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Artistry & Alchemy

Author: Rebecca L. Rhoades
Issue: April, 2018, Page 74
photography by Steven Meckler

Two of glass artist Tom Philabaum’s popular series are “Wall Flowers” and “Precarious Rocks,” both of which are inspired by the Arizona landscape. “It’s just a lifetime of living here,” he says. “You absorb those images.”
Arizona Icon Tom Philabaum Breathes Magical Masterworks From Molten Glass

Glass is an amazing material. From fiber optics to carrying sound waves, there are so many uses for silica. And I get to use it to create art, which I think is pretty amazing.” As he speaks, Tom Philabaum relaxes in a small office above his gallery just south of downtown Tucson. The building’s facade is unassuming. Inside, however, is a breathtaking world filled with fantastical forms in a kaleidoscope of seductive shades. Precariously perched towers of iridescent orbs rest beneath walls blooming with candy-colored swirls. Overlapping arrangements of luminous vessels create landscapes of silhouette and color, translucency and opalescence. A row of furnaces commands attention; the amber glow of flames peeking out from behind a wall of corrugated tin entices visitors to explore further. 

Throughout his gallery, eye-catching vignettes showcase Philabaum’s diversity. In the center is “Scavo Ancient Vessel,” 22.5"H x 11’W x 6"D. The distinctive piece features a scavo finish, an ancient Italian technique in which blown glass is dusted with chemicals that create an etched, or diffused, appearance. “It gives them the look of instant antiquity,” says the artist. The fused-glass diptych is “The Conversation,” 20"H x 32"W x 2"D.
For just under 50 years, Philabaum, a 1999 Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner, has been bringing his imaginings to life in blown and fused glass in this former Tastee-Freez restaurant, which serves as both his studio and eponymous gallery. From functional items, such as goblets, glasses and paperweights, to sculptural pieces that celebrate the beauty of the molten medium, his work has garnered him worldwide acclaim, but the master artist remains as modest as the building in which he creates. There are no neon signs, no flashy window displays, no self-aggrandizing promotions. Here, the star of the show is glass.

Looking back, it’s almost as if the art form was destined to dominate Philabaum’s life. “It just so happens that I’m from Toledo, Ohio—the Glass City,” he says, noting, though, that he originally wanted to be a ceramist. After graduating from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale with degrees in art and art education, he moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where he taught elementary school art during the day and took classes in ceramics at night. One evening, after watching the young sculptor struggle to find the right medium to complete his creations, a professor had a profound suggestion for Philabaum. “He came up me and said, ‘Why don’t you start working in—and he said it with a pause—glass?’ It made my hair stand on end,” Philabaum recalls. “I love ceramics, but I could never get the colors I wanted. I used to make glazes out of wood ash, and while they were beautiful, they were all in earth tones. I wanted bright yellows, vivid reds and electric greens.”

Located just south of downtown Tucson, Philabaum Glass Gallery & Studio offers a kaleidoscopic collection of the artist’s work.
The conversation inspired Philabaum to head to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and begin studying with pioneering artist Harvey K. Littleton, founder of the American Glass Studio movement, which freed glass blowing from traditional factory production and put it in the hands of individual artists. Additional students of Littleton included such luminaries of the field as Marvin Lipofsky and Dale Chihuly. Philabaum studied with Littleton for three years, learning all facets of the glass business. 

A trip to the Grand Canyon State to visit his cousin in 1974 would forever alter his path in life. “I fell in love with Tucson,” he says. “I fell in love with Mexico, Southern California and the mountains out here.” He immediately resigned from a teaching job he had taken in Chicago and moved to Arizona. He landed in town with the intent to become a ceramics sculptor, but word soon got out about his background. “A bunch of guys came to me and said, ‘We understand that you studied with Harvey Littleton. Will you teach us to blow glass?’” Soon, Philabaum had taken over the lease on a studio and opened a clay and glass cooperative with six other artists. He supported himself by selling goblets, tumblers and paperweights at craft fairs, among other odd jobs.

“Mt. Lemmon Paperweight 31,” 4.5"H x 3"W, incorporates mica that was collected on the highest peak of Tucson’s Santa Catalina Mountains.
Tucson-based lawyer and Philabaum Glass collector Robert Hershey met the artist at an early Fourth Avenue Street Fair. “Tom was just getting into the glass business,” he recalls. “He ran this little booth, and he made these amazing goblets. They weren’t like ordinary straight glasses; they were kind of wild figures with wings on them.

“I’ve seen his evolution over the years, starting with those rudimentary vessels,” Hershey continues. “He’s ever-changing. He doesn’t do the same thing over and over again, and he’s never been content to rely upon one aspect. He can incorporate any form of sculpture that’s in his imagination.”

Hershey has since expanded his collection to include a variety of Philabaum’s works, including pieces from his iconic “Reptilian” and “Handbuilt” series, as well as the artist’s first vase using the Graal technique. A layer of clear glass is hand-painted with enamels and then encased in a second layer of glass. The process is repeated multiple times, resulting in a thick blown composition with a 3-D illusion.

“Handbuilt Serpentine Bowl 1,” 10”H x 12” in diameter

“I really like hand-building. It’s like doing pottery, only it's molten hot. Each piece is a separate application. I’ll apply the glass and then cut it and shape it to create voids,” says Philabaum.
Philabaum is particularly well-known for his “Reptilian” design, which gives the glass a look that mimics snake or fish skin, as exemplified in these three pieces “Turquoise Lidded Jar 14,” 9.5"H x 6.5" in diameter

“Turquoise Reptilian Trumpet Vase 56,” 14"H x 7.5" in diameter
“Iridescent Gold Reptilian Bowl 33,” 9"H x 8.5" in diameter.

