The flame is mesmerizing. It is so bright that Claudia Black's art students wear protective goggles. They gather around the table in the large, light-filled studio on the top floor of the Arts and Humanities Wing watching visiting glass artist Sally Prasch. Two industrial tanks stand at the corner, connected to the torch. Many of the students have worked with glass already, but only through fusing in the kiln. This is their first exposure to torch work.
Prasch holds a glass tube at the point of the flame, demonstrating where the flame is hotter or cooler. The glass turns red hot. She takes a rod of colored glass in her other hand and shows the students how color is applied, the greens and blues turning red in turn. With the color applied, she lifts the still cool end of the tube to her mouth and they watch it expand. The trick, she tells them, is to keep it rotating so it inflates evenly.
She describes relieving strain in glass by firing it in a kiln. She talks about temperature, about the annealing point of the glass, and molecules needing to relax. At one point she asks for two volunteers. She heats a rod of glass and asks the two of them to hold it and walk away from each other quickly. As the rod becomes a thin strand in the middle, she explains how it can carry light, creating fiber-optic cables. The students make it wobble.
Prasch is unique in that her work is both artistic and technical. Trained as a scientific glassblower as well as an artist, she combines both in her work at Syracuse University, where she alters and repairs scientific glass equipment of all kinds according to a project's unique demands, returning to her Massachusetts studio each weekend to work on her own creations.
"I don't know when science and art became separate, because you really need to have both," Prasch says. "They are very similar in mind-set."
"Students get to see people who live with art every day. They can think about a life where they could walk into a studio and ask themselves, 'What am I going to do today?' instead of someone else telling them." —art teacher Loueta Chickadaunce
A knowledge of chemistry and physics is essential when creating and sculpting glasswork, Prasch says. When creating glass from scratch, she adds a variety of minerals to alter the composition and color.
In her Morning Meeting presentation she gives students a virtual walk-through of the Corning Museum of Glass, covering its 3,500-year history of utilitarian and artistic uses before showing some of her own work.
"What I hope they take away from this," says Black, who had previously studied with Prasch at Snow Farm (a residential program for art instruction), "is the merging of disciplines, that there is science in art. She makes it real."
"It was amazing," says Clyde Ramos '18. "The whole idea of an artist working with some of the students is really nice, and actually having that first experience of glassblowing was super cool. It gave me more ideas of what to do with glass as a medium, and then learning the logistics of it."
Dean Pope '17 agrees. "It was pretty awesome. She's probably the most competent artist I've seen in a while. She was really good at helping us all with technique. Her open flame work was incredible. I loved the fact that it was so hands-on and that you could just totally change the shape by blowing in it. I was pretty nervous, but she was just totally in control the whole time."
How does this unique experience, with artists like Prasch, work at Taft? The Rockwell Visiting Artists Program was created in 1997 and often brings two or three artists to campus each year. Visiting artists frequently work directly with students, give a talk at Morning Meeting, or have an exhibit in the gallery.
As of late fall, in addition to Prasch, the school welcomed landscape and wildlife photographer Andy Giordano as a visiting artist. His show, Going Home, was exhibited in the Mark W. Potter '48 Gallery, and he discussed his work with photography students, in addition to giving a Morning Meeting talk.
"The students always come up to the artist after the Morning Meeting talk and want to express their excitement about the work," says art teacher and Potter Gallery Director Loueta Chickadaunce. "They're enthusiastic about the places these artists have been around the world, where they've studied. When they talk in the gallery, the artists have been very generous about how and why they make certain decisions when working on a piece, and that's exactly what I'm looking for when I invite an artist—those who can make great art, but also those who can talk about the process."
She likes to tell artists who are coming to visit, "Don't worry about being too adult about it. These kids are smart. They get it, and they don't like being talked down to!"
When artist Mark Lewis was in residence for a week in 2014, he gave Chickadaunce's advanced and A.P. art students a critique on their work as well. "He's a teacher, and he responded so well to them. In a discussion where the ideas were just whirling around the room, he would take this idea and that one and tie them up in a neat bow, and you'd ask yourself, 'How'd he do that?'"
"From the artists and their work, I was inspired to try new techniques in both my artwork and in my daily life." —Nicole Jarck '15
For Nicole Jarck '15, the visiting artists allowed her to experience a variety of artwork without leaving campus. "I really loved Mark Lewis's work. I remember his Morning Meeting presentation and how much I admired his attention to detail, which led to the unique nature of each of his pieces," she says. Each gallery show offered a new perspective and enriched my education in the visual arts. I was able to broaden my understanding of much more than the aesthetic qualities of artwork. From the artists and their work, I was inspired to try new techniques in both my artwork and in my daily life. In the serene setting of the Potter Gallery, I was afforded space and time to think more deeply, pause, and reflect on and organize my thoughts."
