"Eve" Edris Eckhardt Cleveland, OH; 1975 H: 12 1/2" NBMOG Collection Gift: Dr. & Mrs. Jerome B. Raphael Acc. 1996.016
In 1953 Cleveland ceramist Edris Eckhardt (b.1905, d.1998) was in mid career. She had won dozens of juried awards, her ceramic sculpture was represented in museum collections around the world and her work was widely published in books and periodicals. As the head of the ceramics program of the Federal Arts Project/Works Progress Administration in the early 1930s and as an instructor in ceramics at the Cleveland School of Art since 1932, she had fostered generations of young proteges. Yet in 1953, at age 48, Eckhardt decided to make a radical change. Inspired by the shimmering optics of a few small bits of ancient glass seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, she undertook to rediscover the "lost" technique of Roman gold glass production.
The technique involved fusing decorated gold leaf between layers of colorless glass - an extraordinary challenge given the different melting temperatures and coefficients of expansion of the two materials - and it had not been practiced to her knowledge for more than 1,500 years. Eckhardt's success in this endeavor impressed museum academics on two continents. Energized by her success and by the great potential she saw in this exciting new direction for her work, Eckhardt would dedicate the remaining 30 years of her career to the exploration of glass as a medium for artistic expression.
Eckhardt mounted some of her gold glass panels in wooden light boxes. The illustrations to the right show the dramatic effects of different lighting on the same panel. To the far right the panel has just back lighting, while the near panel has both front and back lighting.
"Angel of the Morning" Gold Glass panel, 1964 20 1/4" H. x 11 1/2" W. NBMOG Collection Museum Purchase Acc. 2003.064
"Knight and Squire" Edris Eckhardt Cleveland, OH; 1959 16 3/8" H. x 8" W." NBMOG Collection Museum Purchase Acc. 2003.062
Botanical Laminate Edris Eckhardt Cleveland, OH; c. 1961 H: 5 1/2" (shard) NBMOG Collection Gift: Dr. Paul Nelson Acc. 1996.008
(far right) Bronze & Glass Sculpture Cleveland, OH; c. 1961 H: 9" Museum Purchase Acc. 2003.019
NBMOG has developed an extensive collection of Eckhardt's work, together with the work of Maurice Heaton of Nyack, NY and Frances and Michael Higgins of Riverside, IL. These artists were among the very few to explore glass in a studio setting before the 1960s. Eckhardt's work, in particular, takes advantage of the expressive potential of the medium. In it we find a rich mix of stylistic influences, including those of the famous Russian sculptor Alexander Archipenko, with whom Eckhardt studied for a short time in New York, and the thriving contemporary art scene in Cleveland during the early and mid 20th century.
Eckhardt, perhaps more than anyone else of her generation, sensed the creative possibilities of glass. Speaking at the National Conference of Artists and Craftsmen held in Seattle, WA in 1961, she described her revelation that glassmaking had been "an art long dormant," and that glass made by the individual artist, so broadly supplanted by mechanized production, should once again be revived. "I felt this field was wide open," she proclaimed, "[with] no standards, no rules, no fashions, no cults. It seemed made for the individualist and offered wide fields to explore unhampered and uncontrolled by fashions of the day."
Edris Eckhardt is believed to be the first American artist to mix and melt her own glass batch. She expanded beyond gold glass production into the area of cast cire perdue sculpture, having discussed the intricacies of the technique with its foremost practitioner, Frederick Carder. Carder, then in his 80s, was the renowned founder of the Steuben Glass Works of Corning, New York. In 1956 Eckhardt was awarded the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships to acknowledge and encourage her glassmaking pursuits, and in July of that year she delivered an address to the International Glass Conference in Paris. Other awards followed, including a prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Fellowship in 1959.
In 1961 Eckhardt traveled to the University of California, Berkeley, where she helped introduce glassmaking to the school's art department and where she developed a revolutionary process for casting bronze sculpture with glass inclusions. During the 1960s and 1970s, as the studio glass movement gained momentum following the development in Toledo of an efficient, small-scale glass furnace for use by independent craftsmen, Eckhardt added to her long list of technological innovations. She developed a new process for laminating hundreds of colored glass segments into a single panel, for entrapping plant material between fused sheets of glass and for drawing with molten glass using a mysterious "glass pen" of her invention. The exact nature of this pen remains a subject of speculation. In 1968 The Corning Museum of Glass recognized her many accomplishments by featuring her work as the subject of the museum's first contemporary single-artist show.