'Not Grandma's Glass' reimagines artform that pushes envelope

Greg Tasker
Special to The Detroit News

When most people think of glass art, stained glass windows, refined glassware and colorful vases typically spring to mind — pieces that serve either decorative or practical purposes, the sort of artwork your grandmother might collect. 

 But there are artists in the fine arts genre who are pushing the norm, creating whimsical, timely and provocative pieces that your grandma probably wouldn’t recognize. 

 Aaron Schey, owner and partner at Habatat Gallery in Royal Oak, has organized an online exhibit, “Not Grandma’s Glass,” that showcases a dozen artists from around the country and the globe who are expanding the world of glass art. 

"Call for Bruce Wayne" by glass artists Michael Janis and Tony Porto.

 Online since January, the exhibit showcases the works of some of the most “norm-busting” glass artists around the world, he says. These are artists who are creating new works most people would not imagine in glass. 

“I feel like with this unique show, ‘Not Grandma’s Glass,’ we are taking the world of art glass to the next level with the next generation of artists,” Schey says. “We are embracing their creativity and vision. The work in ‘Not Grandma’s Glass’ is provocative and challenging. It may not be for everyone but it is a look at the future and that is what is so exciting about it.” 

Twelve artists were invited to participate in “Not Grandma’s Glass.” A different artist is featured each month and the online display includes artist interviews, tours of their studios and videos of each of them at work. Four artists will be invited to return in 2022. 

Habatat Gallery, which represents most established and recognized glass artists in the field, is the largest and oldest gallery dedicated to studio glass in the United States. Founder Ferdinand Hampson encouraged artists to push boundaries and grow the field. 

Among the participating “Not Grandma’s Glass” artists are Matt Eskuche, known for his iconic trash glass style; Caterina Urrata-Weintraub, who use a heavy, fragile glass to create iconic toys or re-imagined personal memories; and Anthony Amoaka Attah, who focuses on migration, integration and dislocation. His glass work often looks like woven or printed fabric. 

"Super Girls Night Out" by glass artists Michael Janis and Tony Porto.

“With this new show we are out to prove that the whole world of contemporary glass art appreciates the next generation of artists and collectors,” Schey says. “This is artwork that is not in grandma’s art collection … yet.” 

Collaborators Michael Janis and Tony Porto are this month’s featured artists with a series of large cast glass and mixed media pieces that incorporate plastic superhero figures. The pair, friends since college, managed to collaborate despite the pandemic and living more than 700 miles apart. Janis lives in Washington, D.C., and Porto resides in Chicago. 

 Their collaborations in “Not Grandma’s Glass” explore pop iconography and the plastic action figures include characters from “Batman” and other superheroes, as well as “Star Wars” characters, Wrestlemania figures and “My Little Pony.” 

 “We decided to make a whole new brand of series. Can we do something fun, not heavy?” says Janis, noting the two collaborated by Zoom, Facetime and regular mail. “We ended up trying to make things that spoke of nostalgia, where we came from and how we use those things — superheroes and others — as part of our identities.” 

"Lunch with Darth" by Michael Janis and Tony Porto.

 “(Super) Girls Night Out” explores what the superhero (and antihero) does after a day of hard work? Party, of course. The mixed media work comprises nine squares, dominated by action figures in glass cages (dancing boy toys?). Girl figures, including Superwoman, partying with their besties, hold the corners. The center element is a working disco light (connected to BlueTooth). Glass is in the background of each square. 

 Janis said he and Porto both loved toys, cartoons and action figures as children and wanted to not only pay homage to these figures but also to explore our relationship to them. These figures, he notes, often stand in as avatars for ourselves — which act out the fantasies, beliefs and values that shape our understanding of the world. 

“The whole concept of super heroes, mythic heroes … people are brought up with these characters. They’re people you wish you could be. You connect to their stories,” Janis explains. “We wanted to mine a lot of stuff that made us, what it means to us. You identify with them and they’re a part of you. You have an early connection to them and revisit them.” 

Another mixed media work, “Call for Bruce Wayne” is an Andy Warhol-like piece with a repetitive series of cast glass Batman heads in a colorful square grid. A retro bat phone glows red. Batman figures pop out of the mouth and ear ends of the landline phone. 

“We both grew up in the ’60s and saw Batman go from cartoon to TV series to movies … they go from campy ’60s to dark and brooding films. All those genres are valid, but we wanted to portray a ’60s art aesthetic,” Janis says. 

A closer view of "Call for Bruce Wayne" by Michael Janis and Tony Porto.

 From Schey’s perspective, the exhibit has been well-received. While there are no plans to offer an in-person exhibit, he would be open to a museum or art center showcasing the works. He is hopeful virtual visitors gain a better sense of the changing world of glass art. 

“I hope people walk away with the realization that the art being created today is just as special as the art being created in the past,” he said. “The work your grandmother created is a gateway to what is being produced and collected now. We’re trying to focus eyes away from the past to the future and what glass art has to offer.”

‘Not Grandma’s Glass’

Online exhibit, continuing 

Habatat Gallery

4400 Fernlee, Royal Oak

(248) 554-0590