The Turning Point
By Douglas Sigwarth
In the year 2007, Renee and I embarked on a new glass series we called “Watercolors.” The inspiration came from an aura, the luminous energy field that surrounds a physical body. The enthusiasm towards this new direction was palpable. Within the first several months of working with this series, we created a vessel that was the perfect representation of our intention. We had that piece professionally photographed and used the image as our signature. It became the focal point in our applications to juried fine art shows. This new series was looked at favorably by competitive juries which resulted in invitations to many top art events.
In June of 2008, at the Lakefront Festival of the Arts in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, our showcase vessel made its debut to the public. Early in the first day of this event, I was fortunate to make the acquaintance of James and Karen Hyde, who were accompanied by Thomas Lidtke, the Executive Director of the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, Wisconsin. We had a pleasant conversation about the work that Renee and I were creating, and we formed an instant connection. After our chat, the three excused themselves and continued to circulate the show to visit with other artist exhibitors.
It wasn’t long before the three had returned to my booth and informed me that the Hyde’s were interested in purchasing our most prized vessel and donating it to the Museum of Wisconsin Art. This was exciting news, and we were honored by the recognition. However, this purchase was the beginning of a much longer story.
Dr. James Hyde has spent much of his career working in the field of biophysics in research and development. His work resulted in the technology that is used in MRI imaging systems today. It is no wonder, that the transparent series that Renee and I developed appealed to him given the technology he helped to create.
Dr. Hyde and his wife Karen had become enamored with glass several years before our meeting when they visited blown glass factories on their various trips throughout Europe. Upon further research, the Hyde's learned of the contemporary studio glass movement in the US. It was especially meaningful that the birthplace of studio glass came from The University of Wisconsin in Madison under the direction of Harvey Littleton in the early 1960s. The Hyde’s had been adding glass to their personal collection for many years, but in 2008, the acquisition of Wisconsin glass evolved into a new direction; a direction that started with the purchase of our vessel from the Lakefront Festival of the Arts.
After meeting the Hyde’s in Milwaukee in 2008, our paths continued to intersect at various other art shows. We would talk about the new pieces we were working on and from time to time another purchase would happen when something would resonate. Dr. Hyde and I would have interesting conversations about the different kinds of light and how that light interacts with glass. His eyes would come alive as he described reflected light versus refracted light. It brought me joy to see his expressions of connection as he described a material that I have devoted my life to working with. We shared a passion for this magnificent medium.
In 2011, James and I began a new conversation. This conversation was not about a piece that could sit on a shelf or in a curio cabinet. This piece was not demure in stature. This conversation was about an installation. The Museum of Wisconsin Art was undergoing a major transformation. The plans had been approved to build a state-of-the-art facility. Dr. Hyde revealed his intention to commission a major installation to be permanently displayed in the new building and offered Renee and me the opportunity to submit a proposal. He said, "I would like this piece to be seen from a mile away." Perhaps a bit of hyperbole, however, it did set the tone for the scale of the project.
Renee and I began brainstorming for this proposal. We knew that we would have to design something that would involve assembling many pieces to achieve that scale. We were provided with the architectural drawings for the museum, which, at that moment, only existed on paper. The name of the space was "LaPointe," a triangular stairway landing, surrounded by windows. The space was very tall and narrow. Our impression was that what we designed would need to be sleek. Another impression was that the space was angular, and we wished to introduce curves into our design. Renee had been drawing strands of circles since she was a child. In fact, the basement walls, which served as a playroom for our young children, were covered in these flowing strands of spheres. That was the inspiration for our design.
As we pondered the symbol of the sphere, there was rich imagery that surfaced. Spheres symbolize atoms and cells. They are our life force and the matter that binds us together. We titled our piece, “Interconnection.” When I described our concept to Dr. Hyde as strands of DNA, his first response was, “did you Google me?” We didn’t know what he meant by that statement since we were unaware of his background at that point, but apparently, we were on the right track.
After a series of proposals and edits, Dr. Hyde approved our design, and the Board of Directors for the Museum of Wisconsin Art accepted the Hyde's contribution. The year-long process to construct the installation was about to begin. We were allowed to have access to the architects and the construction company for the new building as resources. Each step along the way was an evolution that flowed very smoothly. On December 17, 2012, Renee and I loaded up 2 vehicles full of the glass that we had created, along with our young children, and headed to West Bend to assemble the installation.
The new MOWA had just finished construction when we arrived. The walls were white and bare. The many windows looked out onto a snowy landscape. We unloaded boxes of hundreds of large, colorful blown glass spheres. Carefully we unpacked each one and began to climb the ladders to the scaffolds. Our children watched from the balcony in fear that their parents may be in danger as they climb 30 feet above the ground. The assembly took three days to complete. On the final day of the installation the sky opened, and the snow began to fall. We needed to get home before the roads became unsafe. But first a visit from the generous benefactors of this grand endeavor.
James and Karen arrived, and we had an amazing moment together. We were relieved to have pulled off this great feat, and our collectors were relieved that their commission was as described. The smiles on each of our faces were the culmination of inspiration, faith, and fortitude. Dr. Hyde often says to me, “we did a great thing." I agree with him, and Renee and I feel a deep sense of gratitude to James and Karen Hyde.
The Hyde’s have not only collected our work over the last decade. They have acquired an amazing collection of contemporary glass which is on display in the upcoming exhibit at MOWA. The exhibition is called “The Studio Glass Movement in Wisconsin: The Hyde Collection.” The exhibit runs October 23, 2021-January 23, 2022. We have about a dozen vessels represented in the exhibit, as well as our major installation, “Interconnection.” We are honored to be among the 30 artists represented in this celebration of the 60th anniversary of both MOWA and the Studio Glass movement. In addition, it gives us pride to know that our vessel that the Hyde’s purchased in 2008 is the cover of the exhibit book to represent the first piece they selected which marked the beginning of this amazing collection.