How to Look at Glass, Not Just Through It

To most of us, glass is just a conduit — a way to look outside from inside or to see if a drinking utensil is half-full or half-empty.But to Brooklyn-based artists Anna Riley and Sam Ihrig, everyday functional glass is far more than a utilitarian object.

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click to enlarge 'A Product of Sand, New Jersey Recipe Material  Dissection' by RIAS Studio
'A Product of Sand, New Jersey Recipe Material Dissection' by RIAS Studio

One key to being an artist — to being a thoughtful, productive human being, really — is to question things that others take for granted.

Like glass, for instance. To most of us, it’s just a conduit — a way to look outside from inside or to see if a drinking utensil is half-full or half-empty.

But to Brooklyn-based artists Anna Riley and Sam Ihrig, who use the name RIAS Studio (Research Institute of Analogue Sampling), everyday functional glass is far more than a utilitarian object.

“A phrase often used in the circles of people who think about glass a lot is that it’s a material that is looked through rather than looked at,” Riley says. “So a lot of our sculpture is going to highlight the idea that the material is to be looked at.”

This month, the two will be putting their ideas about glass into practice in Cincinnati — they are artists-in-residence at Camp Washington’s Wave Pool Gallery. Both Riley and Ihrig have art backgrounds. She studied glass at Rhode Island School of Design; he pursued Industrial Design at California College of the Arts.

They will be using chemistry formulas to make glass from harvested raw materials and inviting the public to learn about and participate in their process. The resultant work will be displayed as sculpture.

One part of their residency is a Wave Pool exhibition called A Product of Sand, which begins with a 7-10 p.m. opening on May 14 and continues through June 4. They will also have a two-day workshop — May 22 and 23 — for those who want to learn about making glass from scratch by collecting and bringing in raw materials. Other activities are planned, too.

In a sense, one might consider what the two are doing as part of the ongoing “makers” and “locally made” movements in this country, both offshoots of larger environmental and sustainability currents in our society.

And their selection for the nonprofit Wave Pool’s ongoing Artists in Residence program fits in with past participants, who have sought to prompt rediscovery of the city’s resources through community engagement and social practice. Those have included Stairwell’s, which led expeditions of public steps, and Erin Colleen Johnson, who looked at soil’s role in urban life.

Riley and Ihrig recently finished a residency in coastal Georgia, explaining glass’ origins as a raw material to residents by showing how it is made. That was a good place for such a project, as sand is a key ingredient in making glass.

“As a public, we’re rather disconnected from glass as being a material of the Earth,” Riley says. “It’s this magical material that somehow gets manufactured and then ends up on a skyscraper.

“We now associate glass with transparency and the idea of invisibility, but that wasn’t always the case,” she continues. “Glass formulas used to be full of impurities. There used to be color to them indicative of materials at a particular site.

“When we were in Georgia, we made a number of formulas from different beaches, and one of the samples turned out to be this beautiful blue color,” she explains.

“We had been staying in this community where people had been living in the area for a long time. Watching their reaction to this transformation of material was fantastic.”

I confess to being one of those who rarely think about how glass is made — I have enough trouble just figuring out how to clean it. But as Riley explains the glass-making process she and Ihrig plan to follow here, it sounds fascinating.

The most historic glass formulas use silica, which is present in sand. The key one is called soda lime, which uses various materials as a “flux” to reduce the high melting temperature of sand and as “binders” to give the created object structural integrity.

The lime itself is calcium oxide, which can be extracted from limestone in this region. Its chemical derivative is calcium hydroxide. The heating process occurs in a kiln, which Riley and Ihrig plan to have inside Wave Pool.

“I’m coming to this material from a fine art standpoint,” Riley says. “The motivation to try out these formulas is to come to understand the material at its origins.”

For more information, visit wavepoolgallery.org .

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: [email protected]


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