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summer 2001 : arts

William Morris. photo courtesy Friesen Gallery

Heat, Gravity & Motion—
William Morris

by Tina Cole 

Glass blowing is not for the meek of spirit or weak of body. The craft requires great physical and mental stamina. To say that glass blower and part-time Sun Valley resident William Morris is physically fit is an understatement. Working in his busy studio, Morris is the one to carry the heavy glass pieces to and from the 1700 degree Fahrenheit furnace for the umpteenth time, quench the work and painstakingly sculpt the semiliquid, hot material. As he puts it in his characteristically unassuming way, glass blowing “is not a religion. It’s an occupation.”

Morris is considered one of the world’s master glass blowers. His name is synonymous with the Pacific Northwest Glass Movement and the renowned Pilchuck Glass School, north of Seattle, where he continues to maintain his working studio.

by William Morris. photo courtesy Friesen GalleryMorris’ pieces are a complex melange of forms inspired by prehistoric art, Egyptian sculpture, Native American culture and Peruvian antiquities. It is seductively beautiful in its coloration, texture and primordial subject matter. It is also cutting edge, contemporary sculpture, astonishing in its ability to be glass, thereby breaking many of the preconceived ideas and rules surrounding traditional glass blowing.

Morris’ work is an extension of the modern studio glass movement, which got its start in the early 1960s when techniques were invented to melt glass at relatively low temperatures in small furnaces. One of the pioneers of the movement, Dale Chihuly, founded the Pilchuck School in 1971.

William Morris started his art career in ceramics and art studies at California State University in Chico, but it was not until he went to Pilchuck—initially to work as a truck driver—that he evolved into an internationally distinguished glass blower.

by William Morris. photo courtesy Friesen GalleryMorris considers Chihuly a close friend and mentor. He has great respect for the man and his art. When Chihuly lost sight in his eye after an automobile accident, it was Morris who blew his glass pieces for him and became his lead assistant for many years, all the while perfecting his own art and precise techniques of glass blowing and sculpting.

However, the two men and their work could hardly be more different. Chihuly can be brash, boisterous and wildly generous, which is mirrored in his dazzling array of garishly bright, colored glass works exhibited in huge scale or overwhelming groupings. He is the consummate showman.

Morris, on the other hand, is quiet, self-contained and spiritually introspective.

Morris’ art requires a special studio with a glass furnace that keeps working glass malleable for sculpting and shaping at a minimum temperature of 1700º F. He works with two assistants when blowing his glass forms. John Ormbek, a close associate since 1977 from art student days at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, does all of his glass decoration. Ormbek developed and perfected a decorative process remarkably similar to Native American sand painting. He uses finely powdered, colored glass sprinkled and shaped on smooth metal plates. When the powdered glass art and its plate are heated, Morris rolls a glowing hot glass shape over the design and the images are transferred to the artwork in the reverse.

William Morris. photo courtesy Friesen Gallery Morris’ acute observation of and close relationship with nature are evident in his work. He is an avid bow hunter and relishes his time at a high-elevation elk camp each autumn. He is also an accomplished climber on the rock formations abounding in Sun Valley’s mountainous back yard.

Every autumn Morris returns to Pilchuck to execute a body of work for the coming year with new ideas in mind, eager to experiment and work out the best way technically to achieve his objectives. When asked if he envisions changing his direction or approach to glass blowing, he answered that he “cannot say what or where my work will be at the end of this year, or in five, or 10 years from now. I love to work immediately with the material.” 
With each new series comes a different set of technical challenges Morris must take on before he reaches a degree of expertise and efficiency with the glass and its many variables. At the start of any new project, the attrition rate is high and often pieces require multiple attempts; some series never reach completion. Morris has a pragmatic perspective toward the process. 

“Glassblowing is like relationships. It’s not as important how good you are the first time as it is how well you fix your mistakes.”

by William Morris. photo courtesy Friesen Gallery Morris is not just good at what he does, he is one of the best in the world, but he will casually shrug off such accolades to get back to what are most important to him—his art, his family and his favorite environs in which to explore, bow hunt and climb.

Morris’ work is exhibited internationally by major museums, corporations and private individuals. It can be seen locally in numerous private collections and at the Friesen Gallery in Ketchum.

Morris, however, has canceled this year’s exhibition schedule of new work in order to devote all his time to researching and developing a series of new ideas. Two museums will exhibit established works from his existing repertoire—from March 24 through May 27 at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art in Fort Wayne, Ind., and from June 8 through August 19 at the Philbrook Art Museum in Tulsa, Okla.

The year 2002 should be a very big year for new work by William Morris.