Robin Cass is a professor in the Glass Program at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), where she has taught since 1998. Robin is also currently Chair of RIT’s School for American Crafts. Trained in the discipline of traditional Italian glassblowing, she uses these techniques in new ways to create compelling biomorphic and botanical forms. She has exhibited her sculptural work extensively, and her pieces can be found in a number of public and private collections in the United States and abroad. A noted educator and artist, she has taught at The Studio, the Osaka University of Art in Japan, the National College of Art in Ireland, and Pilchuck.
At March’s 2300°: Girlfriends, Robin came down to Corning from Rochester with a group of her students from RIT to demonstrate her hot sculpted works in glass. I caught up with her after the show.
When did you get started in glass?
I started in glass when I was an undergraduate student at The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). I was a sculpture major and I took an elective in glass and I got hooked like so many people do. It’s a very enticing material that’s really unlike any other material that artists can use. I pretty much never looked back after that elective. I jumped the fence into the glass program there and then I’ve stuck with it ever since.
And what is the focus of your work?
Right now, my focus shifts from body of work to body of work. But, currently I’m looking at the images of Karl Blossfeldt, a photographer of botanical specimens. They’re black and white, very beautiful images that make these botanical specimens seem almost architectural by draining the color out and blowing up the size. I like his work. And, I’m inspired by the great collection of glass models of the Blaschkas that Corning has.
I’m interested in those images as they relate to the sensory organs of different kinds of plants and animals. Eyes, ears, fingers and how they can bring something to life. If they make an otherwise inert object seem sentient somehow with those little hints of life. One of the pieces I made tonight had the little eye stocks—that’s part of that body of work.
Are your forms made up or are they based on real drawings that you’ve seen?
A little of both. I like to feed off of real objects and real organisms but then play with them in such a way that they might refer to more than one so that people would look at them and be unsure; things would be suggested but not an exact rendering per se.
Tell me about what you worked on tonight.
Tonight I made some of the eye stocks that are related to the cultural clusters I’ve been making lately and we also made a couple of pieces that don’t end up in my projects, but are more about glass as a material and working with hot glass. They’re the pieces with the three spines coming together, sort of a spindle shape that was wrapped with a coil of glass. Those are just an exercise for a demonstration, about teamwork and seeing what the material can do, building up volume from solid glass, and they exist just for the process. It’s related to my work but they don’t end up in it.
Right, more of a teaching exercise. And you’re a teacher…
Yes, I teach at RIT and I run the School for American Crafts which is made up of four programs. There is a metals program, ceramics, furniture design and of course the glass program which is my home. And I’ve been teaching up there for the last 14 years.
Tell me about your assistants tonight.
Oh assistants—I wish I could pull them into this interview here! But, I’ve got five students: four graduate students and one undergrad, some of whom I work with regularly up at school.
We have a wonderful group of students at RIT, both undergrad and grad, who really have so much skill that they make events like this easy for me because it’s really a group effort. I brought down Tom Zogas, an undergrad, Ali Klopp, Aya Oki, Karen Mahardy and Wil Sideman, grad students, and they all pitched in in very particular ways to make the projects come out well.
So tell me more about your teaching. You’ve taught here at The Studio, and at Pilchuck and in Japan.
I’ve taught many different places. I’ve been a teacher ever since undergrad and I love working with students, it keeps me on my toes and so I’ve taught many workshops in different places, including The Studio at Corning, and I love working there. Everything is, facilities wise, beautiful. And, you have the Museum nearby to draw on. So, teaching is very much a part of what I do. It’s almost an extension of the work—building a program and working with students—I consider that creative output as well.
You head up the American Craft program, as well as teaching, as well doing your own work as a glass artist. How do you balance it all?
That’s a very good question. I’m still learning. I’m very new to the job of Chair of the School for American Crafts, this is my first year. I’m enjoying being more connected to the craft field and the materials specific art fields in general. I do miss being in the classroom and in my own studio as much as I used to, but I’m figuring it out. It’s good to have new challenges.
Is there anything else that you want to share with us?
I wanted to say a little bit about how great it is to have Corning so close to our glass program at RIT. Since I started teaching there in 1998, I’ve had a close connection with Corning and all the different aspects of the Corning Museum: the artists that come through, Tina Oldknow, the curator of contemporary glass, and Mary Mills in education. We bring our students down here all the time and they benefit so much from all the resources here. You really can’t beat it as a region for a glass program. We love Corning.