Cassandra Straubing

Glass Artist, San Jose // December 2012
Glass has the ability to display a kind of ghostly reminiscence that represents a personal history or memory left behind.

I knew visiting Cassandra would be a bit different than usual— and it really was. As a glass sculpture teacher and head of the Glass Department at San Jose State University, Cassandra does most of her work at the school’s facilities, specifically in the hot shop and kiln room. She works side by side with her pupils, always sharing the space with a community of students and other artists. Because the hot shop and kiln room aren’t her private spaces, they were void of any personal sensibility; the telltale details we usually come across in artists’ studios were essentially nonexistent. There was no book collection, no scraps of scrawled inspiration hanging on the walls, no music playing, no stray decorative objects that can so often reveal someone’s whimsy and obsessions. These rooms were clearly set up for one thing and one thing only: to work. And so very quickly into our visit Cassandra got right to work on her current project which explores womanhood and fertility, and began blowing “eggshells”— beautifully irregular orbs of the thinnest, most translucent glass. Watching Cassandra make one after the other was mesmerizing. She worked fast and moved from one action to the next with great precision and poise. While she transformed the blobs of molten glass into her “eggshells” I kept thinking how much they looked like the bubbles children blow into the wind and almost half-expected that they would come off the rod and drift out into room, linger in the hot air and finally burst. At one point, as Cassandra spun her rod to control the forming shape of the heated glass on the end, she said “Blowing glass is addictive,” and then further explained that because the process demands so much focus, all extraneous thoughts drop away and she becomes incredibly centered. She said that experience is one she wants to return to over and over again.

I believe the reasons artists (or anyone else for that matter) have books, imagery, beautiful objects or any other bits of inspiration in their spaces is that these items often function as points to ruminate on— we return over and over to them to prompt our minds to ramble, question, and wonder. Cassandra doesn’t keep these things in her workspace, but instead I think she uses the act of making as a way to ruminate; the constant repetition of her actions is similar to looking at the same note above our desks or the photograph taped to the wall— it pushes us to keep mulling over the same things, to consider all the angles, it gives rise to new questions while simultaneously keeping the old ones alive, and eventually it forces us to corner and confront the thoughts we’ve been chasing after.

This fall, Oakland Museum of California was one of more than 120 museums nationwide to mark the 50th anniversary of the studio art-glass movement in the United States. Cassandra’s work will be included in the 32 works on view at Playing with Fire: Artists of the California Studio Glass Movement. The exhibit celebrates California’s involvement in, and impact on, this movement and showcases the work of pioneer California glass artists, alongside the next generation of glass artists to reinforce the Bay Area’s prominence as a hotbed for the studio art-glass movement.

So make sure to go see the exhibit!! Playing with Fire: Artists of the California Studio Glass Movement runs through March 24, 2013.

What mediums do you work with?
Glass, metal, fibers.

Can you briefly summarize your process, step-by-step?
I don’t have just one process and each process is not easily described— Glass blowing, investment mold-making, rubber mold-making, quilting…For example right now I’m working on blown glass “eggshells” that don’t need to be perfect or uniform, and because of this my process is quite straightforward and fast-paced. But when I work on my cast glass pieces that incorporate clothing, there are more steps involved for the mold making process. So, it really depends on what project I’m working on; the processes involved with my work are quite varied.

How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
Currently, I’m working on a project that loosely comes out of the expression “walking on eggshells” but that also considers womanhood, fertility, and reproduction. Because of personal experiences I’m interested in issues like miscarriage and sexual violence— traumatic events that people generally are unable to have open conversations about. This lack of discussion creates a very alienating, lonely experience. I’m okay bringing my own experiences forward because it’s part of my work and I’d like to enable more conversation around this subject, so that we can acknowledge that sexual violence and miscarriage happen more frequently than we imagine- to mothers, neighbors, friends, and sisters.

My work also explores the sociological aspects of working-class garments and tools— how they define a person, externally and internally. These objects become a representation, a symbol, and a skin defining a person’s economic and social position as well as their gender role. Clothing, used as a skin to cover the vulnerable and fragile body, is rendered transparent in glass. The viewer can see through the superficial definitions of gender and status to a personal truth without the exterior facade society so readily judges.

