Author: Frans Jeursen
High up in the Dolomite mountains of Northern Italy, situated at a highway, squeezed in between a steep slope covered with luscious vines and a swift running brook stands the slender and modern building housing the glass school of ‘Vetroricerca’ (Glass Research). Here on the outskirts of the city of Bolzano about sixteen students in the age between 18 and 25 get a two year steam course in a wide variety of modern glass techniques.A strange and somewhat remote place for such a school you might think, but in this part of Italy the artisan tradition always was strong, craftsmanship stood in high regard and still remains at a high level. Also Bolzano lies at an ancient crossroads of trade routes and just after the Brenner Pass which for many centuries was one of the main gates into Italy. The many ornate buildings in the city testify to a rich past and a bustling business- and tourist- life in the present. Up until today the people of Southern Tyrol are proficient in producing great wines and woodcarvings, so perhaps we should be a little surprised that the glass courses at Vetroricerca although initially aiming at turning out skilled professionals have a quality that far surpasses the artisan level.
In 1996 Alessandro Cuccato and a group of people with a passion for glass took the initiative of starting courses in working with glass. The European Social Fund bureau of Bolzano supplied funding and Alessandro succeeded in interesting a large number of artists and skilled professionals in teaching courses at the school, each in his or her own field of expertise. Today you can go to ‘Vetroricerca’ and learn the techniques of glassblowing, fusing, sandblasting, mould making, cutting, casting and whatever from teachers from all over the world like Alessandro Cuccato himself [Italy], Riccardo Rhe [Switzerland], Sylvia Levenson [Italy], Mari Meszaros [Holland], Deborah Hersch [USA], Paola Tognon [Italy] and Dario Lorusso C [Argentina] and Robert Scherer [Italy] Scott Chaseling [ Australia] and Kirstie Rea [Australia]. The first years of the school’s existence were a hard struggle to put everything together and in its place. A million things need to be organized and obviously it is much easier to organize a single course than to establish a school which implies a vision of what you hope to accomplish but also a basis of continuity to develop that vision. Actually it was like tight-rope walking keeping the balance between developing an artistic goal and creating the practical and financial conditions that would make all this possible.
The initial idea was to offer a thorough training in working with glass enabling students to acquire superior skills. It is to the credit of the schools administration that at the end of the two years course a real effort is being made to find a job fitting the qualities of each individual student. Nobody is left to his own devices and the administration searches for precisely the right position for the right student. Some of them end up as technical advisor, some as teachers others as employees of a glass factory. Of course this is not needed in all cases. A number of students have in the meantime set up their own little studios and cater after the needs of clients producing stained glass windows and doors, chandeliers and objects that can be sold in artisan shops in Bolzano and the wider region. They get commissioned to execute specific works and collaborate with architects and artists, or, as is more and more often the case, become artists in their own right.
Inward and outward
Vetroricerca works with a double standard of artisan and artistic proficiency but while the improvement and refinement of both is the ultimate goal the school is not a world closed in upon itself. Public works are made under the supervision of the teachers and donated to the community like stained glass windows and sculptures The same balance between the artistic and the artisan is maintained by Vetroricerca when it comes to the activities the school in a broader sense. The school organizes workshops at artistic glass manufacturing centers and schools both in Italy and abroad. Excursions and study trips are scheduled for the students to places of particular importance to either the craft- or the artistic side of glass manufacturing. Also guest-teachers from abroad are invited. Inspiring the students by their differing individual approaches, styles and techniques.
