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Artist Robert DuGrenier.

The Arts

Through the fire

In new exhibit at BMAC, glassblower Robert DuGrenier turns destruction into art

An opening reception for BMAC members and the exhibiting artists will take place Friday, June 22, at 5:30 p.m. The new exhibits open to the public the following day and remain on view through Sept. 24. For more information, call 802-257-0124 or visit www.brattleboromuseum.org.

BRATTLEBORO—A fire in October 2015 destroyed the barn on the historic Taft Farm in Townshend of Robert DuGrenier, a sculptor who works primarily in glass, metal, and marble.

“I was awakened at 3:10 in the morning by a dog barking,” says DuGrenier. “Looking out our window, my wife commented ‘What a beautiful sunrise.’”

But it was no sunrise. The DuGrenier 1810 barn was on fire.

“Not only was that building totally destroyed, but also much of what was in the barn: animals, antiques, and many farm implements,” DuGrenier adds. “We were lucky it was not windy that night and our house also did not catch fire.”

DuGrenier was overcome with shock and grief by the tragedy. Nonetheless, not long after the fire, he began taking into his studio what remained of many of the burnt objects in the barn and started casting glass sculptures around the remnants of items he salvaged.

“There were tons of stuff in the barn, parts of axes, shovels, rakes, lanterns, even an old loom where only the gears remained,” DuGrenier says. “Working on these pieces became my therapy for my loss.”

“Coming to terms with the destruction by fire of a barn and the death of many animals, DuGrenier did what artists do — he made art,” writes Mara Williams, Chief Curator for the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

After two-and-a-half years crafting glass sculptures from what he found in the barn, DuGrenier has fashioned two collections of work.

In “Out of the Ashes,” DuGrenier uses the metal and cast iron pieces (missing, of course, their wooden handles and parts) left behind in the debris to create stunning sculptures. In “Handle With Care,” he combines blown and/or cast glass handles with the remains of tools and farming implements.

Selections from both series of glass sculptures will be on display as part of five new exhibits opening this week at the museum.

“I have made hundreds of objects, and although I am exhibiting in only one room, I could easily have filled the whole museum with what I have created since the fire,” DuGrenier says.

A radical departure

The work in DuGrenier’s exhibit “radically departs from his prior artistic trajectory,” Williams wrote on the museum’s website. “DuGrenier is best known for complex chandeliers and large architectural installations fashioned from exuberant, colorful organic forms. In the works on display at BMAC he marries old farm implements with clear, colorless glass.”

Sculptor Robert DuGrenier specializes in glass sculptural pieces and three-dimensional design. Over the years, he has worked in collaboration with architects and designers to create custom glass sculptural installations and chandeliers. These are installed in hotels, stores, museums, and private residences around the world.

DuGrenier worked on the redesign of the flame for the Statue of Liberty and was commissioned to create and produce the 1/12th scale model from which the French artisans sculpted the new flame.

In April 2018, Robert DuGrenier was inducted into the Illinois State University’s College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame in Normal, Illinois, nearly 40 years after receiving a Masters of Fine Arts degree there.

He first trained as a glassblower and goldsmith at Philadelphia College of Art and Hornsey College of Art in London, and then earned an M.F.A in sculpture at Illinois State University.

DuGrenier glass sculptures “materially manifest a deeply personal, even therapeutic, exploration of grief,” writes Williams. “Each sculpture is a lot like a Vermont farmer—rugged, weathered, strong of spine and purpose, clear-eyed, and droll.”

“For two-and-a-half years I have been working on a related body of work dedicated to taking those objects from the barn and in different ways refashioning them through glass,” explains DuGrenier.

“Initially, I began merely dipping pieces in glass, but later in the ‘Out of the Ashes’ series I started to employ more sophisticated use of glass with the objects. By pouring glass through the objects I could freeze a moment in time. To take one instance, I suspended a milk can so that it looks as if glass is pouring from the object held in midair.”

“Other glassworkers wondered how Robert did that piece with the milk can,” Williams says. “Since glass and metal cool at different rates, no one could figure how Robert could get it to work.

“Although I really don’t understand anything about chemistry, evidently all pieces from the barn were covered with carbon from the fire so the process became chemically possible. Whatever the case, the suspended milk can is a remarkable piece of art.”

A hammer made of glass

“Handle with Care” developed out of the “Out of the Ashes” series.

“I began to consider reshaping the farm implements as they initially were, but now replacing the lost parts with glass,” DuGrenier says. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow, what would happen if I put a glass handle on a hammer?’”

The idea amazed and intrigued DuGrenier.

“Here I was refashioning totally impractical glass handles for farm implements that would quickly break with actual use,” he says. “These became fantasy tools. Of course, I was not creating a shovel as a shovel in the workaday world, but as a unique object.”

Beautiful, they became Platonic ideals of what a hammer or ax could be.

“The handles were replaced with clear glass as if they could be a working object,” Williams says with a laugh. “The slightest use would break them. In that light, the very title of the series about refashioned farm tools, ‘Handle with Care,’ is hilarious. DuGrenier’s increasingly refined work with these tools, filled with wit and beauty, is both funny and dangerous.”

Williams believes that the glass sculptures from the material DuGrenier salvaged from his lost barn make a cohesive body of work that moves DuGrenier’s artistry to a new level.

“Although the tools’ sculptural handles have a rather stark geometry of form, an alchemy happens when the light passing through them is reflected and refracted,” Williams writes. “These elegant, elongated shapes gain volume and complexity, creating dynamic three-dimensional drawings in glass, light, and shadow.”

DuGrenier says, “I envisioned what I was creating as a memorial craft project, not merely to the objects lost, but as icons in celebration of craftsmen who used these tools.

“I came to see theses pieces of art as a phoenix rising out of the fire, my fire in the barn. This has been for me a healing show. I think, however, that what I have put on display at BMAC stand as works of art even if the viewer does not know my story.”

Other exhibits

DuGrenier will give a free talk about his work at BMAC on Thursday, July 12, at 7:30 p.m.

Alongside Du Grenier’s work at BMAC will be four other exhibits that include original drawings by The New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast and artwork by David Rios Ferreira, Debra Ramsay, and Shona Macdonald.

“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” consists of 139 original illustrations from Chast’s 2014 graphic memoir. This exhibit is part of “Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs,” a touring show organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.

“And I Hear Your Words That I Made Up” is a collection of dynamic mixed media works by David Rios Ferreira that explore the persistence of colonialist narratives in mainstream society. Ferreira’s multi-layered images draw upon botanical illustrations, comic books, cartoon characters, and many other sources.

“Painting Time” is an installation by the New York-based abstract artist Debra Ramsay that represents the distillation of a series of walks in the woods into large bands of painted paper.

Shona Macdonald’s “Terrestrial Vale” is a set of silverpoint drawings that depict plants shrouded in winterizing nets, a familiar sight around Macdonald’s western Massachusetts home.

Besides these five new exhibits, continuing on display are “Best of ‘Springs, Sprockets & Pulleys,” a collection of interactive found-object sculptures by Steve Gerberich, and “Displaced,” two outdoor sculptures by Angelo Arnold made of wood, foam, and brick-patterned fabric.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #464 (Wednesday, June 20, 2018). This story appeared on page B1.

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