In my other glasswork, I use washing and mending as metaphors for the cleansing and repair of an emotional state of mind: the decontamination of the stain of a memory. The art symbolizes cutting out an uncomfortable section of personal history, repairing it, and stitching it together with a previous life to create a new life ahead. Glass has the ability to display a kind of ghostly reminiscence that represents a personal history or memory left behind. Glass can also portray a lack of memory, representing the invisibility of an uncomfortable emotion.

Your work explores the garments and the tools of blue-collar labor and how they define a person, both socially and personally– by incorporating glass a palpable fragility is brought to these items and what they represent. Can you expand on this?
I’m interested in making one-of-a-kind pieces as a way to address the history of labor. I often use garments that are utilitarian and associated with blue-collar labor and mass-production, but then through my process I try to imbue them with a singularity, a special-ness. I’d like to bring recognition to all the individuals that used their hands to lay down railroad tracks or build a bridge— these people are too often seen as just a number, just a cog in the machine, but they deserve recognition, just as a CEO of Google or a senior partner in a law firm does.

Do you see your work as autobiographical at all?
Yes, to a certain extent, however it is not meant to portray my own personal autobiography or experience. In my industrial labor work I personally believe in hard work. I believe in working with my hands. I come from a family who has worked the land and helped settle California. But more importantly, I use this body of work as an homage to the blue-collar laborers in our country’s history.

In my “domestic” work, I use washing and mending as a metaphor for cleansing and healing from domestic or sexual violence. This stems from my rape at age 18 and the process of healing it has taken and will continue to take for the rest of my life. But it’s a way to talk about the overall issues of domestic violence. Certainly, my current “eggshells” project is a continuation of this conversation and exploration.

Do you have a day job? What is it? What does it mean to you?
I am a university glass sculpture teacher at SJSU. I grew up with both parents being artists and my mom being a college ceramics and jewelry instructor, so I have always wanted to teach.

It is my own education and inspiration. I teach about processes, subjects and materials that I am interested in learning more about. I sometimes believe that I am actually learning more than the students are at times. As a teacher, this allows me to remain contemporary, interesting, and energetic about everything I teach (I hope). I love it.

What does having a physical space to make art in mean for your process, and how do you make your space work for you?
I do most of my work at SJSU— both in the hot shop and the kiln room. I work side by side with my students- both of us as artists. Working at school has positives and negatives. The positive is that the students see a professional artist in action, so they have a role model. The drawback is that I am always on as a teacher. Sometimes when I have deadlines, I have to put on a hat and say that today I am an artist, not a teacher, and I need to focus on my own work. They usually respect this and enjoy just watching. The great part is that I get to work within a community of artists, always being inspired and since glass is such a team sport, it is difficult (and lonely) to work by myself… When you blow glass you need an extra set of hands, you need people around to help facilitate the process, so it’s nice to have access to amazing facilities and a supportive community. It goes both ways.

What are you presently inspired by— are there particular things you are reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. Their music and lyrics speak a lot about similar interests and issues of labor and blue-collar workers.

Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I am working on a collaboration with Babette Pinsky, a well known, high end clothing designer. Every piece of hers is one-of-a-kind. She is designing clothing for me to cast, but I work closely with her to help determine what designs will be best for the process— what materials, what folds, contours, etc. We plan to have a show a year and a half to two years from now, and I’m hoping to have nine pieces for it.

How do you navigate the art world?
I have been extremely lucky and have landed opportunities through connections within the art community and from being an educator. I work really hard, and recognize that often one opportunity leads to another– like a domino effect. I do make sure to apply every year to have my work published in New Glass Review and other sources of print and web.

Who taught you the most about art?
Michael Rogers- Graduate Thesis Advisor at RIT and now colleague.

Do you have a motto?
“Get to work!”

Are you involved in any upcoming shows or events? Where and when?
Playing with Fire: Artists of the California Studio Glass Movement at the Oakland Museum of California, from October 26, 2012 – March 24, 2013.
“This Fragile Skin” at Bullseye Glass Resource Center Bay Area, from October 27 – January 12, 2013.

To seemore of Cassandra’s work:
Go to the SJSU Glass Arts site.
And though not represented by them, Bullseye Gallery does show a lot of her work.