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Myth Making

William Morris exhibit connects viewers to the world


There are certain objects and sites that evoke reverence, a sense of connection with something larger, and that in their own way articulate something quite real and moving yet also unspeakable and untouchable. A solitary walk along the beach, an early morning stroll through your own neighborhood, or a hike through the mountains can as easily provide this type of experience as a visit to grand sites like Machu Picchu, Stonehenge or, closer to home, the Grand Canyon. These types of experiences remind us that we're just a small part of the continuum of this living planet that we have the privilege to dwell on. We share the Earth with all its wonders, and it never hurts to be reminded of that. Somehow (and I'm not sure exactly how), the work of glassblower William Morris manages to remind us of these important connections and truths. Just as there's mystery in how this internationally acclaimed glassblower manages to create such compelling objects, there's equal wonder at his sheer mastery of the glass medium. Morris is a magician when it comes to working with glass: His craft is so well honed and realized that after viewing the exhibit and looking at his past exhibit catalogs, it seems as if there's nothing that he's not capable of crafting out of glass.

Because of this, the current Mint Museum of Craft + Design exhibit William Morris: Myth, Object and the Animal is a delight for the senses and a teaser to the mind. Even if you don't like the objects that Morris creates, you cannot dismiss his craft or his efforts. With a skilled hand and a truly instinctive spirit, Morris' technical mastery of an extremely difficult medium is simply mind-boggling and worthy of great respect.

With the exception of text panels and installation elements, there's not a single object in this exhibit that isn't made of glass. And, taken further, all of the objects are hand-crafted, blown glass, not made with molds. And this is precisely what's so astounding. Morris' innovative use of color, sculptural design and surface texture are worth marveling over.

In this show, both animals and humans take center stage -- literally and sometimes merely by suggestion. Even when we don't see man or beast, we know that they were there. For instance, the Cache Installation, a ritual burial site of sorts, features neither man nor beast but only their skeletal remains. Another installation in the show features mounted horned skull trophies of animals, again asserting the presence of human beings through the ritual of the hunt. An area across from this installation features ravens and crows perched atop, beside, or within various vessels that look like black figure pottery from some ancient culture -- yet keep in mind, this is glass you're looking at, not pottery.

Morris tricks our eyes with technical virtuosity that makes glass appear to be whatever he wants -- clay, bone, wood, bronze. However, at the same time that this trickery takes place, it is precisely because these objects are made of glass that we're so moved. It's the translucency of the glass that gives these objects psychic energy. The reflection of light within and without transforms their status from mere artifact to a lightning rod for our imagination that seeks to understand the nature of objects, their origin and their making.

My favorite part of the exhibit is the Artifact Panel. It consists of more than 100 objects ranging from one inch to about eight inches, and it's mesmerizing. It also seems to offer insight into Morris' intentions and methods as a maker. The wall arrests our thinking and invites us to merely act upon instinct to follow its colors, its rhythms, its shadows. It urges us to discover and to make choices -- perhaps to choose a favorite or a least favorite, one we'd like to own, one that amuses or frightens us. All the while, it's the exercise of selecting that helps us to define ourselves, our stories, who we are as unique individuals.

From talking to Morris and listening to his lecture, this seems to be how he goes about making as well as living his life. The work is about process, and "in the process of making, it turns to pure instinct." And because his work is based on instinct and inspiration, it's not about replication; rather, it's "about the journey and the stories that locate us in the world," as well as the objects chosen that have personal meaning to him.

Morris is an alchemist who transforms molten glass into portraits of humans, remains of animals and prehistoric vessels, as well as into crows, ravens, ancient bones and decorative adornment. In the exhibit, you'll see all of these things and more. Myth, Object and the Animal is a highly visual and visceral experience, and an event you don't want to miss.

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