Artist Dawn Clements spent part of her residency sketching an enormous mural of a girls' dorm room while living there temporarily, and exhibited the drawings in the Potter Gallery.
"It was interesting to see how someone from outside of the school interprets the unique Taft life in a creative way," says Jasmine Oh '11, who was studying with Chickadaunce at the time. "I was also inspired by the pure technique of the artist. For Ms. Chic's class, I often drew my own room or objects in the art studio to practice capturing the form, light, and perspective. It was nice to see how other people render the same kinds of objects in a different way."
Some visiting artists are invited because someone in the Taft arts faculty has worked with them before, others by reputation, and a few are alumni artists—like Marc Leuthold '80. In 2008, Leuthold closed the gallery for four days in preparation for his display, covering the floor in thick watercolor paper and drawing on it in black and brown ink. He then filled the gallery with his wheel sculptures, made of a variety of materials, including bronze, porcelain, and glass.
"The Rockwell visit was great," says Leuthold. "Papering the whole gallery floor was a lot of work. Dawn Clements, who later came as a visiting artist herself, helped, and it took us three long days. Then I turned the lights off and closed my eyes and painted on that beautiful, expensive, flawless paper. After the show, Dawn and I and many students and faculty carefully folded the painting up into a beautiful sculpture. It was the size of a single twin mattress. I still have it and have never had a chance to display it as a folded paper sculpture. It would be amazing."
During that week, he also ran workshops in sculpture, ceramics, and studio art classes. "Some of the younger students were really shy and self-conscious," says Leuthold, "and that brought me right back to my days as a student. Others were very confident and really enjoyed interacting with me. I was struck by how friendly and charming they were.
"It was also cathartic to come and give back in a positive and well-received way. As a professor, I was somewhat embarrassed because a group of my SUNY students visited the exhibition. Seeing Taft through their eyes made me all the more grateful for the privileges that my family and Taft gave me."
"Rockwell artists are an amazing thing at this school," says Arts Department Head Bruce Fifer. "They give students the opportunity to see what professionals are doing in so many various forms, from glass to photography to painting, and more than just hearing them and seeing them in assembly, they get to do workshops with them and see how it's done. The program is a wonderful addition to our life here at Taft."
"The Visiting Artists Program helped me further develop the skills of artistic observation and critique outside of the art studio." —Witt Fetter '13
The Rockwell Visiting Artists Program was an important component of my education at Taft," writes Witt Fetter '13. "It helped me further develop the skills of artistic observation and critique outside of the art studio. The opportunity to hear from the artists and to see their work allowed students to connect meaningfully with the artwork. The gallery visits and artist talks prepared me for future encounters with art in academic settings beyond Taft. I appreciate the way Taft's art curriculum encourages students to explore art from a multitude of angles, as critics, observers and creators."
"The students hear exactly what they've been hearing in class all along," says Chickadaunce, "but from a new mouth—a sort of confirmation. The most important thing is that they get to know that there really are people who make art and don't have to starve in a garret somewhere to do it, and that it's OK to let art be a guide. You can't have a good life without art. They get to see people who live with art every day. They can think about a life where they could walk into a studio and ask themselves, 'What am I going to do today?' instead of someone else telling them.
The Rockwell family who created the fund are great art appreciators. "My parents purchased some fine art back in the day when it didn't cost so much," says Taylor Rockwell '72. "Small works by big names." His parents were both artists in a way. His mother writes poetry. His father, H.P. Davis "Deever" Rockwell '44, who died in 2014, was an architect who trained with Mies van der Rohe. Taylor says his father, who graduated from MIT, was—for an architect—a pretty good engineer as well. He never designed with anything but pencil and paper.
Deever Rockwell started the Rockwell Visiting Artists Program in 1997 with his brother, Sherburne "Bud" '41, who died in 2003. (Taft's baseball field, Rockwell Field, was given in their honor by their mother in celebration of her sons' safe return from World War II.) Emboldened by Deever's wife, Priscilla, who endowed a poetry series at Vassar, the brothers decided they could do something similar for the fine arts at Taft.
Julie Reiff is the former editor of this magazine. She is currently working on a piece of fiction.