“Riverbed Platter 2,”
 18" in diameter
“Foil Thorn Chalice,” 16.75"H
x 6" in diameter

“I think it’s the best vase in the world,” the lawyer says light-heartedly. “It’s so multicolored that it’s just extraordinary. I’m attracted to it for its beauty and its individuality—and I enjoy giving my wife gladiolas and pretty long-stemmed flowers to put into it.”

Debra May met Philabaum in 1986. The two had neighboring booths at an art show in Santa Monica, California. A burgeoning glass blower, she was hungry to learn more about the craft, and when Philabaum offered her a spot in his studio, she jumped at the chance, moving from Denver to Tucson in January 1987.

Glass blowing is a physically demanding craft that requires constant movement and perfect coordination. Seated at a steel bench with arms designed to support a long pontil rod, Philabaum shapes a piece of molten glass with a wet newspaper.
“When I first started working for Tom, there weren’t very many women doing hot glass, and he allowed me to become the hot shop manager, plan the blowing schedules and gaff, or finish, all of the perfume bottles and paperweights,” she recalls. “He gave me a lot of latitude, and I don’t know if that would have necessarily been the case in other studios.”

May worked with Philabaum for nine years, eventually branching out on her own. “After I left, a lot of wonderful artists passed through his studio,” she says. “His business continued on, and Tom has never stopped. He’s mentored a lot of people and is always gracious and giving of his time and his workspace.”

That willingness to train others manifested in the Sonoran Glass School, which Philabaum co-founded in 2001 with fellow glass artist Dave Klein. The nonprofit arts education facility provides workshops, classes and special events for beginning and intermediate glass artists. “Education and the sharing of knowledge has always been a part of my creative process since day one,” he says. “I always just try to be helpful, to be a mensch.”

A close-up of a Wall Flower highlights intricate details, including delicate stamen and a swirling pattern in pink, yellow and orange.
Jeremy Mikolajczak, CEO of the Tucson Museum of Art, credits Philabaum with advancing the art form in the city. “Without Tom, you wouldn’t have glass in Tucson, or it might not have had the sort of impact that it’s had,” he says. “He was really instrumental in starting that medium here and bringing it to the prominence that it has today.”

To honor Philabaum for his dedication and contributions, the museum in February bestowed upon him its prestigious Ambassador Circle Lifetime Achievement Award, which celebrates the career of a person who has made an impact on Southern Arizona’s arts and culture community. “Tom is, of course, more than deserving of this award,” Mikolajczak adds. “He’s made such a commitment to this town in the way he’s given back, not only through his own work but also through the Sonoran Glass School and his gallery and teaching.”

May couldn’t agree more with the accolade. “I think Tom single-handedly put glass on the map in the Southwest,” she notes.

An avid traveler, Philabaum plans to spend more time exploring the world. “I’m not going anywhere—except to Spain, France and England,” he says with a laugh.
But glass blowing is a physically challenging craft. Years spent hunched over searing furnaces, deftly rolling steel pipes laden with heavy molten glass—along with the stresses of working long hours and running a full-time business—have taken their toll. “It’s destroyed my body. I’ve developed shoulder and knee problems,” Philabaum says. “And even if you work with a team, it’s a lot of stress. It’s noisy, sweaty, loud and hot.”

Now, as Philabaum sits quietly in his office, his hands shake with a constant tremor. Last spring, the 71-year-old artist was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. “One of the things about this condition is that it’s affected by stress,” he notes. As a result, he’ll be retiring from glass blowing at the end of April, but the Philabaum Glass name will live on. “There are some people who are interested in taking over the business, and all of my employees are staying on,” he says. He will serve as an advisor but will no longer actively produce blown glass.

The “Precarious Rocks” series is a play on organic shapes and gravity-defying balance. “Going
My Way,” 13.5"H x 21"W x 17"D.
But Philabaum has no regrets, and the change in lifestyle is something he looks forward to.

“When I first got serious about glass blowing, my wife, Dabney, and I sat down and made a bullet point list of objectives: to support my family with my glass art; to travel the world through my art; to be recognized and respected within the field; and so on,” Philabaum recalls. “As time has gone on, everything on that list has been fulfilled. We made a plan together, we stuck with it, and it’s all come true. We both feel pretty good about that.

“I’ve given my whole life to the glass business and glass world,” he adds. “Now I’m looking forward to making a little more life for Tom.”

Philabaum will continue to create his fused-glass paintings, which feature paint, wire and metal sandwiched between two sheets of glass. At right is “Solar System,” 27.5"H x 20"W x 2.25"D.

“Fused Collage Painting 44,” 14"H x 14"W x 1"D.

Then and now. In the early ‘80s, Philabaum spent time working in the Quonset hut studio of Michael Joplin. A more recent image, taken last year, shows him in his own studio, which is located at the back of his gallery. Philabaum has been blowing glass in Tucson since 1975.

“The fused glass paintings are fun to create because they’re all about accidents. When I put them together, the paint intermingles and forms secondary and tertiary colors,” says Philabaum. “Fused Collage Painting 31,” 14.5"H x 14.5"W x 1"D.

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