Randy Strong's one ambition in high school was to become a professional football player. What he actually became was a maker of fragile and beautiful glass vessels and glass sculptures. The transition from jock to artist was not made entirely by choice.
In 1962, playing football, Strong broke his neck. He was 15. He spent a year and a half hospitalized in Phoenix, paralyzed from the neck down.
He recovered, but there was no possibility of his becoming a professional football player. The accident is still affecting his health. "It's not painful, but the injury severed all the muscles over the top of my shoulders, so that every time I swing my arms real fast, I dislocate my shoulders."
The year and a half in the hospital gave him time to think.
"But I didn't think. I watched a lot of television, and they kept me on drugs. I didn't think too much because if I looked at my situation, I found it very depressing. I had always been athletic. The only thing I wanted was to be a professional football player. My life was down the tubes."
In 1965, after recovering and having left Judson School in Scottsdale, Ariz., Strong went through three years of emotional withdrawal. "I bummed around a lot. I hitch-hiked back and forth across the United States and ended up in Laguna Beach. I got into trouble with the law and had to leave after having been busted for drugs a number of times."
The drug problem had begun in high school, "where I first heard about smoking dried banana peel." Later, he went to Topanga Canyon for a "love- in" with a friend who was back from Vietnam and was taking harder drugs.
"We got busted at the love-in because he had so many pills that he was taking for his wound. They let us off because he had been to Vietnam."
Strong was in trouble with the law several more times. His attorney would tell the court how Strong's promising football career had been ruined by the fall and how his hospitalization had made him reliant on drugs.
"But I had long hair--these were the 1960s--and I think that the courts had heard enough sob stories. One judge said that if I came back, it was going to be really hard for me next time."
So Strong left Laguna and went north, enrolling in Diablo Valley Jun- ior College in Contra Costa County, about 20 miles from San Francisco. Rather at random, he signed on for a course in ceramics making, along with classes in photography and computers.
"One day, I walked into a classroom and I saw this man sitting there mak- ing a vase, and that was the second time in my life that I fell in love with something. I saw the kids watching him and the beauty of everything that was happening right there." It was in ceramics class that Strong started getting good grades for the first time. One night, he visited the glass-blowing department at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. He was excited by the medium. "I realized that clay was not as immediate a material as glass. With glass, you can start and finish a piece right away; you have to fire clay in biscuit and then glaze. And I was very impatient."
Strong took out student loans, went to the California College of Arts and Crafts and started blowing glass. He had stopped taking drugs "because I wasn't searching any more; I wasn't so distressed. I had found something and was putting everything into it." The former football player was also reassessing his identity.
"Everyone used to call me a jock. I used to feel that they were saying: 'You've got no brains; it's like classifying someone because he's blond. But my mom always said that I was oversensitive." The oversensitive jock was turning into an artist.
After earning a bachelor's degree in art at the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1971, Strong went back to Diablo Valley Junior College, built a glass studio and taught for the summer session. Then, more by luck than by design, he won a scholarship to Osaka University in Japan.
"Osaka is San Francisco's sister city," he says. "It was a total fluke that I got the scholarship. I went into a gallery where a friend of mine was working, and he said: 'Why don't you apply?' I said: 'I would never win.' And he said: 'Well, I've seen some of the entries.' I happened to have three pieces of glass in the car and he suggested that I submit them. So, I sat down and wrote something out--the deadline was that afternoon."
Strong did not win the scholarship; someone else was chosen. But the winner backed out, and Strong received a telephone call one morning and heard that he had won the scholarship. "And I said: 'Oh, forget it.' It was, like, 8 a.m., and I thought that somebody was joking. I hung up. But they called back, and it was true."
In Japan, Strong lived in a Buddhist temple divided into rooms. Every morning, Strong--unlike the other American students--went out early to practice kendo (fighting with staves) with the Japanese Buddhist students.
There was no glass school in Osaka, so Strong began studying ceramics again. He found the potting tradition of Japan--with its emphasis on irregularity, so different from the symmetry of Chinese wares--inspiring.
"We were supposed to be trading arts, but I came away saying: 'I've learned so much more; I don't think that I've given them anything.' I felt that it was a very one-sided bargain."
