Claudia Whitten, Kiln-Formed Glass Artist
Claudia Whitten works on a kiln-formed glass piece in her studio.
Claudia - Creating kiln-formed glass is a process, and I start with a very preliminary drawing of the piece that I want to create, and then I do the actual drawing onto glass. So I cut sheets of glass into the shape I want, put it onto my worktable, and then I sift glass powder over the top of the glass. And then with different tools that make the marks that I want into the powder, I create a drawing. From that drawing, it goes into the kiln, and then once it's fused together, it becomes one solid, smooth piece. And then once it comes out of the kiln, I can then process more. And then the second process, I add in the colorization of the leaves. And when the leaves are in, it once again goes into a full fuse. In the full fuse, it becomes smooth and flat again. After that, when it comes out of the kiln, then I will cold-work it with a wet-belt sander and sandblasting. When I get the effect that I want, it gets cleaned, back into the kiln over a ceramic mold, which it will be slumped into, which is another firing process, and then it will take on the shape that I want and, in this particular piece, be a table standup.
Claudia - So, the piece goes in for three firings. The first firing of the powder into the glass is a full-fuse firing at approximately about 25 hours. It ramps up the different temperatures. Glass has to be annealed and held at a temperature for X amount of time, depending on the size and shape of the glass and how thick it is, and so each firing schedule is slightly different. The first firing schedule on this I'm very conservative, and it has to cool very slowly down to room temperature, so my firing schedule is approximately 25 hours. The second firing, when I add the leaves in, it is another full fuse, and, once again, it ends up being about 25 hours. And then the third firing is a lower temperature where it doesn't go up. The first two firings go up to about 1490. The second firing I take up to 1180, and it is enough to soften the glass and for it to actually move and take on the shape of the mold, and that firing is less, and that's about 20. Twenty hours; so total, about 70 hours.
Claudia - I first started in stained glass, and I was going to take an adult education class for quilting, because I was doing quite a bit of sewing and quilting, and I thought, well, glass, stained glass, is very similar to quilting in the fact that you're putting blocks of color down. So I thought, oh, well, why not do something new and different. And as soon as I touched glass and started working with it, I just fell in love with it. People started buying my pieces. I was a single mom at the time, didn't have a lot of money. I did a lot of different types of stuff with just plain plate glass and some Bas Relief pieces. People in the public started supporting me, and then I kind of grew from there. And it was natural for me to get into fusing, because my pieces in stained glass, I was getting really tired of doing the block colors, and I started doing layers, and my pieces were getting pretty thick. And then I started reading about fusing, and I went to Camp Colton in Oregon and took an extensive two-week course in fusing, and I was in love. Came home, couldn't afford a kiln. The first kiln was given to me by another artist friend, and I began fusing, and I fused everything I could afford to get my hands on. And, once again, the public buying these very primitive, beginning pieces supported me in growing into doing more to where then I advanced in taking classes with international glass artists and different people who could really teach me how to advance myself. And then I just progressed into kind of a full evolution back into what my first love was, which was nature, and so that's kind of the place where I stay most of the time.
One of Whitten's finished kiln-formed glass pieces.
Claudia - Nature is something that I've always loved. I come from the east coast, and the first time I came to Idaho, I just absolutely fell in love with Idaho, and there was just something in my heart that I felt at home. I got to move around and live in the woods a lot and cabins and different places in northern Idaho and many parts of Idaho and Washington. And just the trees, I just fell in love with the trees, being around all the different types of trees. I was fortunate enough to actually see a tree fall, naturally fall in the forest. And quaking aspens, I remember the first time I saw quaking aspens was in a meadow in the mountains outside of Salmon and creeks running and the breeze blowing through the leaves and the sound and the whole feel of it. I mean, it was like being in heaven, you know. I just absolutely loved it. And, you know, walking - I'm a gardener. I love to garden. I love - I notice a lot of little details in just the leaves and the wildflowers. And Idaho, as rugged as it is, has some of the most delicate flowers growing among the rocks, and so I gather those, and I press them, and I make designs out of them and just - there's, you know, a certain amount of joy to me, and there's joy to the people when they come in. There's people that come into my booth and say there's just a certain feeling in it when they come in, and I know what it is. It's nature within themselves and that feeling that they get when they're out in nature and enjoying whatever areas they like.
