Rhoda Baer Red and Orange Squares

Red and Orange Squares, 2011; laminated, cold-worked optical glass; 7.75 x 5.2 x 3 in.

Rhoda Baer

“Ping” the top of one of Rhoda Baer’s glass bowls and you’ll hear a wonderful clear ringing. “A musician friend said it hit a perfect note,” the artist says, “but I can’t remember which one.”

A bit of music is just one of the pleasures of Baer’s elegant, understated vessels and sculptures, which harbor rich depths within a pared-down format. Maybe it’s because, as a successful commercial photographer for more than 30 years, she knows how to visualize a scene, then capture light, movement, and meaning in a single frame.

“My high is making it,” Baer says of her creative process, whether it’s her solitary studio work in glass or the hustle-and-bustle of photographing top scientists in their busy labs at the National Institutes of Health near her home in Bethesda, Maryland. “With photography, you get your high the second you click the shutter and you know you have it. The high in glass is pulling it out of the kiln.”

In both cases, there’s plenty of design and craft in the finished product. Baer’s photo portraits look fresh and spontaneous, but they’ve been carefully composed. Her glass work reflects not the fast dance of hot blowing, but rather the slow, deliberate methods of fusing, slumping, and lamination.

For her bowls, Baer arranges layers of sometimes hundreds of glass pieces into an abstract design (these days mostly in black and white), fuses it all into a disc, then subjects that to long, repeated firings until it slumps into a container form. The result is a pristine vessel alive with surface tension and texture, inside and out; even the rim has its own pattern, “which sort of invites you in,” Baer says.

Her sculptures, which look quite different from the bowls but share a similar aesthetic – clean lines, pure shapes – are solid chunks of clear optical glass that she laminates, placing at each juncture a layer of color that radiates throughout. “It’s really this wonderful exercise in creating shape and form, and infusing it with color. And the color changes according to the direction, amount, and quality of light.” Her Turning Leaves piece is neutral when seen from one angle, vibrant with fall foliage shades – orange, green, and yellow – when you look from another side. “It becomes interactive,” she says, and “great to show to children.”

In fact, it was a child who led Baer to glass seven years ago, when she took a fusing workshop with her best friend’s 12-year-old daughter, just for fun. “The first cut I did in glass, I was hooked. I just liked the feeling of it. I saw, in my mind, the possibilities.” 

After intensive technical study with various teachers, she converted her darkroom to a glass studio (photography was going digital anyway) and began making pieces in the vivid reds, blues, and greens she favored then. Right away she was named a winner in Bullseye Glass Company’s prestigious Emerge competition and was picked up by galleries around the nation, where “it all sold fast.”

At one point she and a partner tried doing a limited-edition line of platters. “Overnight we had them in 25 stores. But the recession hit, and people weren’t buying that stuff anymore,” Baer says. “So I turned my attention to a different long-term plan – to go back and do what I really wanted to do, which is make one-of-a-kind pieces and not concern myself with the selling of them, but with making them. Just making them. I thought if I could make them good enough, they’d sell.” 

So far, so good: Collectors are buying, a bowl was recognized in the latest Emerge competition, and a sculpture appears in the Corning Museum of Glass’ 2012 New Glass Review.

These days, Baer bounces back and forth between glass and photography, working out of the many-windowed “tree house” she had built on a wooded hillside in 2002. Modern, minimalist, and filled with natural light, it’s “the best art project I ever had,” designed totally for her, from low countertops and light switches (“I’m short”) down to a different chime for each doorbell. For Baer, the creative life is all of a piece.

“Designing the house was no different from designing a vessel. It really is about all the same things – volume, mass, function, structure.”

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.