Corey Pemberton knows when to follow his instincts. Starting college at Virginia Commonwealth University, he studied graphic design because it was practical; he was told, “This is how you make money.”
But in his freshman year, he happened to walk through the school’s craft department and saw students blowing glass. “I was just so mesmerized and hooked right away that I actually went to my adviser the next day and switched my major,” he remembers, “and studied glassblowing for the next three and a half years.”
It was the right decision. Since graduating from VCU in 2012, the 28-year-old artist has done more than make a living in his chosen medium; he has developed a style at once personal and fluid, channeling both his own perspective and a range of influences. In form, his vases and bottles are refined but not rote, by turns rotund and sleek: “The less you touch [the glass] and the more you shape it with air, the better it looks” is a credo. He’s bold with color; his Grain Bowls (2016) feature swirls of burnt orange, his Pistachio Ukhamba (2017) bands of the namesake hue.
Pemberton claims wide-ranging influences, from Ellsworth Kelly to Zulu basketry. He also credits a seeming limitation – his red-green color-blindness – for his unique approach to color.
At first, he viewed it as an obstacle; then “somebody mentioned that might actually be advantageous to me, that maybe I’m seeing things in a different light or a different way than the average person, and that I should just embrace my strange color palette and go with it. So I try to do that.”
Pemberton has always kept an eye on the practical side of the making life, though. While he was in college, he took a summer course with Sam Stang and Kaeko Maehata at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, and Stang’s discussion about the business aspects of his work left an impression. “That was just really huge for me, to hear somebody actually speak in a tangible way about how one could make a living doing this,” Pemberton says. After college, he spent two years working for them at Augusta Glass Studio in Missouri, and, he says, he “learned more from that experience than I did in four years of art school. ... I would travel with [them] to fairs and get a behind-the-scenes look at how all that went down.”
Underneath his professional common sense – which has allowed him to exhibit regularly and snag a two-year fellowship at Penland – remains a commitment to taking risks and chasing the muse. When Pemberton arrived at Penland in 2017 for the start of his fellowship, he set about reimagining his work from the ground up. “I wanted to start looking to other places and looking at other mediums to gain a new vocabulary,” he says, so he’s spent his time on painting, woodworking, printmaking, and ceramics. “I haven’t been in the glass studio a lot lately,” he says, “but when I have been, I’ve definitely noticed that sort of material study creeping back in.”
After Penland, Pemberton plans on heading to Los Angeles and getting back into the nuts and bolts of production-style glassblowing. The siren call that first drew him to the medium is still strong, even if it’s now informed by other work. “I just immediately got this sense of rhythm and community that I wasn’t getting in the drawing studio,” he says of that first glimpse of glass. “It just seemed like a fun place to be.”