Through The Looking Glass
A PASSIONATE OBSESSION
By Barbara L. Dixon
Founding Editor-in-Chief Elle Decor
Artist, scientist, inventor, educator, historian, collector; These are just a few of the narratives awarded to Frederick Birkhill.
A highly respected and acclaimed independent studio artist, he is best known for his flameworking skills, particularly with regards to the Montage technique, where each piece is one of a kind.
Frederick Birkhill’s artistic life began during his earliest years, with precocious signs of imaginative skill as young as two years old.
At age eight, while visiting Greenfield Village at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan with his family, he observed glassblower, Neals Carlson forming a large Pyrex glass swan. The sight made a lasting effect on young Frederick.
While still a teenager, Birkhill discovered an interest in photography and chemistry, and through his obsessed mind, connected aspects of optics and crystal with what glass could do to line. His avid fascination with glass, which turned him from two-to-three dimensional creations, was palpable and rose to the forefront in his studies.
During his college years, he took a one credit hour scientific glassblowing course taught by Dr. Bruce Graves at Eastern Michigan University. Although studying education at E. M. U. with intent to be an elementary school teacher, he found himself asking, “If I could choose a profession that I would enjoy more than any other, what would it be?”
With the two seminal moments in his young life ingrained in his mind it wasn't long before his aspiration of elementary education and teaching fell by the wayside as he turned his total attention to learning as much as possible in the field of glass-making from Dr. Graves. The renowned mythologist and lecturer Joseph Campbell’s quote “Follow your bliss” buoyed him on his newly directed path.
After receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in 1974, he traveled to England to further his education in glassmaking. There he studied stained glass for one year with world-renowned glass artist, Patrick Reyntiens and Ludwig Schaffrath, at the Burleighfield House, outside of London. Following that, his travels took him to Venice, Italy where he studied with Livio Seguso and Frederica Marangoni, as part of The Summer Arts Program of New York University.
Upon his return to the United States in 1977, Birkhill initially set up his own stained glass studio in East Dearborn, while concurrently taking classes with Herbert Babcock. He concentrated primarily on furnace-blown glass at The Center for Creative Studies, (now The College for Creative Studies).
By this time, he was working with lead (soft glass) instead of Pyrex.
Of this preference, Birkhill has said, “One thing that has always fascinated me is working with soda-lime and lead glass because these softer, lower melting glasses require greater skill, and entail greater risk in their execution.”
It was in 1977 that Birkhill met Jean and Donovan Boutz at The Glass Art Society Conference in Madison, Wisconsin. “They both lectured and demonstrated, and after seeing their skill and what they could do with lead glass, my life was again changed.”
Birkhill’s constant exploration has created life experiences that have formulated his expansive artistic life, and so, in the 1980’s he journeyed again. Moving to Pinckney, Michigan in 1981, Birkhill built a new studio and his own furnace for hot glass, while at the same time, continuing his studies. In 1981, he attended the Blossom Summer Arts Program at Kent University in Kent, Ohio, where he studied with Henry Halem, Richard Marquis and Dale Chihuly. Birkhill then added a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1987 to his many accomplishments.
During a visit to Habatat Galleries in Lathrup Village, Michigan, Birkhill noticed a vessel created using the flameworked glass montage technique, made by German glass artist, Kurt Wallstab. The synchronicity was so obvious. He arranged to study with Wallstab in Germany, and master the glass technique. During his experiences with Wallstab, Birkhill journeyed to the village of Lauscha, famous for the flameworking technique where he found endless inspiration.
As a teacher at Penland School of Crafts in Penland, North Carolina, Birkhill met Shane Fero, a student who became an immediate kindred spirit. “It was rather amazing, “Birkhill says, “how we were using the same materials, and the same images in the same sequence throughout different periods in our lives. Since there have been so few people who work with soft glass in the U.S., Shane has been a welcomed associate throughout our instructional and collaborative efforts.”
In 2004, Frederick Birkhill was diagnosed with a detached retina, and operated on. The lightning bolts that flashed inside his vision, the images he experienced before surgery, and during his healing process when his eye was in a gas bubble, intrigued him. Birkhill remembers, “I was fascinated by the entire process, even though I probably should have been scared out of my mind.” The images he saw became a part of his artistic creations. “Some pieces are near to what ‘I saw’, while others are more evocative of the experience,” he explains. The works created from this experience were first exhibited at The Michigan Hot Glass Studio and Gallery in Detroit, Michigan.
The composite of his art along with his teaching and consulting engagements are vast. He continues to write extensively and is published on flameworking history. He is frequently requested to jury art exhibitions and give constructive critiques to other artists; He lectures throughout the United States and Europe; and is involved in both funding and documenting the history of The Glass Art Society.
Although Birkhill exhibits in only a few select galleries in the United States and Venice, Italy, his work is in numerous private collections and is included in The Corning Museum of Glass, The David Jacob Chodorkoff Collection of The Detroit Institute of Arts, The Mint Museum, The Smithsonian, and The Museum of Art and Design.
Frederick Birkhill’s yearning for knowledge of his craftis without end. His exuberant life has thus far consisted of ceaseless exploration, study and creation. Birkhill’s commitment to imparting wisdom on his students, and creating beautiful work for the world to see is insurmountable. In his own words, the course of his existence “hasn’tjust been about my life as a glassblower, but rather a study on working with material. One must concentrate when working with glass. It is very technical, like learning to play the violin.”