Have you ever created something that made you feel more alive? Amazing things can happen when we follow our passion.
Delizioso, Image © Dane Gallery
Mary Ann Toots Zynsky, known as Toots, decided as a pre-teen that she was meant to be an artist, beginning her creative life as a painter and sculptor. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which she had been told was the best of the best. And yet, nothing really sparked her interest; everything felt stilted and quiet. In fact, she planned to leave the school at the end of her Freshman year in order to pursue studies leading toward medical school. One day she grabbed a map and decided she would visit each department, perhaps hoping for a reason to stay. Everything changed as she walked down a hallway to a room that had been deliberately placed far from the main studios. Here, loud music played and hot glass swirled in the air, manipulated by artists that moved together to make colorful shapes that solidified into glass. I’m sure the music was loud and the atmosphere somewhat wild… it was 1970 after all…but the voice inside of her must have spoken with a voice to match. The next week, after classes ended, the glass studio, which had recently gained independence from the ceramics department, opened its doors to anyone who was interested. Toots Zynsky did not miss her opportunity.
Video via Corning Museum of Glass on YouTube
It is fascinating to note that Toots was not drawn so much to the final product as she was mesmerized by the process. It was the music reverberating in the space, the concept of collaboration as a kind of dance, the roar of the furnace, the hot liquid glass in motion and the counterpoint of color that quickened her pulse. When art comes from this kind of place, the final form it takes is secondary. It also didn’t hurt that this was a new medium for art and there were few rules to be broken. It was an exciting time to work with glass. On top of that, she earned her BFA working under the guidance of Dale Chihuly, who remains one of the biggest names in glass art worldwide.
In the early 1970s, along with Chihuly and some fellow RISD graduates, Toots was part of the founding team of the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington state. Her work was groundbreaking: experimental installations featuring slumped plate glass and forays into video and performance art in collaboration with artist Buster Simpson. Finding new and interesting possibilities, she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay with glass. She returned to the east coast to pursue new projects in new media.
“I started wondering what I was doing with glass and why. There were other materials and ideas that fascinated me, and I started working with cloth, light, wire, and barbed wire. I was interested in barbed wire because it’s such a powerful symbol of the failure of humanity— that we had to come up with this material to keep each other apart.”
AWOL, 1982 © Toots Zynsky
In 1980, Toots became assistant director and head of the hot shop at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop in New York City, now UrbanGlass. Here she pioneered works that combined glass with barbed wire, pulling her interests together. She began to work with nets made from heavy glass threads which she dubbed filet de verre. These threads were fused and shaped inside of a kiln. Her first piece made entirely from filet de verre was Clipped Grass (1982). It is a beautiful, humble work of realism, glass fashioned into the image of a nest made from grass clippings. This simple piece was the precursor to the fanciful colored forms which would become Toots’ signature work.
Clipped Grass (1982), Image © The Corning Museum of Glass
Spring Grass (1983), Image © Yale University Art Gallery
In the early days, she had to employ teams of assistants to pull the glass into threads using an old Venetian method. This took time and resulted in unevenness. There was also a limit to the length of thread that could be produced. When Mathijs Van Manen, an inventor who had also worked with special effects for film and television, came to New York from Amsterdam to check out her work, he was amazed at what she was doing and dumbfounded at how she was doing it. Within 24 hours, he rigged a machine to turn rods of glass into threads. Toots took a trip to Europe to collaborate further on the design of this machine and stayed on the continent for 16 years. Together, she and Van Manen produced a series of kilns which she still uses in her work, although these instruments now incorporate cutting edge software and electronics. She also has special heat resistant gloves that allow her to reach into the kiln and twist the work into shape. These are the product of a desperate moment in Italy when, showing her technique to Italian craftsmen, she plunged her hands into a kiln to rescue a piece that was going awry.
“The architects were so curious and I was so nervous and the piece just wasn’t going right. All of a sudden, I reached into the kiln, grabbed the vessel, and gave it a big squeeze. Finally, I had the form that I wanted! And I thought, Why didn’t I think of this before? I was fed up with the piece, so I tried something different because I had nothing to lose.”
Contrappunto, 2015 Image © Habatat Galleries
Davvero, 2014 © Habatat Galleries
There is more to her work than technique, innovation and boldness. There is a great deal of sensitivity. As a synesthete, Toots relates sound to color. The rhythms of music are translated into patterns of colored glass that are like frozen portraits of sound.
Pajaritos en la Cabeza and Cabellos de Angel (“Tierra del Fuego” Series), 1988 © Toots Zynsky
Sottacqua, 2005 Image © Hooks-Epstein Galleries
After going through a period of loss in which she no longer felt like dancing, or even moving or listening to music, she began to create darker pieces with fewer colors and more shading, explorations not of music rhythms, but of the feelings she had for people she had lost. What an honor to be remembered in such a personal way by such a great artist!
Avvincente (left), Avviluppare (center), Avvio (right)
2010 © Toots Zynsky
Rondine, Image © Echt Gallery
Toots Zynsky continues to make beautiful things that fill a need in her life and delight others. She has collaborated on costume and scenic design for theatrical works and continues to explore what glass can express. Please check out more of her work on her website.
Riposo, Image © Echt Gallery