I was sitting in Will Dexter’s studio chatting about art, life and anything else that came to mind. He recalled, “On one occasion a psychiatrist asked me “How can you make someone creative?” I said that everyone was creative. If they were not creating things it was either because they had not yet found their medium or it had been trained out of them.”
Looking around at the fantastic art he had created I thought it was great good fortune that he had found his medium in glass and that he had never been trained out of his passion. But that was not a foregone conclusion.
He tells me that in his youth he was a “water rat”. Being brought up in Florida it was not surprising he spent a lot of time surfing or swimming in the ocean and even less surprising that he chose to study marine biology at the University of Miami.
(Will hard at work in his studio in Boyertown, East Pennsylvania)
But while he was there he took a couple of art classes and got the bug. It was his ceramics lecturer showing him some glass work he had created that was the real game changer. “I made a few calls and was soon enrolled in a three week glass workshop in Montana and I have been making it ever since. I found I was a sucker for glass”. That was over 40 years ago but the excitement and desire to create things using glass has never diminished. “If I had two or three lifetimes to live I would never run out of ideas” he says.
So what is it about glass that attracts him? “Working with glass is a bit like art meeting traditional American blue collar industry. Every bit of equipment we use we make and repair ourselves” he explained. “You might have an idea for something but you also have to work out the technical way to make it. A glass blower really has to be an engineer and a chemist as well as an artist” he added. I was left with the impression he got every bit as much satisfaction from finding the technical solutions to a project as he did from the art itself.
Take for example the glass lenses on the lights in the celebrated Kodak Theatre, now renamed the Dolby Theatre, where the Oscars ceremony takes place. He didn’t design them but he worked out the method of producing them and drilling them so they work perfectly in this prestigious building. And he is as proud of that achievement as of the fantastic pieces he has designed and created himself that are now in some of the most important collections and galleries in the world.
(An example of the glass panelling Will made for the Dolby Theatre)
His studio and workshop are in Boyertown, a former industrial town in East Pennsylvania. He moved there with his wife, another renowned glass designer, over 30 years ago despite friends saying it was an unlikely location for artists.
“At that time there was still a lot of traditional industry here with small iron works and woodworking shops and people thought we, as artists, might be shunned. But there is so much in common with those traditional industries in what we were doing we fitted right in and still love the place.”
His work ranges from small elements that get incorporated into wonderful jewellery, made by his studio manager Etta, through decorative but practical drinking glasses, wonderful representations of birds, fishes and other sea animals to huge abstract pieces that would act as a fantastic focal point in the grandest room.
I asked which he preferred to make:
“You will find that some people have fine motor skills and are superb at small detailed work using their fingertips where others put their whole body into their work. I’m one of the latter. I like manipulating the large pieces.”
He also liked the unpredictable, almost transient nature of glass which made working with it so exciting. He told me how it changed form as you work with it, add colour and manipulate it by blowing etc. It was pure craftsmanship and experience that ensured you got a final result you were happy with.
I particularly loved the large bowls that looked so fluid and full of life. It was clear his early love of the sea and of marine life still greatly influenced his work.
The Taylor Backes studio and gallery are quite a fixture in Boyertown. Local youngsters are invited in to try their hand at working with glass. At Hallowe’en you will find queues of excited children waiting to get a chance to blow a glass pumpkin. Adults also get a chance to try their hand. I am sure William is helping hundreds of people to find their creativity and maybe even their medium in glass.
I was intrigued by the glass from which we were enjoying our Benromach. It was a beautiful blue rimmed beaker with a trace of golden gossamer veined through it. “We get that effect by rolling the ball of molten glass over a sheet of 23 carat gold leaf before blowing it” he explained. I also loved a set of simple glasses with flashes of colour kaleidoscoping through them. “I designed those for a friend’s 80th Birthday he told me. I got a lovely letter from him telling me that every time he took one down to use they made him smile. We now call them our Happy Glasses” and I could see what he means.
But I don’t think anyone could come away from a visit to Will in the Taylor Backes studio without a smile on their face.
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