Lino Tagliapietra has been captivated by glass from his earliest years. At 80, his passion still knows no bounds.
“I would like to make glass that’s timeless, that stays forever young,” says Lino Tagliapietra, a youthful 80-year-old who has been making glass in a timeless fashion for close to 70 years. He pauses, then adds, “I’m not sure if it’s possible.”
Maybe that’s how a true master views his craft: as an unending quest, an ideal to be pursued relentlessly, if never quite achieved in his own estimation.
It’s often said that Tagliapietra is the best glassblower in the world – indeed, one of the best in history. His surname means “stonecutter,” but he was born to blow glass, as a native of Murano, the fabled home of Venetian glassmaking since the 13th century.
His story, by now, is legend. Eternally fascinated by glass – as a child, he’d build little furnaces out of mud and bricks, light a fire and melt glass bits for fun – he began working in local factories at the age of 12, was apprenticed to master blower Archimede Seguso, and attained the status of maestro (literally, “master”) himself at 21. Throughout the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, he had a successful career designing innovative lamps, vases, and other products for various Muranese companies, including Galliano Ferro, Venini, and Effetre International. Then at midlife, almost by chance, he embarked on an extraordinary second act. He became not only a celebrated independent artist, but also a teacher and mentor whose influence is so profound, so widespread, that he is regarded as a pivotal – some say the pivotal – figure in the contemporary glass art movement worldwide.
In short, Tagliapietra is a rock star in the glass world, one not content to play only his old hits. He still brings an unbridled enthusiasm to his work, using his command of centuries-old techniques to create sensuous, sculptural blown forms, full of vibrant color and pattern.
“We see in Lino’s art not only the highest level of skill and mastery of material, but a personal quest for new discoveries with each piece,” says one of his dealers, Jim Schantz, who with his wife, Kim Saul, owns Schantz Galleries in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “At 80, he continues to challenge himself by finding the most exciting or most sublime, striving for new forms of expression and creativity. His latest works, which we saw him make at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma in February, were some of the most powerful he has made.”
“I like to research new ways to try to express myself – not only the idea, but the technique. They go together,” Tagliapietra says in his charmingly accented English, which he began learning in his mid-40s when he first visited the United States. For him, discipline and innovation go hand in hand. “It must be both. You must be very disciplined, have respect for the rules. Other times, you break the rules – but always with a respect for the material.”
His strong work ethic was instilled during his early years at the factory in postwar Italy, when “we needed to work in a very serious way.” Forgoing school, young Lino put in long hours, sometimes from 5 o’clock in the morning to 7 at night, six or seven days a week. “It was no joke. If you made a mistake, after a couple of times, you could receive some big, big, punishment – physical, too. It was a tough education,” he says. As he matured, Tagliapietra was drawn to the larger world of art – not just the Old Masters, but also modern work he’d see at the Venice Biennale by American painters such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, and Ellsworth Kelly. It stirred in him a creative urge to venture beyond the sophisticated commercial designs he was doing for the factories. “I had always the idea that I could do something new.”
Then, in 1979, he met a young American glassblower named Benjamin Moore, who had come to Murano to work at Venini. Moore arranged for Tagliapietra to travel to the United States and give a demonstration at the Pilchuck Glass School north of Seattle, the center of a vibrant but still nascent glass art scene.
At Pilchuck, the Americans watched, dazzled, as Tagliapietra put on a stunning display of technical wizardry. “To see someone with that insane command of the material – the speed and virtuosity and finesse, working on a very small, delicate level as well as doing huge, massive things – was just mind-blowing,” Moore remembers.
The maestro was less impressed with the Americans’ work. “He was appalled at the craftsmanship; we were all self-taught,” Moore says. But “what he saw was this no-holds-barred attitude in the American approach, which I think he found rather refreshing.”
“The technique, they were very poor,” Tagliapietra recalls. “But the energy, they were fantastic.”
He generously shared traditional Venetian techniques, giving the Americans a foundation of basic skills – how to properly gather glass, the right temperature at which to work, the design of furnaces, how to set up the benches. “These things made a huge impact in those early years for all of us, particularly in the Northwest movement,” says Moore. “It enabled people like William Morris and Dante Marioni and Preston Singletary – you can go down the line of prominent Northwest artists and look how their work blossomed and took this huge leap after having spent time watching Lino. It was huge, really big. A big deal.”
