What you see: One of the three elements of La Sentinella di Venezia (The Sentinel of Venice), a 1962 glass sculpture by Thomas Stearns. Wright estimates it at $300,000 to $500,000.
Who is Thomas Stearns? Born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Stearns came to the glassworks of Venini in Murano, Italy in 1960, and stayed for two years. He spoke virtually no Italian, had no previous experience with blown glass, and saw his design ideas scorned by the Venini factory’s grand master. Undaunted, he collaborated with a young house master, Francesco “Checco” Ongaro, and produced innovative sculptural pieces that heralded the arrival of the studio glass movement. Stearns died in 2006, at the age of 69 or 70.
The expert: Sara Blumberg, a consultant for Wright.
How did Thomas Stearns come to have a residency at Venini? This is a two-part answer. He was given a grant by the Italian government for glass and fiber art, and it came with a Fulbright Travel Grant. It was a combination of the two things.
About a month after his arrival Stearns showed a clay model and drawings to the grand master of Venini. And the grand master was… is ‘offended’ the right word? I think it’s the right word. It’s an island industry. Sticking to historical references is part of that history. A young man came in with a completely different notion of what to attempt. It flew in the face of traditional ideas of not just the Venini glassworks, but every glassworks on Murano. He was offended by it because he felt it indicated no respect for glassmaking and the way it was being done.
Why did Ongaro take the risk of working with Stearns? I think he was curious. It was a chance to prove himself and step up in the glassworks, which was not easy to do. He saw it as an opportunity. It was a very unusual circumstance to have a person like Stearns in their midst. It was probably a very exciting event.
What made it exciting for the Venini workers to have Stearns there? His being a foreigner is a major piece of the puzzle. And he was there on the floor, among the workers. In terms of the social hierarchy–Stearns speaks to this in his essay [you may have to scroll down to locate it]–he gave mixed signals. He was there to work, but he would take the director’s private launch back to [the mainland at the end of the day]. He could not be pegged.
How many pieces did Stearns and Ongaro make? There’s no way we can answer that. What we do know is there’s a very limited number of works in general. They weren’t made with an eye toward mass production. His pieces were sculptural glass. Certainly there was a great deal of loss in the making of the pieces. Records weren’t kept. We rely on understanding their rarity rather than any real count.
Stearns spoke pretty much no Italian, and Ongaro spoke pretty much no English. How did the two manage to work together successfully? The basic answer is that Stearns prepared design drawings [that were like] comic strips–a series of frames that showed one step, then the next step. And he made clay models to indicate the idea. They developed a language in common. There was a back-and-forth that has to do with the more technical aspects, but they were able to communicate and share as artists do.
So, explain what happened at the 1962 Venice Biennale. Venini submitted six works by Stearns, and they win a gold medal, at least briefly… The Biennale was about showing what the glassworks were capable of. You put your best foot forward. There was a lot of excitement within the company and without [about Stearns’s work]. Venini got a call that it had won the Gold Medal for Glass, but when they got to the pavilion, they discovered a blob of glue [on the display case] and no medal. They got another call saying the medal was withdrawn when they [the judges] learned the works were not Italian-made. Had there been any indication up front [that Stearns being American was a problem] they would not have submitted.
What was the fallout from that? It’s not known to us. At the time, we didn’t have that answer. But if you consider the place and the culture… again, this is a very small place, a very tightly controlled place. There’s a sense of tradition. It would be a scandal here [for a medal to be taken away because the designer wasn’t a native] but it was not a scandal there. It had to do with the pride of Murano. It was an outpouring of devotion to tradition. It may not make sense to us, but it made sense to them.
How did Stearns come to create The Sentinel of Venice? This is the last work he created [at Venini]. It was intended to be a three-part conceptual piece that was meant to speak to his time in Venice. He felt strongly about Venice as a place and feared for its safety. It was a tribute to a place where he spent a short but meaningful time. All his feelings about Venice are what he intended to imbue in the piece.
Does this piece of The Sentinel of Venice resemble the other two? It’s not markedly different, but it’s different. We’re talking a very similar coloration and idea. If you want to see the other two, you can see them online. [Here’s one of the three, which sold at Christie’s in 2001 for $102,800 against an estimate of $80,000 to $100,000; the other was broken and only exists as a shard.]
I realize we can’t hop in a time machine and watch Stearns and Ongaro make this piece, but can you give me a notion of how difficult it would have been to realize this segment of The Sentinel of Venice? A variety of techniques were employed. There are multiple elements here, all working in concert. That’s really where you encounter the difficulty. Combining techniques is exceptionally difficult because they fuse and anneal at different rates. It’s hard to control when you get this complicated or this large. What makes this piece unique is these techniques had not been combined in the past in this way, and in such a sculptural way.
How did Stearns’s work at Venini influence the American studio glass movement, which got its start around the same time he was in Italy? In a couple of ways. One was the sheer artistry and the experimentation of it all, experimenting with forms in a new way. That was one aspect. Another was the studio work–one or two people working in concert, doing very small projects. It’s different from making piece after piece as the glassworks was. There is no feeling that [Stearns works] are prototypes for mass production. They were viewed as sculptures, as artistic endeavors. It’s more about sculpture than utilitarian objects.
How often do glass works by Stearns come to auction? They’re rare. There were great losses [when he and Ongaro were making them]. A limited number of works come up. We’ve [Blumberg and her partner, Jim Oliveira] curated auctions for seven years and we’ve handled glass for almost 30 years. We see them every two or three years or so.
What’s the auction record for a Stearns, and for a work from Venini? The answer for both is Facades of Venice, which sold for $612,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2016. There were two vessels in the lot, and they were sold as one lot.
What are the chances that The Sentinel of Venice will meet or exceed that sum? I hesitate to answer that, because I don’t know. It’s a possibility, absolutely. It’s an extraordinary event for it to come to auction and to have it in a collection that’s so focused on postwar glass. Facades, they got a good price for them. I think this is as exciting, if not more exciting. It’s very particular and thrilling.
Have you handled The Sentinel of Venice? Many times. It’s unlike anything I’ve held in glass. It has a beautiful weight. It’s a large piece for a piece of glass, very monumental. It’s a very exciting feeling to look at it and hold it. You can understand what his intention was, and you can feel the strength in it. Visually, it feels like a painting, from every angle. It’s really a painting in three dimensions.
How to bid: The piece from Stearns’s La Sentinella di Venezia is lot 160 in Important Italian Glass: A Private Chicago Collection, which takes place on May 23, 2018 at Wright.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Wright.
See Wright’s short biography of Thomas Stearns and read Stearns’s 1989 essay, The Facades of Venice: Recollections of My Residency in Venice, 1960-1962. [You may have to scroll down a bit to find it.]
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