Claudia - Sometimes - well, nature is something that really inspires me, but in conceptual work, sometimes you're working with more emotions and more abstract feelings. And so sometimes when I'm doing some of my contemporary works, like my deep bowl vessels, they're more emotional, like the summer vessel that I did that have the trees on the outside. The inside is just the components of the tree as it evolves and comes to the outside of the vessel. So sometimes there's more of a deeper thought process in my work that I'm doing. I love playing with texture. I did a whole series of vessels called earthenware that were inspired by the rocks that you see in Idaho. And I love that when people see my work they have to touch it because they think it is textural, but once it's fused together, of course, it's flat and smooth, but I was able to capture that. And then those pieces were blown by a gaffer team out of Driggs, and, you know, they created those into a form that I couldn't make at the time, but now I can.
Claudia - In the deep bowl vessel series, I studied with a glass artist Karl Herron from Ireland, and I took a class back in Maryland. And I was so excited to take the class, because I could actually take the vessels now, myself, in the kiln through multiple firings and slowly slumping them deeper and deeper into these deep bowl vessels that I could have 100% control and depend on myself, although I need an assistant to open the kiln when I'm working on them so that I can suit up and go in and manipulate the mold and control the drop into these bowls. But it was something that now I can do on my own, and that's pretty exciting to me, and that's something that I want to visit some more. In the meantime, I have obligations to fill with some galleries that I have to get some work done by spring, and then I can start playing again.
Whitten photographs aspen trees.
Claudia - For many years, kiln artists, since you're working with gravity, our pieces were very flat, very gentled slumps. You could make bowls but not very deep. Now we're making, you know, a 7-inch high, 10-inch wide vessel into these deep bowl molds, and so you can't just like go there. You have to create the disc. Then you have to drop it into the first mold, then you drop it into the second mold, and then you slump it into the third mold, which is the final process. And there's quite a bit of skill involved, because you to have make sure that your vessel is dropping properly into these molds so that you don't have very much of the top to cut off, and then you cold-work the top to make it smooth. And so this is - these are one of a kind, where my quaking aspens, each drawing, is actually one of a kind, but they are more production work. And so the deep bowl vessels represent more conceptual thought and different work to where they're more exclusive.
Claudia - The first vessels that I was making, I would fire a tile; a large glass tile. Then those would be taken after I had made four or five of them. I'd go visit a glassblowing studio that would take those tiles for me. We would heat them up, and then the glassblower would pick it up, and they're called roll-ups. And so they would actually create a cylinder, slowly create a cylinder out of these tiles, pinch off the end, and then they were, once again, blowing glass. I would draw the detailed shape of the piece, and then they would make it to my specifications. But I had to be gone for three days. You know, I had to pay a lot of money for another person to help me create my piece. I had to depend on another person to help me create my piece, so you didn't have 100% control. That was hard for me. Luckily, I worked with Heron Glass out of Driggs, Idaho, and they're excellent. But I wanted to be able to do the form myself. And so with the deep bowl vessel molds that Karl Harron had created, I could now take the process and follow it through. It will take me - you know, between coolings and stuff, it can take a week and a half to get these done, because I like to get them to really room temperature before I hit them with anything cold.
Claudia - In 2007, I was recognized by Corning Museum of Glass in their New Glass Review publication, which they recognize 100 innovative glass artists for the year. I had submitted some slides, and I was overly thrilled when I was chosen to be in their publication, and it was one of the roll-up vessels that I had done of the earthenware series. And then that same year, Bullseye Glass was creating their new publication for products that they sell, and they published another one of mine into their catalog, so it was very exciting. It's always a huge goal for glass artists to be recognized by Corning as the authority on glass. They have an incredible museum of artifacts of the glass clear back to the Romans. And so just to be recognized by them is something that I was more than excited about.
