When the fledgling artists of the Peninsula Glass Guild staged their first juried show 23 years ago, it was hard to feel encouraged about their future.
It took a few years — plus the seminal interest of pioneering studio glass artist Kent Ipsen of Virginia Commonwealth University — before the group's mostly home-grown members began to explore their medium with a passion and ambition that dramatically elevated the quality of their work and the importance of their annual competition.
As Corning Museum of Glass curator Tina Oldknow discovered when she came down to jury the latest edition, there's nothing provincial about this once mostly local show, which years ago began attracting accomplished artists from across Hampton Roads and Virginia to the Charles H. Taylor Arts Center in Hampton.
That's why — after confessing her surprise at the quality of the work — she invited the artists in the 23rd Annual Juried Exhibition to submit pieces to Corning's nationally known annual contemporary glass survey.
It's also why Hampton Arts Commission director Michael Curry took time to look back and celebrate his long relationship with the guild as he introduced Oldknow to the audience gathered for her December lecture at the American Theatre.
"I love glass. That's why we did the guild's first juried show 23 years ago. But I never expected it to evolve as strongly as this," Curry recalls.
"We've always tried to help groups that would make the Arts Center better. And over the years our relationship with the guild has really paid off. These were people who were very serious about glass as an art form — and they worked very hard to make it grow."
Among the driving forces behind that growth was Newport News artist Ali Rogan, who began as a promising enthusiast and developed into both a widely admired talent and an influential teacher.
After years of honing her skills at VCU, the Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle and Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, she's become an unusually adept and widely versed technician, largely because of her lifelong chase after evocative yet sometime elusive visions of nature.
Inspired by her explorations of the forest and — especially — the banks and beds of streams, Rogan's current work hits that mark squarely, employing her skills as a sculptor and colorist to recreate three small but compelling still-lifes made up of fallen leaves, acorns, stones and decaying branches found on the woodland floor.
All three have their virtues as eye-fooling, tour de force recreations of the seemingly insignificant debris cast up by the natural world. But "Hemlock Marrow" transforms two weathered, ancient-looking branches in an unexpected way, using meticulously detailed, clear cast-glass replicas to produce a feeling of soul.
Each looks more like a spiritual relic, in fact, than a piece of rotten wood. And they resonate with such mystery that Oldknow gave the piece Best in Show.
Among the guild's other success stories is York County artist Emilio Santini, an Italian-born, Murano-trained lampwork virtuoso whose eye-popping submissions to the annual show ultimately led to a nationwide reputation.
Few of his previous pieces, however, could have exceeded this year's "Perseus Recycled," an astonishing piece of craftsmanship and imagination that Oldknow recognized with the exhibit's Hampton Arts Commission Award.
Fabricated from black glass decorated with gold, this trophylike piece begins with a wide circular foot and a clear, ring-shaped stem filled with twists of color. Then it swells out into a classically inspired, vaselike form that the daring Santini tops off with a spike-covered ball — not to mention a deftly sculpted figure of the famous Greek hero and the severed, snake-covered head of Medusa.
What results is a contemporary re-synthesis of traditional Venetian techniques and forms that will leave you shaking your head in disbelief, then admiration. Don't miss the chance to see it.
Erickson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 247-4783. Find him at dailypress.com/entertainment arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
Peninsula Glass Guild 23rd Annual Juried Exhibition
Where: Charles H. Taylor Arts Center, 4205 Victoria Blvd., Hampton
When: Tuesday-Sunday through Jan. 23
Online: Go to dailypress.com/glassguild to see pictures of the prize-winning works.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times