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From the New World

Ji Harcuba first visited the United States in 1983. Tom Buechner, the director of The Corning Museum of Glass, invited Ji to Corning and from Corning, year after year, he got to know America. It's an endless journey. Ji discovered America and, through him, many American glass artists discovered engraving. It was one of those happy relationships that revealed new vistas to everyone it touched.

Here's why. From the beginning Ji inspired. In '83 Dale Chihuly invited him to Pilchuck, where at the time cold working scarcely existed. In order to demonstrate the possibilities of engraving, Ji had to improvise. He mounted the bit from a drill in a vise, he made a copper wheel by attaching a penny to a nail, and with these non-tools he engraved on glass. Ingenuity worked. In 1984, he returned to Pilchuck to set up a facility for cold working glass and the following year, as an artist in residence, he created a program of engraving.

After these first encounters with the New World, Ji became a frequent visitor to States, crisscrossing the country to meet fellow engraves, demonstrate the potential of engraving, and to teach. He speaks eloquently about the joy of teaching and, in a Masterclass video made at Corning in 1998, he puckishly referred to himself as the Johnny Appleseed of glass engraving in America. Of course, Ji wasn't the first engraver to work in America - just ask the old timers in Corning! - but in 1980s he breathed new life into a traditional craft and introduced new disciples to a wonderful array of old techniques.

Ji's rapport with American engravers intensified with his creation of Dominik Biman schools at Harrachov (the master's birthplace), Kamenick enov and Frauenau. The first school took place in 2001 and they have continued ever since. The schools are open to experienced engravers and beginners, who have the instinctive ability to produce compelling images. Ji went out of his way to involve American - and other foreign - participants.

Here are some of the highlights of Ji's American odyssey. His work appeared in the exhibition New Glass: A Worldwide Survey, which was shown in Corning in 1979 and subsequently traveled to four other venues in the United States, and than to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Five years later, at the Corning conference of the Glass Art Society, Ji masterminded a groundbreaking engraving workshop (in one of our public schools), and followed this up, year after year, with demonstrations and workshops in other American cities. One of the many things that impress me about Ji is that he never promotes himself. He is a teacher, not a rock star.

In 1988, Ji was honored for an aspect of his career that may be little-know to most people who are familiar with his glass engraving. Ji is distinguished designer of coins and medals, and the American Numismatic Society bestowed on him the J.Sanford Salutes Award for Achievement in Medallic Art. His intaglio engraving, cast in metal, allowed him to produce images with prominent relief that departed from the traditional art of the medalist.

In 1995, the Corning Museum conferred on Ji its most significant accolade: we awarded him the Rakow Commission. This annual commission recognizes innovation and leadership in the art of glass. Supported by a bequest from two of the Museum's most generous donors. Dr. and Mrs. Leonard S. Rakow, we commission artists to produce a work that enters the permanent collection. The roster of recipients is a Who's Who of contemporary glass art and Ji's award was a richly deserved recognition of a great engraver. He created portrait of two people he greatly admired: Vladimr Kopeck, a painter and sculptor who taught at the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague, and Vclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic.

Ji's Corning connection, which began with New Glass in 1979 and was consolidated in 1983 and '84, changed direction in 1997, when he taught a class at the then recently established Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass. The Studio is a school of glassmaking, which offers classes for students at all levels of experience and expertise. Ji taught The Studio's first engraving class and he has returned every year since then to teach either one or two classes. His accomplishments and his long association with Corning were reorganized in 2005, when he was elected to be an Honorary Fellow of the Museum. (The Fellows for The Corning Museum of Glass are among the world's foremost glass scholars, collectors and dealers, and glassmakers).

Traditionally, wheel engraving has been a meticulous and minutely detailed craft. Think of Ji's hero, the 19th-century Bohemian engraver Dominik Biman, whose portraits show every hair on his subject's head. Ji moved the goalposts. He treasures a profound respect for the tradition of engraving but, in order to explore its possibilities, he taught himself to abandon traditional techniques and attack his material with a vigor and sense of spontaneity that produce unforgettable, sometimes starting images of artistic, intellectual, and political giants, living and dead. He teaches others to immerse themselves in what he calls the Zen of drawing on glass: forget your inhibitions, draw spontaneously. Be like a child, he urges his students; better, be like preschool children, before the classroom has conditioned them to conform.