Claudia - I don't create work thinking about, you know, I'm going to try to win an award with this or I'm going to create this piece because I want to win something. I submit a piece when I think it maybe would be, you know, accepted in something that is competition, but it's not what drives my work. My work is driven by my own personal journey and where I want to go, what I want to learn. And that's how you keep your art from being work, is that you're excited to come to the studio, you're excited to say, "Well, you know, I've had this thought in my head. I wonder if I can make that into what I want it to be." And so you come out here with that excitement. So when the final piece comes out of the kiln and you open that kiln and you say, "Okay, this is my vision, how did I get there?" and you open that kiln, and you're like, "Yes, all right, I did it," it's very satisfying.
Whitten works at the kiln.
Claudia - For many, many years I was a single mom, and I, of course, worked and worked for many years, and so I had to do my glass as a sideline. And so I'd work on weekends, work on nights, grab time when I could. My children don't remember a time when I wasn't doing glass, because I have been doing glass for 32 years. I started when I was pregnant with my last child, and so that's their life. They're just so accustomed to it. It's not a big deal to them. And so now I'm retired from the workforce, and I wanted to retire earlier and pursue my art, but all my artist friends said, "No, build your studio, buy your equipment, retire, and not depend on the money for income." And so, luckily, I am retired, and I don't have that. So now I'm free to come out here and pursue those things that I always said, "Oh, someday. Oh, I can't wait. I can't wait for someday to come to where I can start creating the work and the level of work that I want to create." So now I'm excited that now I can really step up the game and hopefully not do so much production but do a combination of production and one-of-a-kind pieces.
Claudia - I think I'll always do aspens. I have a few galleries that are in areas that are really populated with aspens; the Stanley area, the Sun Valley area, and people like to come, and they want to have them, and that's what I'm asked. People ask for them, so as long as there is a demand for them, I'm sure I will do them, but, you know, I'm sure I will always do them, because they are special to me.
Claudia - Well, I'm sure it's over 100 counting the little plates, and then I do the nightlights. Oh, my gosh. I just made 96 nightlights the other - last couple of weeks ago to fill plate galleries, so I do a lot. I'm always doing some form of them, whether they're the small plates, the wall hangings, the plates, the larger plates, the sculptural pieces. You know, they're always being done year round.
Claudia - Actually, I enjoy the whole process of creating the glass. Each element adds something to it. Sometimes I actually make components that I pre-fire ahead of time, and then when I'm putting a piece together, I'm pulling out of containers these different components to create the work So I enjoy the whole process. Probably the least part I enjoy is the dirty part of the sandblasting, the cold-working, because when I have - especially when I'm into production, I can be standing at that till for quite some time, and that's when I break and take the dog for a walk or go do something different and kind of break it up. But the actual most exciting part is when it's completed and you say, "Yes, I did." And then there's times that as an artist you have a vision of something that you wanted to see completed and you fell short a little bit, and so you look at that piece and say, "Hmm, okay, well, I didn't like that so well, but okay." And then later, you know, if somebody - you'll tell someone, "Well, I didn't particularly like that piece," and then later when you see it, you can't remember what was wrong with it, because it was part of the process. It was your vision, your following through to completion. And when it falls short, you say, "Hmm, okay, well, next time I'm going to do this slightly different." But then, afterwards, you know, it's hard to notice.
Claudia - Working with glass is very technical. You have to figure out a firing schedule for each piece that you're doing, depending on the size, the thickness, so you have to keep track of that. If the electricity goes out, you have to figure out where you're at. You have to save the piece. So there's - every part of the process is important, because each step has to be done correctly for the next step to be successful. So as long as the steps are progressing nicely, then you know your piece is going to come out satisfactory.
