Passion, beauty and heritage, fired into glass
by TERESA ANNAS
photography by ADAM EWING
It’s a sparkling, warm, Williamsburg afternoon as glass artist Emilio Santini makes the short walk at a bouncy clip from the house to his studio, brushing past flowering bushes and a vegetable garden.
Inside the spacious workshop chockablock with glass sculptures, goblets and miniatures, he pops in an opera CD. “Rossini! Rossini!” he calls out comically as the explosive William Tell begins. The artist, who is now 60, moves about with the zest of a youngster, turning on his oxygen-propane torch, a small, flame-spewing cannon clamped to his table.
He collects the materials – solid rods of colored glass the size of drinking straws, glass tubes of varying diameters – and picks up a slender tube of striped glass, holding its midsection to the flame. He blows into the tiny hole, producing a small bubble where the tube was heated. Moments later, he grasps the ends of the tube and twists in opposite directions. In seven minutes, he completes a perfectly shaped bottle, less than an inch tall, paper-thin with a spiraling pattern.
“There you are! A teeny, tiny bottle.”
Nearby are two boxes filled with 400 such miniatures that he will soon ship to Venice for sale in Italian shops. He averages eight an hour, and still has 100 to go. “It’s a pain,” he says. “But it’s money.”
Santini is a prodigiously gifted artist, nationally known for 20 years, but since the economic downturn hit him in 2002, he has kept his torch trained mostly on production items scaled and priced to sell – twisted-leaf earrings, miniature bottles, tumblers. It’s factory work, and he has an artist inside him that’s been dormant too long.
These days Santini is focused on coming up with new work that excites him, that he can send to galleries and art centers around the country as he did before the post-9/11 slump in art sales.
While he has been known for delicate goblets with figural stems and clear cylinders enlivened with monkeylike figures, he began work this year on a new series of elegant, polished black vessels with engraved surface patterns. “Right now all I want to do is engraving. Maybe three months from now I’m going to get tired and switch to something else.”
In art, he’s determined not to get trapped into making the same object again and again just because it’s popular. To Santini, art equals freedom; production, the opposite.
Yet production is how he got started.
Emilio Santini was 11 when he took his first job in a glass factory in Murano, Italy, an internationally renowned glass center since the 13th century, across the lagoon from Venice.
“I go inside, there is fire, there is banging. I was scared,” he says. “This is hell! People were screaming. There was so much noise! I didn’t know what to do, so they hit me. With the hand, bang! Idiot!”
Five furnaces made a deafening rumble as men moved swiftly about with molten glass on the tips of blowpipes. In those days, in the 1960s, the steel pipes weren’t stainless, which meant glass stuck to them and had to be hammered off, constantly.
American glass students tend to romanticize Murano. They tell Santini he’s lucky to be from the island of glass. He tells them they’re fortunate to learn glass in college. Glass workers in his hometown mostly are artisans paid to endlessly re-create the designs of a shop owner or resident designer. Few are taught to express their own ideas.
In Murano, practically everyone is involved in the industry. The Santini family has produced glass there since the 1500s. Among his three siblings, Emilio is the only one still producing glass; his father quit at age 91, four years ago.
Since 1988, when his wife took a job in Williamsburg, Santini has lived and worked there. He knows of only one other glassmaker from Murano who lives full time in the United States, Gianni Toso, a flameworker in Baltimore. Their fathers were friends; Emilio’s dad, Mario, occasionally took his son to watch Gianni, 13 years older, at the torch.
Having practiced flameworking for more than four decades, starting at age 17, the latest great
Santini is now a full-fledged virtuoso. He has taught his techniques for two decades at American glass centers, from North Carolina’s Penland to Washington State’s Pilchuck. Amy Schwartz, who runs the education programs at Corning Museum of Glass in New York, says that Santini’s classes always fill and that he’s passed his skills to more than 400 aspiring glass artists at Corning alone.
Robin Rogers, assistant manager of the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio in Norfolk, first met Santini in 1999 at Pilchuck Glass School. “I kind of assumed he was so famous because Americans are so hungry to learn from Italians, including myself,” Rogers says.
Students eye his superior technique and imagine they could never get there. Santini says, flatly, “The only difference between me and them is 35 more years of work and discipline.”
Santini’s first creative impulse was to write, so he studied Italian literature at the University of Venice. His mother was an avid reader and his father was admired as a flameworker who could make anything in glass.
Santini’s wife, Theresa Johansson, says that like his father, “he can make the very thing he imagines exactly how he imagines it.” Lately she watches him work at writing with the same intensity, “trying to get his words to obey him as fully as glass does.”
Last winter he completed a poem that alludes to glass. Titled Ice Storm, it opens with Santini roaming his 9½-acre property:
In this crystallizing night
when millions of moons frozen in the past
are reflected by every naked bough
and grey landscapes of winter
become transparent like glass,
rainbows of life
scattered by the low sun,
I walk in the woods wearing my layers,
caressing iced twigs,
slipping hollow icicles from low branches
and taste the flavours of ice as never before.
The couple met in the early 1980s in Italy. They traveled in 1984 to her hometown, Winston-Salem, to marry. While there, Santini visited the nearby Penland School of Crafts and met Harvey Littleton, who started a movement in the 1960s to get Americans making fine art from glass.
Looking at Littleton’s sleek glass sculptures, and talking to him, convinced Santini that he could make serious art with glass. He is focused again on that notion. Last winter he was a visiting artist at the Chrysler Museum Glass Studio, where he had free use of the hot shop and a team of assistants.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Santini says. In the past decade or so he has had to turn down such offers, because he couldn’t afford to take time off from commercial production.
But now, more than anything he wants his spirit to inhabit the work. “If the maker is a real artist, he is able to transfigure his inner life into the object. And you, as a viewer, feel that.”
Experimenting risks his time and costly materials. But as he writes in Ice Storm:
It’s life’s chance I take with pleasure,
walking in the frozen world.
Small price in this perfect iced day
becoming part of the landscape
when fear turns to belonging,
death into life, and I, rainbowed over,
bow to my own divinity.