Glass studio, museum jump into fire with collaborative exhibit

For a recent artistic endeavor, local glass artist Travis Rohrbaugh found inspiration in his favorite beer.

When searching for a historical artifact to recreate for the Pittsburgh Glass Center’s “Out of the Archives and Into the Gallery” exhibition, Rohrbaugh found a centuries-old Egyptian alabastron, which he said bore an uncanny resemblance to a modern-day beer bottle.

“We had gotten a case of Labatt Blue, and those were the bottles that came in the case and I was like, this color — this is so pretty. I have to keep this and do something with it,” he said.

Last Friday, the Pittsburgh Glass Center, located in the Friendship/Garfield area, debuted “Out of the Archives and Into the Gallery,” an exhibition featuring modern interpretations of ancient glass artwork, as well as recreations of centuries-old tools and everyday objects. The display will run until Sept. 13.

The exhibition is a joint effort between Heather McElwee, the Center’s executive director, and Deborah G. Harding, the anthropology collection manager at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The pair met during an earlier collaboration between the two institutions, when the Glass Center borrowed glass biological models for an exhibition called “Lifeforms” in 2013.

During the “Lifeforms” partnership, Harding showed McElwee a sampling of glass-made relics from the Museum’s 100,000 ethnological and historical specimens and 1.5 million archaeological artifacts. These pieces ranged from sixthcentury Palestinian lamps to glass cups from the Roman Empire. These pieces were not on public display at the museum.

According to McElwee, that’s when the two came up with the idea for “Out of the Archives and Into the Gallery.”

“[Harding] had mentioned that she was really curious to see if modern artists could almost identically — or as close to identically — recreate these ancient objects,” she said. “Then I thought, let’s take it one step further, and challenge them to not only do that, but then to take that piece’s inspiration to reinterpret it into a more modern work of art.”

McElwee and Harding kicked around the idea for an exhibit until December 2014, when they reached out to 15 local glass artists and asked them to choose an object to rework in advance of the June opening. After picking their relics, the artists were on their own to research, reimagine and reconstruct whatever objects they chose.

Glass artist and Pittsburgh native Dana Laskowski, who’s been involved with the Glass Center since she attended the Creative and Performing Arts School located Downtown in the mid-2000s, was initially overwhelmed by the challenge. When she visited the archives, Laskowski picked out a series of medieval panels featuring cartoonish drawings of rabbits, but found more material than she anticipated while sifting through feudal British manuscripts.

“It was a contrived effort to use all of that information, and then I realized, well, I’m going to use what they were inspired by, to be inspired,” Laskowski said.

Eventually, Laskowski combined her research with her own creative twist on the panels by magnifying the size of the images and adding floral and snake-like borders to each piece. The final product – a series of bunny-centric sequences – includes “Let Me Help You,” which shows a rabbit mauling a small child, and “Uh-Oh,” a depiction of a rabbit jousting with a dog.

While artists such as Laskowski and Rohrbaugh focused on their subjects’ strange images and historical implications, other artists developed personal connections with their artifacts.

John Sharvin got involved with the Glass Center when he learned the basics on how to run a studio as a tech apprentice. Now a full-fledged glass artist, Sharvin said he was stuck in a repetitive art-making process before the project gave him “an opportunity to do something new.”

Sharvin decided to create “Janus Flasks,” which were perfume bottles molded in the likeness of Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. Like Laskowski, Sharvin initially admired the flasks because of their appearance. But as he studied Janus, he noticed the parallels between the deity’s role in Roman culture and his own situation — Sharvin recently moved back to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and is now deciding between different career paths in the art industry.  

“It really, really rang home, like directly with what was happening in my life,” he said.

In his artist statement, Sharvin noted that Janus “was worshipped at the beginnings of the harvest, marriages and deaths as well as representing the middle ground between rural and urban space, youth and adulthood.”

Sharvin’s newfound relationship with his work motivated him to mold three clear glass bottles for the exhibit, each of which has a tiny open door inside to indicate the possibilities of a new phase in his life. He illustrated the outside of each bottle with a design that reflects his personal interests — for example, “Hoh River” is wrapped with a map of Olympic National Park, his favorite backpacking spot.

For Sharvin, representing personal experiences in this way ultimately betters the experience for both the artist and the viewers.  

“I think artwork does do a good job about telling a story, and I think the closer you can get to the artist and their personal life does a good job with that,” he said. “Getting to know artists and what they think about when they make art I think is very, very important.”

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