Claudia - A firing schedule is the process that the glass goes through in the kiln. You have - you ramp up to a process temperature. Sometimes as you're ramping up you do a hold to squeeze the air bubbles out of the glass, because the air wants to be trapped between two layers of glass, and you like to - you know, you want to control that so your piece is nice and smooth. So you'll do a hold on the ramp-up, and then you'll ramp up to the processing temperature, whether it's a full fuse or a slump, and then you have to drop the temperature down to annealing temperature for that type of glass that you're using. I use Bullseye glass, and it's 900 degrees, so I will do a hold at that temperature. I change that hold for the multiple times that I'm firing the glass. You know, I'll do a hold, depending for - change that in the schedule if it's a large piece, if it's a thick piece. It's very technical. You have to figure out what you're doing and why you're doing it and how long to hold it, and then you slowly drop down to room temperature, so then there's the ramp down. And each one of my kilns is different. They fire at different temperatures to the full process temp, and it may be 5 degrees, it may be 10 degrees, but every kiln is slightly different. So you have to not only know a basic firing schedule, you have to know that particular kiln, and you have to get to know your kiln. So I have firing schedules for the three different kilns that I work.
You write down a firing schedule onto a sheet of paper, what you're doing and which kiln it's in and what's happening, so that if there was a power outage for a certain amount of time, you have to know where you're at, what temperature you need to bring the kiln to, you know, and how to save the piece, or you could lose quite a bit of work. And so you write things down. There are a lot of people that are - a lot of scientist-type people actually work with glass, because they love the technical end. The technical end is frustrating to me at times, you know. I've learned it, and I can deal well with it, but it's the creative part that I enjoy the most, and then I work through the technical part.
Claudia - I mean, I am connected to a lot of artists around the United States. I mean, just because I live in Challis, because of the internet and because of traveling to different classes around the United States, I have gotten to know some pretty decent glass artists and people that I respect their work and they respect my work. And through that, you know, you can have conversations with these people, and so we support each other. We share our knowledge and watch each other grow.
Whitten opens the kiln.
People always wonder, you know, why someone is in Challis and why an artist would live so remotely when the galleries are generally in the major cities. One of the reasons I love living in Challis is because in 1975 I came to Idaho, and I moved to Salmon, and I lived out in the mountains in a cabin for many years. I was very fortunate and didn't have to work. When my children started school, that's when I started my creative process. I needed more, and so that's when I started working with glass. So Challis to me is what Salmon was when I first came. It's like 20 years back. I mean, from my studio, I live very remote. It doesn't take me very long. I can walk and be in the mountains and be on a hillside. I can be in the trees. I can be different places. And so I love the quiet, the solitude. On my property, when all the trees leaf out in the summer, it's extremely quiet down there. People come down to my studio and they go, "Wow, it's amazing in here." You know, I'm beside the creek, so I'm living within nature, and I don't have to - I can just go out in my backyard and feel like I'm there. And so for me, you know, I like that. I like the quietness. I love visiting the city. I love the culture. I love going to galleries. I love going to classes. I love interacting with other artists. But I love coming home to the quiet.
Claudia - I think the one thing people don't realize is what a personal journey it is, that these pieces - they're not precious to me. I can sell them when I get done. It's the process and the creating that gives me the joy, so each one I take very personally and I feel connected to them. So when I'm working on it, there's a part of me that's going into that. And I think when people buy art they're really wanting to buy a piece of the person. It's like sometimes I have just a small little piece that doesn't mean much to me, maybe it does, but someone asks me to sign it. To me, that signifies to me that they really want a piece of me, and that's more honor to me than actual selling a piece for a high price.
