Article by Tammy Sutherland

M
any an auspicious journey has begun with a moment of epiphany, of ‘seeing the light’. Few, however, can claim this to be the case quite literally. Into this elite category falls Warren Carther, an artist whose life-long love of glass was initiated by a serendipitous encounter with what he now refers to as a “less than noteworthy” light fixture-cum-modernist-sculpture by architect Gustavo da Roza.


Reflecting back on a distinguished 35+ year career as an architectural and sculptural glass artist, Carther recalls the day he toured the newly built Winnipeg Art Gallery with a friend and first saw the da Roza piece, a collection of glass globes suspended from crisscrossing bars, installed over the table in the cordoned-off boardroom. So impressed was he that for days to come, Carther would ruminate on what he saw as the fantastic properties of glass: its transparency, its brittleness, its mystery. His insights into the phenomenal potential of glass– the ability to work with colour, movement and light, the sculptural possibilities–fuelled his growing preoccupation with the material and soon set him on a course of study that would have him blowing glass, first for a summer with Bill Carlson, then under master artist Marvin Lipofsky at California College of the Arts and Crafts.

While it has been over thirty years since he picked up the blow pipes that lean idly in a corner
of his sprawling Winnipeg studio, Carther’s passion for the material has not cooled by one degree.
When asked about his relationship to the medium, he grins and quips, “Is this the part where I’m
supposed to wax eloquent about glass?” and he’s off. “Glass is incredibly seductive to work with,”
he begins. From the first time he blew glass, he was “seduced by the heat from the furnace, the
glow of the glass … it’s flowing, it’s moving, it’s changing. And I knew instantly that glass was going
to be it. It was the material I would always work with from that point on.”

Architecture has long been another fascination for Carther and from early on in his career
he had visions of creating walls of glass: thick, sculpted, carved. With Lipofsky’s blessing and encouragement,
Carther followed his vision into uncharted territory. After initially exploring stained
glass, experience soon revealed the functional and aesthetic limitations of the medium. Ultimately
the lead was too structurally weak for the scale of work he envisioned, and he was unable to communicate
visually in the way he had hoped.
His next foray—working with quarter-inch plate glass using a cabinet sand blaster and lamination
techniques—
proved pivotal in his career: if he worked in thicker glass, he could carve into
it and wouldn’t have to use lead at all. The three-dimensionality, the whisper-thin or deep, fat
lines, the perfect edges, would all be achievable. Thicker glass would offer the structural stability
required to achieve his monumental plans while enabling him to have as much artistic control
over his work as someone drawing, painting or sculpting. Close collaboration with engineers
would also ensure the strength and stability of his work.
Having resolved some of the structural issues, Carther’s technical explorations moved onto
the problem of colour. He began by firing enamels onto the glass in the kiln, but the result was too
unpredictable. The serendipity of colours interacting with the metal used in float glass was unwelcome;
every piece needed to match up perfectly in large-scale installations. Although he met this
challenge with the help of a UV light that revealed which side of the glass the metal was on, other
issues soon emerged. Even the slightest warping during firing could have dramatic results in architectural
commissions where the tolerances were extremely tight, and eventually the dimensions of
his work outgrew local kiln capacity. His response was to begin developing new ways of colouring
glass through lamination and cold processes.
“It’s such an incredible material, for what it can do,” says Carther. “Light is this phenomenal
force that you can talk about from a spiritual perspective or you can be the doe looking at those
headlights coming at you. Glass is light, and that is what excites me about it. It IS light. Glass holds
light, projects light, shows colour and movement in light, and that’s what has always intrigued me
about it. It can put you in awe.”
Carther’s work is an embodiment of that awe. In scale alone Prairie Boy’s Dream (1994, two towers,
10.6 x 3.6m each), Carther’s most well-known Manitoba-based installation, engenders feelings of
wonder and respect in those who encounter it while passing through the Investor’s Group lobby in
downtown Winnipeg. An undulating sea of uprooted prairie melds into sky, stands on end, parts
to let busy humans enter into and slip away from its curved embrace. As in so much of Carther’s
work, Prairie Boy’s massive structure, the use of heavy, unyielding glass and metal, and the scope of
his artistic vision are imposing. What humanizes the work and welcomes visitors is the warm translucency
of shifting colours, the soft sensuality of thick sandblasted lines, the visual references to
the land, its inhabitants, and their interwoven history.
Ask about the highlight of his career, and Carther will point you to the other side of the world
to The Chronos Trilogy, a 1998 installation weighing over 25 tons and collectively spanning over 50
metres, set in Lincoln House, the centrepiece of Hong Kong’s financial district. The Trilogy is
comprised of three components within the same building, each with its own title (Vestige, Sea of
Time and Approach of Time). His reflections on the city, its citizens, past and present, the former
purpose of the land on that spot, connections to his previous work, conversations with architects,
engineers and patrons, and the ultimate story of how the project unfolded visually, all point to an
artist who is deeply driven by conceptual concerns. As beloved as glass is to Carther, as much as he
knows and deeply respects its material nature and has contributed to technical advancements in
glass art, for him “it’s never been about material.”
For Carther, “Art is about ideas and the intention of the artist… In the end, it comes down to
the passion and ideas of the maker.” Carther’s impressive body of work both defies and embraces
the categories of art, architecture and craft. Indeed, the strength of it seems to lie precisely in the
way he weaves conceptual, environmental, structural and material considerations into a seamless
whole that moves viewers and has earned him accolades, awards and countless commissions.

Tammy Sutherland, a textile artist, is programme coordinator with the Manitoba Craft Council.

Image: Vestige, 1998
Carved glass, curved, abrasive blast carved 19mm glass, applied colour, dichroic glass laminations, patinated copper, steel
8.2 X 4.5 X 1.05m
Lincoln House, Hong Kong
Photograph: Gerry Kopelow