Experience fostering art
In the course of time there was a noticeable shift in the character of the school The reason for this lies in the origin of the school and its alternative and experimental way of teaching. The curriculum is based on an alternation of theme-specific weeks focusing on a number of disciplines. Thus the didactic approach that marks the school was expressly ‘hands on’ from the very beginning. Of course theory is part of the curriculum but it is applied almost immediately in concrete situations and the day to day confrontation with the vicissitudes of the praxis compresses many years of study into a relatively short time. On top of all this the students are allotted work at local companies during the summer months, when the school is closed. Another opportunity of gaining ever more first hand experience. The two years, and 2110 hours the student spends at the school embody a true crash course and enable them to get to know the possibilities and impossibilities of the elusive and enigmatic material really well. ‘Impossibility’ plays a decisive role here. No better teacher than both respect for the material and disenchantment when you reach the limits of your own potential or that of glass itself. All this accounts for the high level of artisan proficiency. This ‘pressure cooker’ approach, however, also tends to make the students realize at an early stage whether they have a bend for the artisan or for the artistic and helps them focus on developing their true potential, wasting no time. In fact many of them discover their artistic talents that studying at an average school might not have brought out into the open for lack of skills in expressing themselves. As a result ‘research’ at Vetroricerca [Glass research] while remaining in the forefront of technical developments tends to give ever more room to the unfolding of artistic quality. At the end of the two-year course the students have to pass a week-long exam of theory and practice, and then are entitled to call themselves ‘Expert in artistic glass manufacturing techniques’. This title does, however, not do full justice to that into which many of them may in the meantime have developed themselves. It stresses only the ‘technical’ side, however much this will always remain the stepping stone to artistic excellence. Giving both ends of the balance their due is the specialty of Vetroricerca. In this respect the school greatly differs from the average art academy where the expression of thoughts and emotions is often hampered by an inability to create works of art that fully embody them. On the other hand many glass schools focus solely on the ‘crafts’ aspect of the education they offer, producing artists that oftentimes remain bound by very conventional ways of thinking in spite of their often unequalled technical excellence.
The unique concept of Vetroricerca became manifest in a number of events like ‘Frangibile’ 1 and 2. The latter held in may 2005 was structured as a workshop and an exhibition. A number creative international artists and designers, like Alba D’Urbano, Maria Grazia Rosin, Jan Nemecek, Michel Fronek, Pino Signoretto and Daniele Lupo came to Vetroricerca in Bolzano to experiment with age old and ultra modern glass techniques. The angle of their work varied from the Mediterranean approach to the one practiced in the north of Europe. It also was a meeting of different generations of glass artists. Davide Toso an eclectic experimentalist with lamps took part but also Alberto Gambale who specializes in working with pate de verre and in casting. Of course every thing was coordinated by the lynchpin of Vetroricerca Alessandro Cuccato bringing together people and ideas. He curated the event together with Paola Tognon. The focus of it was the relationship between ideas and making, project and material. Some very interesting artworks were the result and those present tried their hand at the contamination of otherwise distinct glass techniques under the title ‘What’s frying in the pan”? Not only masters of glass art but also a select little group of university- and post-university students participated, a true meshing of craft and art, old and young, ideas and techniques, tradition and experiment. It is events like this one that that bring out the very novelty of Vetroricerca’s approach but also show us the fertility of it.
Quality versus insecurity
Vetroricerca is unique and offers the best possible education an aspiring young artisan or artists could wish for. In spite of its qualities few people know of its existence. This is partly due to the fact that the school is run by a very small staff of four persons and funds for expanding public relations are lacking. The focus is on the courses and the students do not have to pay a tuition fee. Still the word is spreading and students from all over the world are beginning to find their way to Bolzano and the school. Only few can, however, be admitted and the organization really has to economize and save every penny to be able to maintain the high level of instruction, or worse to remain in existence at all. It is remarkable what has been accomplished so far, taking into consideration that the staff consists of four people only. This is to no small degree due to the organisational skills of Sandra Mussner, the director, who runs a tight ship crosses the t’ s and dots the i’s. In her the school finds its practical focus and centre. She even finds time to help students with their creative and practical work and supervises all that is going on. As versatile as she may be she can not solve all the problems the school is facing. Being an initiative of private persons Vetroricerca until now never received permanent government- or European Union funding. Its founder Sandro Cuccato still has to go out of his way to find donators, institutions and people willing to invest in the school. The initial situation has not markedly changed for the better although the application for funding by the European Union, mentioned before, has already met with a favorable response a number of times. This however does not give the school the secure basis it so dearly needs to survive and expand its activities. Alessandro Cuccato’s untiring efforts keep the ship afloat and so far the European Union and the ESF have been forthcoming but the future of the school remains uncertain. In our opinion, however, the remarkable results of the last 11 years should be considered ample proof of the important contribution of the school to the world of glass, to the community of Southern Tyrol, to Bolzano and generally to art executed in glass.
Information about the school can be found on its website: www.vetroricerca.com , its address is: Vetroricerca Glas & Modern, Innsbruckstrasse 29, 39100 Bolzano Italy. Phone:+39-0471 919981, Fax:+39 0471 919982, e-mail address:firstname.lastname@example.org
Frans Jeursen is an art critic living in Amsterdam.