Claudia - There's quite an art community in Challis that people don't realize when they come to Challis, that there's that many artists here. I think in rural areas like this there's a lot of talent and there's a lot of art, and the reason being is people aren't caught up in the busy, busy world. It's very quiet here, so they learn to use their hands and do different things with their hands. And so from working with your hands, you get into the enjoyment of creating, so we see that right now. I was the president of the Arts Council and on the board for nine years, and we bought the Maddog Gallery, downtown Challis, and when we bought the gallery, it was being run by Michael Shannon who had - well, he originated the gallery, and the gallery's named after him, and he was a metal artist. We've lost Michael, but he was a metal artist, and he created his work and inspired a lot of us to continue to do our work and myself included. And when the Arts Council was looking at that we were going to need to buy a building, we bought one that would have a gallery in the front and a gift shop and office in the back. So I was a major part of that buying of the gallery because I was president at the time, and it was very important to me that we were a real gallery and that we kept the gift shop area separate from the gallery part. So we bring in different artists from around the state and the region into showing their work in the gallery, and it's been pretty exciting. Right now there's a members show in there which is local people who are members of the Challis Arts Council, and then they can put their work into that show, and this is where we discover some new art. And one of my favorite things to do is to inspire these people and to mentor them and help them to become more professional, and once they sell a piece - first, we had a young guy at the recent show put some pieces in, and they were not for sale. He came to the opening. There was so much interest in his work, he decided to go ahead and price his pieces, and to me that's very exciting. I love nurturing these young artists, and they're so talented and someone who's graduated from college and now hasn't had a show since college and I discover them, and they step up to the plate. And then the other excitement is watching these young artists grow and develop their work and become more professional, and so that's really something I have had the pleasure of doing.
Whitten prepares the kiln.
Claudia - There are times that I'm working on a piece that I'm really excited to see it finished, and I know that I want to get that firing in before I go to bed at night, so I will come out here and do the cold-working or whatever the last process is, which is usually the cold-working, to get that into the kiln. And so then I'll get that piece in, and sometimes I have to watch the kiln when it's firing up and make sure things are doing right, and so then I'll work on other pieces while I'm out here. But there is - Challis is always very quiet, but when I come out to the studio at night, I've kind of got to revamp myself with energy to where I can get working, and sometimes I'll get lost out here, and it will get fairly light before I'm done and go into the house.
Claudia - Once you're an artist, you're always an artist, and I don't think I will ever stop doing it on some level. I teach a little bit, and I love bringing my grandchildren in. They're always saying, "When can I make another piece?" And so we do a project every Christmas. It's something that I enjoy, and it's a lifestyle, and I don't think I could ever walk away from it. You know, I can say there will be times where I will take a little more time to travel, a little more time to actually be out in nature and play a little more, but it's something that will always be part of me.
Claudia - I'm comfortable alone, you know, but I'm also comfortable with people. It doesn't matter. I think the biggest thing about artists that people don't realize is they - you know, it's like when I had my day job, they thought, you know, you could just come out here and just walk out in the studio and start creating. You kind of have to get in a zone, you know, and that's probably why most artists like to be somewhat alone, is because you have to get into that head space, you know, your creative side. And you just can't walk out of your job, come in, flip the switch, turn on the light and there you go. So when I was working and I'd come out here and wanted to get working on a piece and had some work that I was evolving, I would spend time, you know, painting kiln shelves, you know, just doing prep work as I transitioned from my day job into my creative side, and that worked for me.
Claudia - Most artists don't ever retire. You know, it's - what people don't realize, you know, I come from a family of artists and, you know, it's just a way of life. You know, you can't help it. You have to create. You're not content unless you're creating something. It doesn't matter what it is. And I'm a tinkerer. I like to fix things. I'm not very good at fixing things, but I like to try to fix things. And that's something I'm trying to teach the grandkids, because it's such a throwaway society. It's upsetting to me. And so when something of theirs breaks, I always say, "Hey, well, let's fix it." And we usually fix it, and it usually works for awhile, but it's the - you know, we fixed it, and I think that's important to learn. And my grandchildren have some creativity in them. They like drawing, and they tell people that they're artists, and I think that's very cool, because everybody has art in them. It's just whether they develop it or not, so everybody has a creative side.