“I was thinking about what an anchor means when people say ‘I’m kind of anchored down,’” he says. “But really that’s a pretty temporary term. If you’re going to anchor down in a boat somewhere you’ll be there for a day or two but then you pick up and go again. I was thinking about my time in Missoula and how I really do plan on coming back. I hope that happens.”

Christopher McElroy’s Vision > Place opens at the Clay Studio Friday, May 1, at 5:30 PM. Free.
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