Finding Significance in Surprising Places: Dustin Yellin, Glass, and an Onscreen Love Affair

In a renovated ironworks factory on Pioneer St. in Red Hook, Brooklyn, you might stumble on the glass studio of California-born artist Dustin Yellin. That’s the premise at least, for a scene I saw in a movie recently where actress Kiersey Clemons does just that. The movie is Hearts Beat Loud (2018) by director Brett Haley, starring Clemons and Nick Offerman.

Actress Kiersey Clemons filming at Dustin Yellin’s studio, Pioneer Works, for the movie Hearts Beat Loud.

Much like the character Clemons plays, I was immediately struck by Yellin’s sculptural work on display. The only difference being, I recognized it. I was suddenly perched forward in my seat, my bowl of popcorn temporarily forgotten, as I absorbed every detail on screen, every word spoken. The scene in question felt significant to me. I often see artists discussed in cinema, but the medium tends to be photography or paint on canvas. As I grow more and more interested in glass, I’ve begun noticing it in movies, like an ad executive might notice product placement. But glass is always in the background, staged purely for decoration or functionality: a beautiful vase perhaps, or a decorative platter standing boldly on a stand.

But here we have the work of a contemporary glass artist being viewed and discussed constructively by characters central to the movie’s plot. Clemons and fellow actress Sasha Lane, whose character works at the studio, bond over the artwork, they study its details and respond to its prompts. It doesn’t just feel significant, it is significant. And, did I mention the movie has Nick Offerman? The highly loveable Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation!

Dustin Yellin at work in his Brooklyn studio. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I’m familiar with Yellin’s work because I had the pleasure of first experiencing it at The Corning Museum of Glass in 2019. His piece Cephaloproteus Riverhead (Four Hearts, Ten Brains, Blue Blood Drained Through an Alembic) was selected for the Museum’s major exhibition that year, New Glass Now. But don’t worry, if you missed it then, the Museum has since acquired the piece—along with many others from the exhibition—meaning it will stay on view for the foreseeable future. Good news for our Collections Management team. Standing 5’ 9” tall, Yellin’s enormous work is just as heavy as it looks, and no easy feat to move.

Dustin Yellin’s Cephaloproteus Riverhead (Four Hearts, Ten Brains, Blue Blood Drained through an Alembic), 2019.4.180.

In Yellin’s work, there is always much to see, and this piece is no exception. As you approach, hundreds of intricate details come into focus. Yellin has assembled a collage of tiny people, aquatic animals, food, and other assorted things cut from magazines and books and placed them, layer by layer, between heavy sheets of glass to form a dream-like landscape. Cascading waterfalls teeming with blue tang and angelfish flow between floating rock forms where the hand-painted flora is verdant. A maze of turquoise canals lined by skyscrapers connects islands of civilization. A plethora of little figures clambers over everything, climbing ropes toward a flaming orange sun at the center of the artwork. Meanwhile, near the top, we find an octopus floating in a tank while a solitary rain cloud hovers overhead. It is a strange but thrilling environment to be sure.

But by stepping back we see the picture as a whole and a cohesive human form begins to appear, encased in glass to be studied like a specimen floating in formaldehyde. The angular grid of the canals and buildings becomes bones and a skeleton floats to the surface. The turquoise water flowing from top to bottom is like blood through veins. The sun at the middle of the maze becomes the beating heart of this strangely robotic body. And in the brain resides the mighty cephalopod alluded to in the title, pulling all the strings.

There is a scene playing out before our eyes, one of constant motion that seems to be caught frozen, or, in movie terms, on pause. Yellin presents a stark contrast between the geometric architecture of man’s skyscrapers, each with thousands of windows, and the natural world that grows obstinately in the cracks like a creeping vine blossoming despite the concrete obstacles we build in life’s path. Is it an ode to climate change perhaps? While humans busy themselves climbing the ladder of success, blinded by shiny objects, nature is busy reclaiming what we stole from it.

This premise didn’t go unnoticed by the curators of New Glass Now. “The drama in this piece is alluring. In this theater of nature, Yellin encapsulates the perilous interface between the natural world and the manmade one,” said Susanne Jøker Johnsen, one of the guest jurors for the exhibition.

Guests discuss the intricacies of Yellin’s sculpture.

The depth of this story makes work like Yellin’s so perfect for the big screen. It is intricate and meaningful but also big and bold and powerful. It commands the room that it’s in. Visitors to the Museum are drawn to it, perhaps initially by its size but always by the sheer imagination on display and the questions the piece asks. And on top of all that, it’s also super cool to look at.

For Yellin, who was in Papua New Guinea at the time of the filming, there was initial apprehension about how his work would be represented, but he was ultimately glad he said yes. “It turned out to be a very sweet movie,” he says. “So, I was happy with the outcome.”

The scene itself was short, but as I sat back to enjoy the rest of the movie (and I did enjoy it, very much) I couldn’t shake the excitement I felt. I was excited to tell my colleagues at the Museum what I had discovered. I was excited to speak to Dustin Yellin himself about what it was like to collaborate with a filmmaker, and I was excited at seeing glass art represented so purposefully. It was no surprise then that the following day I went back to the Museum’s Contemporary Art + Design Gallery and relooked at Yellin’s artwork, exploring it with new eyes and finding new details to savor—there are actually seven octopuses hiding throughout, can you find them all?

But, beyond the walls of our gallery, beyond the studio on Pioneer St., glass is making waves and finding its way into the spotlight where it belongs. Who knows where we’ll see glass next!

Clemons and Sasha Lane in Hearts Beat Loud.

New Glass Now has traveled to the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC (opening October 2021), but Dustin Yellin’s work will remain in Corning. Come to see Cephaloproteus Riverhead on view at the Museum this summer, and then perhaps settle in for a cozy night to watch Hearts Beat Loud and celebrate glass on the big screen (and don’t forget the popcorn!)

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