I recently sat down with the Museum’s new executive director and curator of ancient and Islamic glass, Karol Wight. Although she has spent the last 30 years in Los Angeles, Karol is no stranger to Corning, and she is looking forward to her new role and indulging in her passion for glass.
What led you to The Corning Museum of Glass?
When I was an Art History graduate student at UCLA, I was broadly studying the art of the ancient world. I was intending to focus in on the study of Greek ceramics, but then I started a graduate internship at the J. Paul Getty Museum. The first week I was on the job, working with Arthur Houghton, who was the acting curator of the department then, I met David Whitehouse who happened to be visiting the Getty. He knew Arthur, and Arthur was interested in building up the glass collection at the Getty Museum.
They were discussing an upcoming auction in London and they asked me to prepare some of the acquisition proposals that the museum fills out when it’s interested in making a future purchase. I was suddenly working with a material that I had never studied before. The more I started doing the research for the acquisition proposals, the more I realized that this was really interesting material. In fact, one of the pieces that we were going to be bidding on was a type of Roman mold-blown beaker – a mythological beaker – that became the subject of my dissertation.
So, my path here started in the mid-1980s. Meeting David led me to a long-term position at the Getty Museum with this really focused research area of ancient glass. I was the glass expert in the department. So anytime anything glass related came up, it came to me. When Corning borrowed the Getty’s two cameo glass vessels for the Glass of the Caesars exhibition, I was identified as the courier who would bring those pieces to Corning.
You’ve worked with the Museum before, tell me more about that.
Corning has always been a resource for me as a curator in Los Angeles, because we had such a small collection of ancient glass at the Getty. David was the co-chair on my dissertation committee. After I finished writing my dissertation, he asked me if I would publish it as an article in the Journal of Glass Studies, which I did.
We continued to talk back and forth over the years about various conferences that were coming up, or exhibitions that included glass. We discussed loans together and at a certain point in time in the mid-1990s, the Getty purchased a piece of fragmentary mosaic glass. I was very excited about that, and I sent the photos to David right away and said, “Look what we just bought!”
To make a long story short, the interaction over this mosaic glass bowl led to the idea of doing the Reflecting Antiquity exhibition. It started with mosaic glass and expanded to the other types of ancient glass that were replicated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by different artists at different places in an attempt to rediscover ancient glassmaking techniques.
What is it about glass that draws you to studying the material?
I am constantly fascinated by glass. Having started my studies with clay, it’s a natural transition. I understood ceramic art quite a bit and had studied ancient vase making techniques, the firing techniques that the artists from antiquity utilized to create the black figure, and the red figure styles of Attic vase making, which I thought was a great technological innovation for that time.
When I started studying the glass pieces, I realized that these craftspeople working two and three thousand years ago were being extremely experimental in what they were doing and, either through accident or intent, they had found ways to manipulate this incredible material. The technical and scientific aspects were very attractive to me, and the reality that you’re working with this hot material which has to be very careful controlled. And, they were doing it so long ago. Plus, everything they did in antiquity is still done today, utilizing the same techniques that were developed two thousand years ago. I think that’s incredible, and I’m constantly amazed that with the technology that they had back then that they could pull off what they did.
So, do you have a favorite object?
A single favorite? No. It’s like your children, you can’t pick just one!
Cameo glass has always been a long-standing favorite of mine because it involves not only the fashioning of the blank, which is a complex and dangerous process, but then the carving as well.
It’s an area that I did a bit of research in to try to capture into a single database as many known examples as I could track down, just to see if there were trends in shape and trends in iconography that could tell us why and for whom cameo glasses were being made. Did they serve a specific ritual function?
The iconography of the Morgan Cup here at Corning would suggest that, but then you have many more examples with Dionysian scenes. Were they used in some ritual related to the god of wine? Or were they just for drinking wine and had a nice reference on the outside? There are all kinds of intriguing questions about cameo glass and their function.
I’ve always been interested in the economy of ancient glass, and trying to understand what the intent of the glassmakers was. Who were they making this for? How were they marketed? If it’s a small select group of luxury vessels – what was their function? Were these diplomatic gifts? I like trying to understand the purpose behind the glass.
That’s a very historical approach to glass.
It was the way I was trained as an art historian. The art history department of UCLA, when I started there, was at the leading edge of what today is called social art history. It means studying material culture, and not treating these artifacts as works of art to be studied as an objet d’art, but as a part of a larger societal trend. It’s the way I was taught to look at this material and it’s the way that I’m much more interested in studying this material. You can develop the connoisseur’s eye, and you can identify artists and hands, and things like that, but that’s only one part of the story.
It makes it a much more immediate material for us today, because we can relate to how it was used in antiquity. We still have glass around us everywhere.
What are you looking forward to here at the Museum in your role as Director?
I’m thrilled that I’m at an institution where I can indulge in my passion, 24/7. As much as I love the rest of ancient art, glass has always been my passion, so to be here is really a wonderful fit for me. I’m excited to be working with such a great team of people here at the Museum, people that I’ve known and worked with for many years. It’s a very comfortable place for me to come to, knowing the folks here and knowing the great work that everyone does, and the very high level of quality that goes into everything that The Corning Museum of Glass does.
How has the move been, coming to Corning?
I know everyone thinks that the first snowflake, I’m going to run screaming back to the West Coast, but that won’t happen! I can assure you! I was born in Minnesota so it’s in my genes to be able to deal with winter.
I was raised in northern California and they do have four seasons in the Bay Area, so I’m not unaccustomed to cold, rainy weather. But, I did live in L.A. for the last 30 years. It is a bit of a climate shock, but so far my family and I are enjoying that diversity, the fact that it’s not 100 degrees and sunny every day.
Tell me more about your family.
My husband Steven is a medieval historian, and we met at UCLA in graduate school 30 years ago. It was great because I studied ancient art history and he studied the medieval period so we overlapped a little bit but we did not directly compete with each other which I think is a very good and healthy thing. We’ve been married for 25 years and we have three children, two boys and a girl.
For all of us, moving from the huge metropolis that is Los Angeles to the small town of Corning is a fascinating change. I’m really enjoying the fact that my commute is ten minutes instead of an hour and ten minutes. Although I have lost my NPR time! I must say, I miss my radio time in the car. I’ve got to figure out how to incorporate it into my schedule!
One of the things that I really enjoy about Corning is that it is this cultural hub of the region. The Museum is very much a central focus of this community and the community enjoys having the Museum here. They visit it frequently and utilizes the facility for a whole variety of activities. That I think is a wonderful thing about this museum.
I think the way the Museum has grown and merged with the Glass Center to become something larger and more impressive is really a wonderful testament to community support and Corning Incorporated support as well. The fact that we are here, and that we enjoy so much of the support of Corning Incorporated, which believes in what we’re doing and continues to invest in us year after year and encourages us to be broad thinkers and to reach out and reach further – that’s great to have that kind of support.
Members of the Museum are invited to enjoy a short presentation by Dr. Wight this Saturday, November 19 from 2:30 – 3:30 pm at the Museum Auditorium. (RSVP Today to [email protected] or 607.438.5600)