Glass artist Harvey Littleton, the man who took an ancient medium and launched an unprecedented glassblowing movement at UW-Madison a half-century ago, died Dec. 13 at his home in Spruce Pine, N.C.
He was 91.
“Harvey was the father of the studio glass movement,” celebrated glass artist and onetime Littleton student Dale Chihuly said in a statement through his Seattle studio.
“He had a major influence on my career and the careers of all the artists who chose glass as their medium. He will forever be remembered for moving the material from its decorative, industrial and craft roots to a fine art which allows all artists access to techniques, tools and concepts — thereby transforming the use of glass for all time.”
Littleton’s death comes just a year after the Chazen Museum and other museums across the country honored Littleton and the 50th anniversary of studio glass.
According to Chazen Museum director Russell Panczenko, two key factors marked the beginning of the studio glass movement in 1962. In the spring, Littleton led two historic Toledo Museum glassblowing workshops. “Then, that fall, Harvey organized the very first studio glass program at any university in the United States, here in Madison,” Panczenko said.
The Chazen exhibit, “Spark and Flame: 50 Years of Art Glass and the University of Wisconsin-Madison,” featured one gallery dedicated to Littleton. Another gallery displayed works by almost 100 glass artists from all over the world.
Littleton’s interest in glass can be traced to his father, who while working as a researcher at Corning Glass Works in Corning, N.Y., invented Pyrex. The younger Littleton studied industrial design before coming to UW-Madison in 1951 to teach ceramics.
The original glass classes were held on Littleton’s rural Verona farm, where the UW art professor fashioned a small furnace.
“Harvey was never interested in working with glass only for himself,” said Joan Falconer Byrd, a Littleton disciple who teaches ceramics at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C.
“He always wanted to start a field, because he knew if you just had a person working in glass, and you didn’t have galleries, you didn’t have museums, you didn’t have universities teaching glass — you really wouldn’t have anything that had any staying power.
“What Harvey always had in mind was that he wanted to start a field and he absolutely did it magnificently,” said Byrd, a member of his first glassblowing class whose biography on Littleton was released last year.
“He’s created worlds out there.”