Interview with glass artist, Richard Jolley

Richard Jolley has produced a remarkable body of sculpture that explores the human figure, its timeless beauty, and expressive potential. The artist’s work falls into distinct series, each serving as a stage in his evolution toward increasingly evocative and technically challenging forms. Jolley’s work is both symbolic and visual. He brings a new and innovative treatment to glass sculpture unlike anything that others have done.

Richard Jolly
Richard Jolley
Richard Jolley Portrait

In the exhibition, Selections from the Richard and Barbara Basch Collection: American Studio Glass-50 Years of Extraordinary Achievement, currently on view in the Richard and Barbara Basch Gallery are celebrations of a movement which began in the 60’s and continues to this day. All of the artists in this exhibition have some connection with Studio Glass including innovative glass artist, Richard Jolley.

Richard Jolley has produced a remarkable body of sculpture that explores the human figure, its timeless beauty, and expressive potential. The artist’s work falls into distinct series, each serving as a stage in his evolution toward increasingly evocative and technically challenging forms. Jolley’s work is both symbolic and visual. He brings a new and innovative treatment to glass sculpture unlike anything that others have done. His work is proactive; engaging the mind while captivating the eye with rich colors, sensuality, humor, and unique textures. And while the artist, who continues to work and live in Knoxville, Tennessee, is one of the country’s premier glass sculptors, he also works in other techniques including bronze sculpture, painting, drawing and printmaking.

Richard Jolly
Richard Jolley, Richard and Barbara Basch College at Ringling College of Art + Design

sVA: A great deal has been written about your art, but not so much your early life. How did growing up in East Tennessee influence your development as an artist?

RJ: People talk about being an artist and being 4 years old, and they knew they were going to be an artist. I consider most people being 4 years old wanting to be a fireman, or a cowboy, so I don’t consider that to be very relevant. I think coming of age is something when you decide what you are going to do with your life. So for myself, that happened to me when I was in college; that decision of what I was going to do with my life. I think in a sense of context, a lot of people talk about the speciality of intellectual articulation. It is very similar in the sciences and the arts, and if you truly talk to anyone from East Tennessee, Oak Ridge was not truly East Tennessee. It is a very unique microcosm. It is where the isotope separation part of the Manhattan Project occurred. With that said, my parents did not move there till 1956. At that point from the 50’s to the 60’s, there was isotope separation going into the Cold War. Oak Ridge was moving towards a pure scientific research area. I don’t know if it is true today, but everyone said it had one of the highest PHD areas per captia in the country. So I think there was an interest in education, there was an interest in knowledge, there was an interest in culture. Whether it was the symphony, or things like the visual arts and art centers.

sVA: What were your early inspirations that led to glass becoming your primary medium?

RJ: I think the thing that fascinated me about glass was the physicality of the making of the work. I was introduced to glass when there was a larger experimentation. A lot of the professors were on the G.I. Bill from the Korean War, or if they were older, from World War II. There was that growth of the arts through the G.I .Bill that infected the collegiate system. During the time period of the early 70’s, there was a lot of experimentation of materials. Everyone talks about Jackson Pollock making these radical paintings with industrial materials, today that is considered the norm. Or you talk about Toulouse Lautrec working straight on Vitreograph stones instead of having the artist, craftsman, and the printer work on them. At the time when these things were done, they seemed radical then. Later they seem like a completely normal process. I was introduced to glass at a time when there was experimentation with material. Whether it was ceramics, plastics, or non traditional metals, a lot of it moved towards industrial application.

Richard Jolley
Richard Jolley, Aqua Dove Amber Branch Green Thistle, Richard Jolley, 2009, 17 by 23 by 8 inches, hot formed glass

sVA: So its not so much the medium, its what you do with the medium?

RJ: I think relativity, yes. I think the one nice thing about glass is, that there not being a tradition in sculpture, there’s a wide range of creativity that had not been articulated before.

sVA: What are your current inspirations for creating your work?

RJ: If you look at work as being figurative, its always talking about the human condition. Some things are very obvious and some things aren’t. It’s like the project that I am working on for the Knoxville Museum. I view it as a life cycle- something very simple where we have emergence. A primordial of where we come from- emergence, where are we going? Sort of that separation from youth to maturity, desire, tree of life, the contemplation. And then where are we going? I think most of my work that I am doing now relates to that issue, or a section of that issue.

sVA: Do you create drawings of your sculptures prior to the creation?

RJ: It varies, if I need to I do, and if I don’t need to then I don’t. At this point in my career, I have a great capacity to visualize three dimensionally. Traditionally, if you look at some work, you do a drawing- a small maquette, or a maquette out of a different material. A small piece out of the material you are going to use, and possibly a larger scale piece. I am very aware of how to use those techniques. For this large installation we are doing, some of the components I do not need to do a drawing of. If you saw a layout on some of the figures that we are casting and fabricating, with the steel armature and steel drawing with the glass insets, they are done very traditionally in the sense of the cartoon. The tracing paper to get certain components of it, the construction, the re-tracing, the re-fabrication. So it’s very traditional like you would set up a fresco where you do a part, you do a section, you complete it, and you move to the next part.

