The Mountain Times

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Labor of love: ‘Bit by glass’ Paedra Bramhall dedication to art pushed the limits of a new medium

About 50 years ago, a blown glass movement began to spread through the arts community nationwide. It was one of many 'movements' in America during the 60s motivated and inspired by social changes, experimentation, risk and sometimes unexpected rewards.

Many artists moved to Vermont to carve out a simple and affordable life. Land was cheap at the time and so was the cost of living. That enabled artists to survive without too much effort, leaving their time free to focus on pushing forward new art forms, explained Harry Besett, President of the Vermont Craft Council and independent glass blower in Harwick, Vt.

"The simple lifestyle here in Vermont, where an artist was connected to the land and to their craft was very appealing," said Besett.

Prior to the 60s, glass was designed by artists but produced in a factory by laborers whose job it was to turn out quantity. The blown glass movement combined the art with the craft - the artist became the designer and laborer - and this allowed for great experimentation and expansion for the glass medium. "The quality of work that could be achieved outside the traditional factory, was remarkable," Besett said.

A small furnace was needed for an artist to set up an independent studio to blow glass but it was not too difficult to build one and many did, including Paedra Bramhall of Bridgewater. (Many know her as Pete Bramhall who started a glass studio in 1969. Peter transformed to Paedra in the early 1990's. And that is another story.)

"Paedra's work is of the highest quality," said Besett. "She was always focused on the art creating new processes and new depths… she did well with sales, but that never took priority over her creative process."

"Glass has given me everything I have," said Bramhall at her opening at the Killington Arts Guild, February 15. Her show, titled "A Searching Mind: The Many Transitions of Paedra," is a retrospective exhibition of her 43 years creating art. On display are transfigured collage prints, ink paintings and bronze sculptures along with glass sculptures and blown-art glass Interiors.

It wasn't until 1964, about 1/3 the way thru her college years, that she was introduced to glass. That year, Bramhall visited a friend, Jim Tanner, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "The glass movement was in its infancy," she said. "He handed me a pipe [to blow glass] and I got bit by it," she said remembering her instant attraction to the new medium.

Bramhall attended a five-year arts program at Cleveland School of the Arts, which did not yet offer glass instruction. So, in 1967, she took a three-week summer course in glass at the Penland School of Craft, in North Carolina. The next summer, she was back for an 11-week course after which she incorporated glass into her final project at Cleveland.

"I'm pretty sure I was the first to show blown glass at my fifth year show at Cleveland," Bramhall said. "I was awarded the Gund Award for my work, which was $1,500… that really helped me to get started at my own studio."

After graduation, Paedra Bramhall came back to the land she was raised on in Bridgewater and built her first glass studio, a "primitive shed with a generator," she described. "It was the first of many."

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Bramhall was one of many to to set up a studio in Vermont around that time. "During the studio arts movement graduates didn't want to go corporate like their parents," said Harry Besett. Instead, they wanted to live out their dreams focused on pursuits of exploration, "'Give me space, leave me alone, and let me do my thing,' was how a lot of artists in Vermont felt, and still do," Besett continued. "Vermont is great, because it allows artists to do their thing and then plug into the market…At one point, Vermont had the highest density of craftspeople in the country, it probably still does," he said. In the 60s, "we were quite literally the 'hippies in the woods blowing glass,'" Besett continued. The quality of what they achieved, however, was what made the blow glass studios successful, he emphasized.

"These people who rebelled against corporate careers created a whole new art form and took it to the most advanced level. Paedra would have succeeded in anything she would have set her mind to… Paedra has always lived life on its own terms, it may not have been as easy financially, but she never made compromises. She cares about how her art is received, but cares more about doing the work and getting it out there," he said. "Her work is not for everyone; it was not made for everyone."

At her glass studio, Paedra Bramhall produced blown glass Interiors, pinwheel platters and various sculptures out of glass. Bramhall even hired assistants to help her in her studio at her peak of productivity.

One long-term assistant, Andy Bird, worked with Bramhall for over 20 years. One night Bramhall and Bird were working to create a commissioned piece for the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium; it was to be given to James Earl Jones, as the Distinguished Person of the Year Award in 1994. Their focus and energy was perfect that night, and they created a perfect piece, "a true 10," Bramhall described. They then decided to try their luck again, and created a "twin" piece that same night. "It was the only time in 35 years that I was able to create two such perfect pieces in one session," said Bramhall.

"Andy gave me that great gift of his energy and focus… It was an incredible relationship because it got to the point that we did not even have to speak to each other… trust is the only word I know to describe how we worked," she said. To acknowledge his help and thank him for his work, Bramhall always signed "help from Andy Bird" on pieces he assisted.

One of the "twin" works went to James Earl Jones, the other she kept. "My piece is for sale for the first time in a gallery in this exhibit," Bramhall said, referring to her "twin," called Planetary Sky, on display at the Killington Arts Guild show until May 12.

Bramhall's glass work, though extensive at one time, is now finite in its supply as she closed the studio 5-6 years ago.

"Glass is physically demanding," Besett explained. He has operated his independent glass studio now for almost 30 years. "An artists body wears out in time, unlike the glass factory laborers who were young and frequently changed… it takes a toll," he said. "Your first 30-40 years are most productive, after that you just can't do the same things you used to."

Besett says the blown glass movement has "run it's course," and the times have changed in ways that make it impossible to recreate. "There are still artists and independent glass studios, but it's different now, art is no longer one's whole identity... with the cost of living so high, artists can no longer focus solely on pushing to new levels of art," he said. Adding, that although new artists share the similar desires for a simple life and are attracted to the Vermont lifestyle, they have to produce products that there is a demand for.

 "Paedra and the other early artists in the blown glass movement will eventually be seen as pioneers of a great accomplishment in the arts. Their works are under appreciated- these guys should be national treasures," said Besett.

A Searching Mind: The Many Transitions of Paedra will be on display through May 12 in the Killington Arts Guild, which is open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. in the upstairs Gallery at Base Camp Outfitters/Cabin Fever Gifts on Route 4.