Ji never stops. He once cracked open a fortune cookie and read the motto which could not have been more appropriate: "You love a challenge". He does. Ji's recent discovery of Bulls eye presented him with two challenges: to create with color and to work in an unfamiliar medium. (Different glasses have different properties, and Ji the teacher had to learn the special properties of Bulls eye glass). At the same time, he is working with Steuben glass to interpret his images in a medium - colorless lead glass - that could hardly be more traditional.

Ji Harcuba describes his life as an unfinished song and, as he says, "I am still singing".

David Whitehouse, Director of The Corning Museum of Glass

David Whitehouse

(The exhibition of Prof. Jiri Harcuba)

One member of famous Canadian Group of Seven once said that when it comes to painting trees, he preferred the old, weather-beaten ones. When asked why, he explained that they had their own "character" or "personality". I guess it is the same with people if we look at their faces. We are all born as cute little babies, loved and cherished - according to Mark Twain, there is only one most beautiful child in the whole world and every mother has it. Babies with faces blank like a fresh sheet of paper, because there is no history there - yet. As we grow older, life is molding our features and our soul as well. Like a skilled sculptor, it fills our visage with wrinkles and scars, the unerasable evidence of our passions and pains, the memory bank of our past.

But we can find much more in our faces, too. We all know that there are people who have interesting faces and others who appear - and mostly are - rather dull. We can only wonder what makes some faces more attractive then others, why some fill us with sympathies and others make us shudder. I am not talking about physical beauty or ugliness here, only about that "something" we all can perceive but can hardly unerstand. If you ask an artist, he would probably talk about different kind of perception or as it is sometimes called, the "inner" beauty.

When we look at portraits of celebrities done by prof. Jiri Harcuba, we can understand that difference without any need for explanation. I can see how - and especially why - he chose his objects: he simply couldn't not to. The temptation was probably too much: those were the faces which had to be captured and kept for posterity. It was also quite challenging, even for a very skilled portraitist such as himself. Their faces had a lot to say and so had he. And he did it, in many places and all around the world - in his exhibitons or as a pedagogue.

It probably took a lot of studies for each portrait - it is not easy to grasp the substance of a complicated person, not in short time, anyway. True, his objects were all famous artists, writers and others who contributed to our cultural heritage; their deeds were well known from their works and their faces from their photographs. But one cannot just use all this in the portrait - not directly, anyway. One can utilize some gentle hints in the background, but only as complements, since the real centre of attention was and always will be the face itself. To catch and preserve the personality of the person, one has to be able not only to read the face and thorougly understand it - he also has to add much more, the artistic touch, the magic, if you will.

Talking about difficulties: the art of portraits has certain rules to follow - mainly, we should be able to recognize that person. Too much stress on individual features could turn it into caricature. Next to those general rules stand other requirements: the individual characteristics, the real insight into personality and how to convert the artist's point of view into his work. And there are also those "little details", which, according to Michelangelo, the perfection must consist of.

Then comes the final problem: the realization of portrait - the form, the content, the style. And choice of material: would it be the medal made of metal or a portrait in clay or maybe a face cut in glass? Glass is of course very difficult material - I know, I know, I said it here before - but it is also an excellent choice: no other material can give a portrait such superb three-dimensional appearance. Needless to say, Prof. Harcuba is an excellent craftsman and quite skilled in all those techniques. Just imagine one of difficulties: the faces cut in glass are actually "negatives", space-wise if you know what I mean. But the results are stunning: they look like they are emerging from somewhere which gives them the touch of extreme reality, but also a mystery no less.

The one question of course is how far can artist go in his attempt to express his understanding of the person. The response can be seen in works of prof. Harcuba: they have the beauty of their own, not only the one for our eyes, but also the "inner one", few steps deeper. Look at those faces and you are immediately struck with uncommon harmony and grace. We can see the artist asked himself the very same question and he also found the answer. Then he turned it into a beautiful piece of art - telling it to us all, literally "face to face".

© Jan B. Hurych
Hurontaria - Czech/English magazine

© 1999, 2008 Jiri Harcuba, ArtForum / ICZ a.s.
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