Elaborate and exquisite colors, patterns, and systems make nature a marvel of design. Abundance and majesty make it a source of inspiration and tranquility. Its continuum of birth, death, and renewal make it a symbol of life’s transience and mortality’s inevitability. Nature strikes a delicate balance between strength and fragility, sometimes stalwart against, sometimes victim to, the folly of humanity. Nature strikes a delicate balance between the seen and the unseen, sometimes displaying its glories proudly, sometimes teeming imperceptibly beneath the surface. Artists who take inspiration from nature inherently understand these qualities and act as stewards, honoring and preserving our planet.
“…metaphors for the sacred life cycle of creation and destruction”
Though Paul Stankard graduated from vocational school and worked various jobs in industrial glass early in his career, his creative side loved artistic things like poetry, and the wildflowers of his native rural Massachusetts. One of his favorite Walt Whitman quotes says that “the narrowest hinge of my hand puts the scorn on all machinery.” It is an apt description for someone who transitioned from mechanical work to fine art so successfully. He was drawn to the floral paperweights of 19th century France and present for the revival of this art in southern New Jersey in the mid-20th century. One of its finest practitioners, Francis Whittemore, happened to be Stankard’s factory supervisor. The two loved to talk about this common interest, though Whittemore shared few insights on his methods of production. So, Stankard applied the glassmaking techniques learned on the job to years of self-study in the art of paperweights to become a pioneer in the field of flameworking.
Stankard’s process—using a torch with pincers, pliers, and other tools to precisely manipulate colorful, thin rods of glass—is about more than just making things. It is a spiritual exercise that brings the artist closer to the essence of nature. The monastic notion of laborare est orare (to labor is to pray) guides Stankard to see the miraculous in the ordinary. Diminutive and detailed meditations, his paperweights display not only a flower’s elegant countenance but the brimming underbelly beneath the soil, paying homage to what Stankard has termed “the mystery of unseen energy and the fecundity of nature.”
Realism in his botanicals (carefully sculpted petals, pistils and stamens, and lovingly rendered insects) is coupled with mysticism and imagination (roots that morph into people and mosaic canes spelling words like “seed” or “wet” embedded in the design). The works are simultaneously referential to the idea of what a flower can be, and metaphors for the sacred life cycle of creation and destruction. Hot, viscous glass fills the crevices like dripping honey, crystallizing in the surrounding orb and creating a reverential memento mori in permanent suspension.