Jack Schmidt, M.S. ’73, looked like an out-of-costume Santa Claus—rumpled and all white hair and beard—when he spoke last fall to an audience of art students and professors at the University Galleries. Schmidt was once them. But unlike his generous doppelganger, Schmidt could not give the artists what he has and what many of them want most: a full-time career focused solely on creating art.
For the last 30 years, Schmidt has been sculpting glass full time at private studios in his native Toledo, Ohio. The glass hub on the shores of Lake Erie was the birthplace of the Studio Glass Movement, and Schmidt is one of its pioneering glass artists.
His work—much of it abstract—has been displayed in solo and group shows in galleries and museums across the country as well as in Canada, Mexico, Japan, and New Zealand. In an article last year, the Toledo Blade reported Schmidt’s pieces were selling for $12,000 to $40,000 each and were owned by the Smithsonian’s Museum of American Art, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Corning Museum of Glass, and the Toledo Museum of Art, among others.
His start at the ground floor of the glass movement has lent prestige to his career and, along with the quality of his work, has helped him establish longstanding relationships with the main glass galleries in the nation.
“We’ve done fine,” he said. “But we’re not in the 1 percent.”
Schmidt had returned to Toledo after more than a decade on the road as a self-described “gypsy-scholar” who taught, studied, and sculpted glass at universities across the country. One of his pit stops was at Illinois State University where, as a graduate assistant, he was a member of the glass program’s first graduating class.
Schmidt was recruited by the program’s founder, Joel Myers, even then a star of the glass movement and a lasting influence on Schmidt’s career. Myers was Schmidt’s first real exposure to a worldly artist.
“I have the greatest respect for the guy,” Schmidt said. “I just think he is one of the best.”
Schmidt returned to campus last year for the first time since the 1970s. He arrived to participate in an exhibit, demonstrations and a lecture series marking the 50th anniversary of the Studio Glass Movement. He had straightforward advice for students who wondered what it took to be a full-time artist.
“If you do good work, you can sell it,” Schmidt said. “You’ve got to be a businessperson… A lot of hard work and a bit of luck helps.”
Schmidt also had timing and location on his side.
The studio glass movement was born in 1962 at a workshop held in a garage on the grounds of the Toledo Museum of Art. The main goal of the workshop was to create a way in which glass could be blown and molded in artists’ private studios and not exclusively in an industrial setting. It was accomplished with the support of the Toledo Museum of Art, through the collaboration of a ceramicist, Harvey Littleton; the then vice president in charge of research at the Johns Manville company, Dominick Labino; and a retired Libbey Glass glass blower, Harvey Leafgreen. Within a few years, glass furnaces were added to art departments across the country.
One of the first studios was built in the mid-1960s at nearby Bowling Green State University where Schmidt was an undergraduate sculpture student. Carl Hall, the head of the design program, was inspired by Littleton and Labino. Hall decided to build a glass furnace in the sculpture studio. Schmidt worked glass from that first furnace and became a glass artist.
Toledo was a fitting place for the movement’s emergence due to the high number of glass companies that had been based there since the early 1900s. “It was the glass center of the world,” Schmidt said. “And it still has a lot of glass industry.”
After graduation Schmidt accepted an invitation from Fritz Dreisbach, another pioneering glass artist, to blow glass and to assist him at the Toledo Museum of Art. Schmidt said Dreisbach asked him, “’Why don’t you come back to Toledo and work glass with me? I’m looking for students.’ And so I did.”
Marriage of art and education
Schmidt also taught in the Toledo public school system for a short time. So began a marriage—of art and education—that lasted the next 15 years. He went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin, the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington, Ohio University, and the Cleveland Institute of Art, among other places.
With a degree in education, he enjoyed teaching. The regular paycheck allowed Schmidt to focus on his art without having to compromise to the current market tastes. The constant movement also led to him absorbing many influences over the years. His earliest work was functional, such as the bottles he showed at his first exhibit in the 1968 Toledo Glass National at the Toledo Museum of Art. His early work also included many beer steins, reflecting Schmidt’s inclination to party with fellow artists.
“That’s where glass was at in the 1970s, and it’s just incredible where it’s come to,” said Schmidt, who arrived at Illinois State in 1971 at the invitation of Myers. He was just starting the University’s glass program that he led for three decades.
Schmidt became Myers’ assistant, his “Boy Friday.” Along with three other glass graduates, Schmidt built the glass program’s equipment. The setting was spartan.
“Our first glass studio on campus was in the golf course groundskeeper’s garage out in the middle of a field—with a 100-yard driveway that went from the street up to the studio, which, if it wasn’t plowed, it was a major task just to get to class in the morning,” Schmidt said.
He played with colors in his time at Illinois State and took a rare dip into social commentary with a series of pieces focused on his Vietnam War draft number, 129. These works included an installation of 8-foot tall bowling pins meant to be experienced by the public and with which he had pictures of himself taken. By 1974, he had left Normal.
Schmidt never stayed more than a couple of years in the same place over the next decade. His final full-time teaching job was at California State University in Chico.
“I decided I’m just going to do what I had been telling my students. That I can make a living at this,” he said.
Schmidt had planned to build a studio on 40 acres of land he owned in New York. First he stopped in Toledo to store his belongings in an old warehouse. He never left after realizing how inexpensive real estate prices were compared with California and New York. The warehouse became his studio. He still had family in town as well as friends in the business community, and Toledo is fairly close to the art markets of Chicago and New York.
The rented warehouse space was in downtown Toledo, where the scene was rather bleak at the time. He remembers homeless people milling around in front of the warehouse entrance from time to time.
About 10 years ago he moved the studio to a complex of eight buildings that he bought and developed with a partner. Artists occupy some of the spaces. His wife and decorative glass artist, Shawn Messenger (Messenger Fine Art Glass), has a hot glass production shop and a small gallery there. He has a studio where he works with his full-time assistant.
“We’ve kind of taken a corner of downtown and transformed it into an arts community,” he said. “The whole area has since transformed, and we have been right in the middle of it from the beginning.”
Schmidt’s work has become more abstract over the decades, reflecting his interest in the abstract expressionists of the 1940s and 1950s. In his “Precious Stones” series, he created round blown glass stones and cradled them in or balanced them on concave stacked or cast glass forms supported by Corten and stainless steel structures. The earth tones of the blown glass stones, with their brightness and opacity, are played off against the colorless glass castings and earthy steel support systems.
The glass forms are his interpretations of stones and the steel objects are like shrines holding the glass components aloft. The works were inspired in part by how rocks and stones were used to mark the direction of an American-Indian trail or points of importance, a cairn of sorts.
“It’s kind of like marking passages in time for me,” he said.
How long will he work?
“I’m not sure how to define retirement in terms of what I do,” Schmidt said.
In other words, he will always be creating art.
View Jack Schmidt’s work at JackaSchmidt.com.