The main thing that Strong gained from his stay in Japan was "a philosophy--that you can be respected and happy in any medium and be accepted. In the United States, it was 'You have to do this' and 'You must do it this way' and 'How are you going to make a living in that?'; in Japan, it was 'What you do is wonderful.' It doesn't matter what you do. You could be making tatami mats (the grass mats used in Japanese houses) and you could be fulfilled. No one would say 'Why don't you do something better and make some more money?' "
Strong has often returned to Japan. In the summer of 1983, he went with ceramist Pete Voulkos; a Tokyo gallery that was showing Voulkos' work put glassworks by Strong on show too.
Some of Strong's glasswork is blown traditionally--such as wine glasses (Walter and Joan Mondale have a set of glasses made by him) and vases, in- cluding the red-glowing "sunset" series. But what he's best known for are glass sculptures that have been poured into molds, rather than blown.
"I try to have a consideration for the medium and a consideration for myself," he says. "It's like a marriage. Pouring glass at Steuben, you could come out with really clear, fine pieces, but to me they are so controlled that they're stale and stiff. They don't have fluid emotion and life. They don't look as though they're about to jet off."
Some of Strong's sculptures represent the elements; water and ice are natural subjects for an artist in glass, and colored glass can take on the aspect of fire. Other pieces represent folds of the human body. Strong tapes off sections of the glass with electrical tape and then uses superfine glass beads--not sand--to blast the exposed sections. A sculpture of this kind takes him two weeks to tape and half a day to blast. He calls the process "glass etching." He also has been experimenting with neon tubes covered with dark opaque glass that is cut in order to produce "pulsating dots of color." Strong likes contrasts--the contrast between the smooth and blasted sections of glass; the contrast between thick wedges of glass and thin glass rods, which he uses together. "Thick and heavy, light and airy," he chants, as if beginning an old nursery rhyme.
When he began his sculpture work five years ago, Strong was frightened at the thought of what might emerge from the cunning of his hands. "It seemed as though it was difficult to pull out of myself something so unique and so different. And I was terrified about what I would come up with from myself--terrified of not finding anything at all, and terrified of finding something that might not be accepted. Because when I put myself out like that, it's acceptance or rejection of me--of everything I feel and think."
Strong was not unhappy with what emerged in his glasswork. "I guess that five years ago I got these images; I found them in the heart of my life. I got images in my head, and these took a second to produce--like flashes on a screen. And then I said: 'OK, now it's going to take me five years to create these images.' And I have been pursuing those images of five years ago."
Strong has made a series called "Images." His first show, at the Walter White Gallery in Carmel, was called "Images '82."
What are the images, or what are the images of ? Strong finds that these are difficult questions to answer. "People say: 'What's the name of this?' But I struggle so hard with names. I don't like to name the sculptures because if I say 'Swan,' people look for a swan. If I don't name it, they start making their own images out of it. And that is the fun part. I learn so much from people who come up to me and say: 'This is what I see in it.' And I say 'Yeah?' And it often is something I had never seen. So people participate in the artistic creation--like audience participation in a theater." Strong hopes that, in the far future, people will look upon his glasswork as they might look at the statues on Easter Island, "wondering where they came from, what they mean and perhaps who made them."
Strong admits, with ruefulness as well as pride, that "I devote my whole life to glass. I've never been married, I don't have any children and I'm 38. I'd love to have that now, but I've dedicated so much of my time to glass that I've lost two relationships that meant a lot to me. I put more time into my work, and they wouldn't stand for that. I don't blame them. Now, I could devote more time to a relationship, but, unfortunately, when you decide that, the relationships aren't there."
Nevertheless, dedication has its rewards. Strong employs four assistants in what is now a very flourishing business in Berkeley. He has three furnaces; the gas bills for them come to more than $2,000 a month. "It's very expensive, every time I get an idea." But Strong sells a single piece for up to $4,000. He starts work at 7 a.m. and blows glass until 4:35 p.m. Then he does book work for two hours, has dinner and returns to work on sculptures till midnight, seven days a week.
Slowly, Randy Strong's glasswork is winning recognition. In 1984, Gentlemen's Quarterly commissioned him to cast five crystal "GQ's" for their Man of the Year awards. One of the Men of the Year was tennis star Arthur Ashe.
As Strong was driving from Los Angeles airport along Coldwater Canyon on the way to visit a client, he saw Ashe bowling along in a Rolls-Royce. "As I passed him, I wanted to lean out of the window and shout: 'Hey! You're getting a piece of my glass!' "
Although some of Randy Strong's glasswork is traditional (vases and glasses), he is best known for poured glass sculptures. His studio employs four assistants and has three furnaces, and, as Strong admits, "it's very expensive every time I get an idea."