Artists laboratory

Vrij Glas: Artists Create a Laboratory

Essay by Scott Benefield, artist, co-chair of the international GAS Glass Art Society Conference in Amsterdam 2002, former President of GAS and editor of the GAS newsletter

Vrij Glas: a small handpainted sign rests limply against a utility pole, comical in its humility when seen in contrast to the other sterner, military-issue signs that surround me, warning against trespassers, lighted matches, smoking and open fires. It is January in the Netherlands, bitterly cold, and I find myself walking briskly across an empty parade ground in search of the entrance to a glass studio when I spot this humble signage.

Free Glass would be the literal translation of Vrij Glas, which contains within it a much more nuanced message. Vrij Glas was the original name for that branch of the global Studio Glass movement that flourished in the Netherlands and found institutional support in the pioneering glass program at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. By 'vrij' it meant free of the long tradition of Dutch factory glass; it meant free for glass to be used as a medium for artists in the same sense as paint or bronze or any other visual medium. 'Vrij' is a powerful word in a society that celebrates tolerance and reasonable acceptance, a word that offers up a challenge to limitations as much as it promises a respite from regulation. Fittingly, it raises more questions than it resolves.

The stated goal of Vrij Glas is "to encourage experimentation and innovation in glass, and to endow artists with key infrastructure and vital expertise." To this end, the foundation offers residency and research opportunities with rather elastic parameters. The governing board of the organization entertains proposals from artists from a variety of backgrounds who are interested in using glass in new ways as a means towards artistic ends. Proposals are considered on an individual basis, with an emphasis placed on original research and the exploration of new forms, techniques and ideas. The facilities available allow prospective residents to work with hot glass, neon, flameworking and various coldworking processes (such as beveling, engraving, grinding and polishing). There is ample studio space within the large, airy workshop building, as well as an area devoted to exhibition and display in the front of the building. Vrij Glas also maintains an apartment in nearby Zaandam for use by residents, and, in a typical gesture of Dutch hospitality, will offer you the use of a bicycle for your travels around town.

The earliest roots of Vrij Glas lie in previous projects that were designed to link artists to the rather extensive facilities required to create works in glass. Durk Valkema and Anna Carlgren, two of the three founding directors of the Vrij Glas Foundation, are both exhibiting artists with a background in glass. Valkema is also renown as a designer and fabricator of innovative, efficient equipment for glassworking. Carlgren, in addition to her own sculptural work in glass, has designed production wares for Royal Leerdam. Both have been involved in various projects of a collaborative nature, including the 1986 Amsterdam Chamber Symposium, in which artists working in glass from both Western and Eastern Europe were invited to come to Amsterdam, live and work together for a period of time, and exhibit the results in a gallery show. In 1997, both Carlgren and Valkema worked to organize and run the International Drinking Glass Event, which created a temporary studio in the center of Leerdam to which an open invitation to glassblowers from all over the world was issued.

The three principals of Vrij Glass are all veterans of the 2002 Glass Art Society conference that was held in Amsterdam. Durk Valkema was the conference co-chair, serving on the Board of Directors of both GAS and its Dutch partner, Stichting Glas 2002 (a foundation formed for the sole purpose of hosting the conference). Annelies van der Vorm served as executive assistant to the Dutch conference planner, and Anna Carlgren helped organize and promote a special exhibition of local artists using glass. Their association, and the experience of working together for two years to encourage the cooperative effort that led to the successful event, led indirectly to the formation of Vrij Glas.

Another contributing event was the demise of the glass department at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. The glass program, founded by Sybren Valkema in 1965, was widely known throughout Europe and around the world as an innovative and successful incubator for young artists investigating a line of study involving glass as an artistic medium. In 2003, the program was abandoned. Although the glass studio at the school remains as a facility available to students, there is no comprehensive program of instruction and as such is unlikely to be the focus of sustained study. The city's most significant laboratory for free experimentation into glass had been closed.

Vrij Glas was chartered as a cultural foundation and, as such, is eligible for special funding from the Dutch and city governments (it has the equivalent of non-for-profit status in the United States). It has received significant support from the city of Zaandam, which views the new organization as a magnet for cultural development that could help change the city's profile from an outlying industrial zone to a center of creative activity.

Initiated as a monthly salon in 2003, in 2005 Vrij Glas found a home in a decommissioned military complex on the very edge of Amsterdam, in the nearby town of Zaandam. Located a short 1 Euro ferry ride across an industrial canal from the city, the complex at Hembrug resembles nothing more than a rather grim college campus that was abandoned sometime in the late 60s. There are open spaces, marvelous to encounter after the persistent, historical claustrophobia of the city of Amsterdam, bordered by sizeable industrial facilities that are now abandoned. With the cooperation of the local government of Zaandam, the site became a home for a variety of cultural and artistic projects. There's a delicious irony in witnessing the transformation of an arms depot by creative civic vision and the effort of artists into a haven for visionary artistic endeavor.

When I visited Vrij Glas this past winter, the studio was host to a meeting of design professionals who have formed a think tank to address interdisciplinary issues. The meeting was catered by a company which provided the usual array of light hors d'ouevres, but also included a rather unusual display of transparent food on light tables. Invited artists blew glass in the studio while the architects and educators and politicians mingled, munching on exotic snacks and drinking wine from handblown glass. The feeling was one of unusual alignments: black-clad design professionals mixing with sweaty glassblowers, a humming artistic beehive in the midst of a former munitions factory, the warm glow of a glass furnace contrasting with the freezing weather outside. Vrij Glas is a new endeavor dedicated to creative exploration. These unusual juxtapositions all seemed to be an apt expression of the its potential as a site where discoveries and novel work will happen.