Richard Jolley
Richard Jolley, Feather Head #6

sVA: When you are shaping glass, how much of it is knowing exactly how a piece will turn out and how much of it is allowing the material to determine how it ends?

RJ: I think there is always a material usage, and I think there is always a parameter of what you accept. For myself, I have always approached glass in a somewhat Abstract Expressionist type of approach. You start with the proper components, you know the approximation of where you are finishing, and then you execute it to make it look the best you can. With that said, at this point without trying to sound egotistical, I am one of the American maestros where I don’t necessarily make something and say, “This is going to be six inches tall and this is this”. I think there is always going to be an approximation where you know something is going to be this size and approximately this scale, and I can be fairly articulate right now without the material dominating the conversation.

sVA: Last July you traveled to Swaziland, Africa and Venice, Italy. Can you comment on those experiences and what you gained from them?

RJ: I spent January in Venice working on a body of work for a show. I found it very interesting. I think as you become older you like the context of tradition, and you always look at how you become part of that tradition. To skew off a little bit, I had a monogram written about my work by Sam Hunter, who gave Jackson Pollock one of his first reviews with the New York Times. In talking with him during his visit, he spoke about going to the Cedar Bar, and how Williem de Kooning and others came in, and he was being pushed out when the girlfriends came over cause he was the young kid on the block. I think when you have things like that happen to you, you realize that there is a continuum in the arts. Going to Murano and Venice, I think there is a pure enjoyment of being no longer a student, and being a pure equal. Also, I think the thing that is very nice about Murano and Venice, is that it is a unique city because its pedestrian, in the sense of walking. It pulls us very close to the human scale. When you are in America, you jump in your car and drive somewhere and get out as close as you can to an event. Over there, it is very much more of the old world, and I think that is one of the things that has always fascinated me about travel. It’s how two time periods can exist simultaneously.

Richard Jolley
Richard Jolley, Force of Gravity

sVA: You just mentioned a little bit about tradition and going to the other countries. It seems as though the contemporary art world is moving in a direction where artists are constantly seeking new mediums and dealing with very internalized concepts. Do you feel like tradition is being lost in art?

RJ: I think that is a question that there is no answer to. One of the things that I find interesting about glass is, although it is fragile, it is completely durable. So in the context of making an enduring statement, go back to the Dadists or Conceptualism. What is the malice between Conceptualism and a finished plastic object? Right now, I think there is so much going on in the world, that everything exists simultaneously. For myself, I try to lump it into two things. I try to be somewhat black and white. There is good art and there is bad art. If you look at all the schisms of art, let’s talk about video art. You see a lot of video art that is just completely boring, and then you look at someone like Bill Viola, and you say to yourself, “Oh my gosh, this is fabulous”! So I think it is all simultaneous.

The thing that I look at with the arts is, I consider a student level, secondary artists, and primary artists. It is extremely hard to make all three of those transitions, and I think that there is hierarchy in whatever niche you are talking about. There is some work that is being made that is fabulous. I was reading an article in the New York Times about the happenings in New York, and that they were very temporal. They asked Claus Oldenberg about the happenings and what did they all mean, and he said something like, “It all happened so long ago, I really cannot remember”. I think that is true because most artists look to the future with what they are doing and believe in their past. I guess I should of brought up that context when I was talking with the students about the necessity for repetition to become proficient at what you do, and the sense of technical virtuosity. I must admit that I don’t spend much time thinking about those things anymore. I use to be much more interested in the consideration of what makes fine art, pure art. At this point, I just go out and work and don’t get bogged down with things.

When we travel, we go to museums, and when we were up in New York we went to the Modern. I saw the de Kooning show which I thought was fabulous, and then we went out into a different room and there was this sort of soup kitchen installation. For myself, I said, “This is not art that is of interest to me”, and yes I understand the context of what it is. I guess if I was worried about it I might be intimidated by the fact that I did not understand it, but there is nothing to understand. It is a sort of ‘day and the life’. I look at it as another form of genre art, and a cross between performance. Do I find it interesting and enduring? Absolutely not, but someone does.

sVA: What would you consider your breakthrough success, and what is success for you?

RJ: I don’t think there is ever a complete breakthrough of success in the context. I think if you look at success in the context of America, it’s an economic based thing. As a young person, I wanted to become an artist. I have been successful at that. I have lived the, “American Dream”. It is not someone else’s dream, it is mine. So, in that context, I am successful.

Richard and Barbara Basch Collection
Richard and Barbara Basch Collection at Ringling College of Art + Design

American Studio Glass – 50 Years of Extraordinary Achievement Selections from the Richard and Barbara Basch Collection for more information, visit: http://sarasotavisualart.com/2012/01/american-studio-glass-50-years-of-extraordinary-achievement/

For Richard Jolley’s website visit www.richardjolley.com