“He imparted the language that nobody knew of, nobody could speak,” says Marioni. When he met Tagliapietra in 1983, he was 19, an “uneducated glass zealot” who had been blowing since he was 15. “It was still a bunch of hippies blowing glass then, everybody figuring it out as they went. The lack of skills sort of lent itself to the prevailing aesthetic of the day, which was loose, goopy stuff. Then Lino showed up. He could make things that looked machine-made, and that wasn’t anybody’s intent back then. The hippies weren’t into that. They wanted to make it look funky and cool and handmade,” Marioni recalls. “But I sat up and took notice. I couldn’t believe human beings could shape molten glass like that. It set me on my path and has for countless other people.” (Most importantly in Marioni’s view: “Lino is a role model, a gentleman, always polite and kind to everybody. I mean, he is the world’s greatest glassblower. That goes without saying. He’s a fantastic artist. But to be a nice person on top of that is really an A-plus.”)
While Tagliapietra empowered the Americans, their free spirit inspired him. Soon he was spending more and more time in Seattle. He expanded his travels and teaching to Asia, Australia, and South America. Starting in 1988, he worked with Dale Chihuly on the latter’s famous Venetians, a series of elaborate, colorful blown forms that paid homage to art deco Venetian glass. He began to envision a more artistic, expressive direction for himself, as well as a potential market for such work. By 1990 he had left Effetre, where he had been artistic and technical director since 1976, and was ready, as Moore puts it, “to bust a move.” Tagliapietra realized his old mindset of “designer-thinker” – creating objects to be manufactured in multiples, with the constraints that entailed – no longer served his purpose. So he made a bold personal decision to change his approach and make one-of-a-kind pieces.
“After that transition, I made things a different way,” he says. “It’s a totally different philosophy to make unique pieces, a different psychology. And I like it. It’s very satisfying for me to understand what I want, what is possible to express.” Rather than sketching, it’s handling hot glass directly that guides his creative process. “I need to work, to move my hands.”
There’s been no end to his innovation since. John Kiley, who worked on his team from 1994 to 2011, recalls the challenge of keeping up with Tagliapietra when he was in an experimental mood: “There would be some new technique he’d dream up, or new tool or mold or idea or pattern or shape. We’d be scrambling, trying to figure out what he was doing, because none of us had seen anything like it.” To this day, whenever Kiley watches his former boss in action, “I fully expect to see something I’ve never seen before.”
Though obsessive about his work, Tagliapietra was always genuinely interested in his crew members and enjoyed hanging out, Kiley says. “The conversation usually wasn’t about glass. We’d talk about art, cooking, music, love, politics, philosophy, travel. When I was real young, he’d say to me, ‘You know, Kiley? Yeah, it’s important to study technique, to be a good glassblower. But it’s also important to walk in the woods, to drink good wine, eat good food. Take time to understand things outside of blowing glass, because that’s where your inspiration will come from.’ ”
Asked for his advice to aspiring artists, Tagliapietra replies, “If you want to make art, you must be passionate. And then study. Curiosity. Never stop being curious. Then you must have patience, because you don’t become famous right away, you don’t make money right away. My personal experience, it took me almost 50 years. Also, you need a little bit of luck, of course. Me, I’m very lucky – when I came to the States, it completely changed my life.”
And it has been, he reflects, a “very good life.” He and his wife of 56 years, Lina, the daughter of a prominent Muranese glass family, split their time between an apartment in Seattle and a modern house on the water in Murano. (Their three grown children reside in Italy, and none blow glass.) “I live in Seattle when I’m in Seattle, and I live in Venice when I’m in Venice,” is how Tagliapietra puts it, not counting his frequent travels. He makes his pieces at various studios around the United States – “I feel grateful, very good working here. I have a good team, nice people, really fantastic” – and during his guest demonstrations at hotshops around the globe.
When he’s not making glass, he’s often reading about it. “I have a thousand books. I like Roman glass, Islamic glass. I like the history of glass, because I feel if you know the past, you will know the future. To make new things, you must know the old things.” At events like the annual Glass Art Society conference, he enjoys the camaraderie and dialogue and new work, loves seeing what a vibrant, important art medium glass has become. He’s a fan of all craft forms, especially wood, and owns several vessels by the late Ed Moulthrop, the noted woodturner.
“It doesn’t matter what material we use,” Tagliapietra says. “We need the technique, we need the idea. And then we need the poetry, the love that transforms the material into a piece of art.”
After a lifetime in glass, after decades of achievement and acclaim, Tagliapietra clearly still feels that love. But does he feel satisfied?
“Oh, no, never, never, never,” he says, sighing softly. He repeats the word “never” eight more times, emphatically. “In the moment, you are satisfied. Maybe you’re happy with what you did. But tomorrow, or even today, is another time. You make one work, and the next piece is the new challenge.”
So what’s next for him?
“That’s a good question. I’d like to know,” says the maestro, chuckling. “I’m running to be there.”
Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.