From the Guest Editor, Duncan McClellan
Our guest editor for the month of January is Duncan McClellan. This experienced glass artist studied in Italy and the U.S. before opening his studio and gallery in what has become known as the Warehouse Arts District of St. Petersburg. Now, in addition to making art, McClellan hosts exhibitions, lectures, demonstrations, classes and much more at his popular gallery space. We spoke just outside his hot shop and you can find the conversation below.
I wanted to start with your background in glass art. Glass art seems like it can be especially difficult to make, to put together a studio, obtain all the right materials. What drew you to the medium in the first place?
When I was five my parents took us to New York to see the Pieta and on the way we stopped by Blenko Glass. I was enthralled. I didn’t start blowing glass until I was 30 but I had done other mediums prior—leather and clay. Then I had other experiences—retail and restaurants—but it wasn’t until I was 30 that I had the opportunity to blow glass for the first time in Ybor city. And it was from there that I went to the New York Experimental Workshop and met not only great teachers but met a person who was opening a studio in St. Pete which, at the time, therewer like only three studios in the State of Florida. It was a real opportunity to be able to, not only study glass, but to hone the skills to get better at it.
You’ve introduced a lot of people to glass art since. What’s the reaction you see in most people?
What I love about glass is that it can be approached by someone that is five years old or 90 years old because they all come to it on different levels and different ways of viewing it.
In the DMG School Project you teach many young people. What keeps you motivated to teach young people about this medium?
Again, there are a lot of levels. Hopefully, they get captured by something. Some of the kids we are dealing with might live eight miles from the beach and haven’t been to the beach yet, so it’s opening up experiences for them. Is my intent for them to be glass artists? No, but if they do, great! The whole point of having the interaction with them and having them here is to capture them and show them the relevance of what they are learning in school. Because it is very glamourous. They want to be artists but you need history, you need geometry, you need chemistry, you need all these things.
So the first question they always ask me is “Do you get burned?” Of course! Second, “How much money do you make?” So you show them that it’s algebra you use to put together how much that piece needs to sell for so that you end up paying yourself your living expenses. Nobody really intends to become rich when they’re starting to become a glass artist. Really the thought process is, “How do I get more glass?” It’s capturing that. When we bring them through we show them why Jon Goldberg uses geometry, what the chemical compositions of the red glass we use are. We go through the science, the physics, the math so hopefully they walk away from our experience with the thought, “I want to do that so I will have to study this. This makes sense to learn.” That was done for me by my parents. I was selling things when I was five years old. Until they put it into dollars and cents, I didn’t get math. Then I got it.
When I think of glass art, I often think of the Seattle area. Now, however, St. Pete is turning into a glass destination on a national level in its own right. What do you think has been behind that?
Well, obviously, it’s Chihuly being in town and I think it’s a perfect location because it’s the opposite end of the nation. We’ve really helped with that influx of Seattle artists. For example, this weekend we have two of the most prominent Seattle-based artists coming here for demonstrations and lectures.
Because of Mr. Chihuly who created such an interest in the medium, it brought more and more people viewing it and purchasing it. I always viewed that as a mini-grant. When someone buys a piece, that’s like a mini-grant. Yes, they’re buying what they think is a beautiful piece. But more than that, they’re buying a chance to help that artist’s career.
Beyond glass art, I think many people know you as one of the strongest advocates for the arts in Pinellas County in general and St. Pete specifically. Why do you think the arts are so important for a community?
It keeps it vibrant! Look at what’s happened in St. Pete because of art. Not only does it stimulate other business, but it also attracts what makes a city healthy. It brings in new innovative companies. If you don’t have an influx of young people coming in and making a mark on the city, the city never gets a chance to be vibrant.
What would you like to see happen with arts and culture locally?
I would like to see a more national scope of festival. I think our area could draw and make that happen. We have a lot of communities around us that we could be pulling in. We pull in people from Naples, Miami, West Palm Beach, Boca Raton for our Second Saturday [Art Walks]. If we had a national scope festival dance, music, all of the arts could be included. There is an emphasis on the visual arts here and I think that’s really good because it’s something tangible that people can latch on to. But what makes the arts is not just the visual arts. It’s also the other arts that make the whole scope of things.
I’d like to see more money put into individual art projects and establishing areas such as North Pinellas. They would love to have a hot shop and we would help them. Dunedin is very strong. Safety Harbor—they’re doing some cool things there. I think it could work, but they’d have to spend $350,000 to make it happen. You can’t do it in a rented building—it’s too much infrastructure to put in and pay for to have a landlord raise the rent or kick you out. That’s another thing that has to happen for artists: artists need to be able to buy the buildings they’re in. It creates stability.