We look for signs wherever we go: navigating the freeway, exploring a restaurant destination, searching for the bathroom. We seek out ‘signs of life,’ we talk about ‘telltale signs,’ and excavate our past for missed signs — red flags. We are obsessed with signs and signifiers as a species, always on the hunt for the visible that signals that we are on the right track. We believe, intrinsically, in right tracks and wrong tracks, and any song, poem, or proverb that speaks of paths or tracks will tell you that the right way always leads you home.
In Sarah Gilbert’s latest work, Signs and Signifiers, Sarah explores ideas of way-finding—both in our species and beyond. She talked with us about how she found a home in Tacoma, and how she employs centuries-old techniques on equipment from another place and bygone era.
Five days a week, you will find Sarah playing with fire. The job is physical; she’s a full time glassblower at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass and works alongside visiting artists to turn their ideas into crystalline reality. One could use the analogy of a house band to describe her day job: other artists bring the sheet music and she plays the notes to make the song. She loves her job, she says, she loves her team. And she loves the mix of the heat and hard work of the hot shop during the day contrasted to the quiet, meditative environs of her basement studio when she returns home to work on her own projects each day.
She didn’t begin her work at the museum as a glass-blower full time. Originally from Rochester, New York, Sarah was offered a position as a shop technician ten years ago while working at an art school’s glass department in Philadelphia. She only planned on moving to Tacoma for a couple of years. But life snuck up—she fell in love with Tacoma, and with her (now) wife. “I didn’t plan on staying here that long. I always thought that I would live on the East Coast. But the people are really amazing here, and I’ve grown a community of people that I really love.” After nine years as a shop tech, Sarah was offered the full-time position as a glass blower. “The glass museum is an amazing opportunity for a glass artist as far as the number of artists from around the world that go through there, and the different techniques we get to learn by working with them.”
From day to night
After a long day in the hot shop, Sarah returns home and tries to squeeze in a few hours of her own work. Her studio lives in the garage. Shelves filled with micro machines and friendly ephemera line the walls, along with sketches of her projects in-process, a childhood school picture of her wife, and glass baubles and art. On one wall sits an antique lathe from the Czech Republic. “Somebody used to use that to make a living,” she says referring to the lathe, a bit in awe. The lathe uses coppers wheels to engrave on glass. Little wheels in different shapes and sizes sit atop it.
Her latest work uses a technique called cameo engraving. “It’s an old technique that you see in old vases or your grandma’s brooch. There’s usually a white layer of glass over a colored layer, and you’re removing that white layer to create shading for the imagery.” She’s been working with this technique for five years now, and describes the steep learning curve that she’s experienced along the way. “I’m still learning,” she says, but considers the technique a breakthrough in her work: “It’s a whole learning curve that they didn’t teach me in school. It’s a pretty obscure and antiquated thing to get into, but it’s been a huge discovery for me.” The exercise was really attractive to her as a way of getting her drawings on to the glass. “It’s been a bit of a breakthrough to find that process.” She says that some people might not see the value in using this machine, but she’ll use it the rest of her life.
Sarah’s cameo engravings are used on both blown glass and flat glass (also called fused glass) to create milky white pieces engraved with faces and imagery that are as large as a football and teardrop-shaped, and finely detailed hands with images of way finding engraved in little compass-like circles. “Some way we find direction. That’s been a focus of my work conceptually — pulling from migration of animals and how they know when to leave and where to go and how they find their way, and finding direction and the signs that we use.”
“It’s a hard balance, as any working artist knows, to squeeze in a little bit of time after your work day. It takes a lot of energy and shifting your focus. I’ve screwed up a lot of things trying to power through, but I’m learning that the time away is just as valuable as producing. I really like the mix of the fast and hot teamwork in the hot shop and then I get to come home and have quiet time and focus on what I’m doing. It’s very meditative for me. I’m realizing that balance is really important to me as a working artist in my process.”
Sarah’s work from Signs and Signifiers is currently on display at The Glass Factory in Sweden for Young Glass, a juried traveling exhibition with 60 works by young international glass artists, and on her website.