“How do I get inspired? That’s one of the hardest questions”, muses Linda MacNeil. “I look through art books. I look at everything, try to absorb everything. Details of industrial things – bridges, street lamps, mixing bowls. I like to visit old houses, new houses. I’m constantly look at details of buildings. Details from all things.”
Looking at MacNeil’s glass and metal sculpture and jewelry, it is easy to see why that question evokes this answer. In all of her work there is an attention to detail that is obsessive, whether it is expressed in the carefully balanced relationships of individual elements, the sensitive choice of materials and colors, of the fineness of the execution. She takes what she has seen and distills it into a look that is distinctly hers without earlier brutalizing the source or slavishly imitating it. What happens is what MacNeil, in her unassuming manner, hopes will happen: “It will all gel in my mind and I’ll come up with something.”
What she comes up with is a distinctive amalgam that may borrow from history, but always with a contemporary take. Done with a precision that industrial in look, but with a finish of the finest craftsmanship, her works recall Art Deco and the optimistic glories of the Machine Age.
Her sculpture allude to the vessel form, but always in a hard-edged, stylized way that speaks of the modern. As MacNeil explained in a lecture delivered at a Glass Art Society meeting in 1981: “Reflecting our times, I use technology, geometry, simplicity, mechanisms, and methods of fabrication as sources for my ideas. Industrial elements such as plate glass and extruded metals are used to their advantage, and the designs are a reaction to the unique characteristics of these materials.”
Her jewelry, while never derivative, clearly acknowledges its ancestors. Her 1984 Neck Piece of 14k and glass recalls Lalique’s Parakeets necklace of the 1930s as each consists of rectilinear elements. MacNeil has simplified hers to their essence but the Art Deco rendition has cast components that look like Chinese seals topped by the popular pet birds. MacNeil, following her strategy of looking at everything, has gone even further back in history for her inspiration. The sleekest and most modern-looking of her jewelry designs could be traced to 1700 BC. The gently elliptical form of a 1988 Neck Collar of 24k-plated brass with gold-toned translucent glass brings to mind a lunula, the oldest form of self-adornment from Bronze Age Ireland. Jewelry historian J. Anderson Black considers such artifacts unlikely to have been worn, but MacNeil’s collar is eminently wearable. For her, “jewelry has to be really practical. I really try to have it fit well, work, last”.
Regardless of the source of inspiration, MacNeil always creates something that respects its essence yet speaks with her distinctive inflection. Remarkably, MacNeil found her voice quite early in her career. The 41-year old artist remembers “making things in high school, making jewelry. I knew what I was going to do and went to art school”.
She credits her family with providing an environment that made this decision seem natural. There are architects and musicians among her relations. Her mother is a skiwear designer and her father, now a retired design engineer, started his career as a machinist. “I used to use his machine shop all the time as a kid”, MacNeil remembers. “I loved that.” In high school, he set up a workshop for her in the basement. Being an artist, someone who made things, seemed natural to MacNeil although finding the right art school took a bit of experimentation.
Before settling on the Rhode Island School of Design, MacNeil spent one year at the Philadelphia College of Art and a second at the Massachusetts College of Art. There she was introduced to glass and to her future husband, Dan Dailey, a well known artist working in glass, who also incorporates metal in his witty lamps and sculptures. At RISD she studied metalworking under John Prip. She praises the program for allowing her to explore jewelry and other metalworking projects without having to focus on one or the other. This freedom has influenced the way she has worked ever since, moving back and forth between jewelry and sculpture easily and without valuing one more than the other. MacNeil does not see “… a big difference between the jewelry and the sculpture. Of course, one is wearable. Thought-wise, there’s no difference. I take the jewelry just as seriously as the sculpture”.
The artist has pursued her art since her high school wire-bending days when she sold her jewelry on the street. Before she graduated from RISD in 1976, MacNeil was participating in exhibitions. A December 1976 review in Craft Horizons of “Illuminated Glass” at the Cooper & French Gallery in Providence includes mentions of work by Dale Chihuly as well as describing in detail MacNeil’s “elegant three-dimensional window”.
Early on the Corning Museum of Glass recognized her work by acquiring a 1980 Hand Mirror, one of a series begun as an undergraduate at RISD. Like MacNeil’s mature work, it is an assemblage of geometric forms playing off of each other in terms of shape, color, and material. For its handle the mirror has an orange-red cone with a blunted point. It is hand-blown glass treated with acid to matte the typically shiny surface. The gleam is left to the gold-plated brass connections of mirror to handle and the mirror’s frame. In this work, MacNeil has eschewed another of glass’s qualities, its transparency. The backing for the mirror is Vitrolite, an opaque glass available in a range of colors, manufactured from the 1930s until the early 1950s, which was much used for architectural applications. MacNeil and other contemporary artists working in glass including Henry Halem, David Huchthausen, Mary Van Cline, as well as MacNeil’s husband Dailey have used it to contrast with the more familiar and expected transparency of glass. The mirror itself is glass and, of course, reflective. Its surface is small and although quite functional would not give the user a complete view of his or her face. The piece sits so that the handle stands upright at an angle, ready to be picked up but not necessarily in the most natural way.
A similar hand mirror was featured in the February-March 1980 issue of American Craft. There MacNeil explained that she made “decorative functional objects using a sculptural approach to the designs. The unusual combination of shapes and parts give character and are usually exaggerations of the functional aspect of design”. As always the artist has honored the history of the decorative arts and their relationship to use, but she is more interested in emphasizing the qualities and requirements of function in ways that call attention to them rather than unobtrusively fulfilling them. Torri Lonier writing in a 1985 issue of the German magazine Neues Glas saw the hand mirrors as: “MacNeil’s initial efforts in bridging the worlds of sculpture and jewelry. Their small-scale elegance, mixed with a tinge of traditional functionalism, reveal the seeds of her later aesthetic concerns, including color, pattern, design, and an awareness of the qualities of light and reflection.”
The relationship of form to function informs all of MacNeil’s work whether in the area of jewelry where the object must be both wearable and decorative, or in her more sculptural efforts where the vessel, her preferred format, becomes a vehicle for her compositional exercises and her conceptual content. She has a great respect for the usable decorative arts: “That’s what’s in all the history books – the pot that somebody used to eat from; they took pride in it and decorated it. It is a really important part of culture.” MacNeil works “in the same manner as past societies have, making utilitarian objects a format for expression”. For her, however, the expression focuses on form not function. From the 1980s on, MacNeil has made a series of small sculptures inspired by the vessel.
Pyramidal Vessel, 1981, may be described as a vessel in terms of being a container, but it is its sculptural quality that is most assertive. Clear plate glass panels form the side of the pyramid, a container of sorts in its full-scale Egyptian form and for MacNeil a container that she has filled with an arrangement of geometric shapes on a litter or bier.
In 1983 she did a series of stacked plate glass vessels where the pyramid became a stepped mastaba and the walls of the vessel were delineated by the layers of plate glass held suspended by metal spacers.
In some respects MacNeil’s artistic researches have been within a narrow range. She has been faithful to a format and to her materials, exploring each with intensity and commitment. It is imperative that the artist be convinced about the idea before she starts a piece: “I have to be really happy with the idea in my mind before I spend the time on it.” Once she has found an idea that intrigues her, she devotes herself to a serious examination of it, something that may take years, developing the idea into a series. Abstract Vessel, 1994, appears as a further development of her Suspended Parallels, 1986. In the earlier piece, planes of plate glass alluded to the vessel form but, of course, could not fulfill that function as the sides were open. In more recent works, the forms are similar but a thicker, solid piece of glass has been substituted for the parallel planes.
For MacNeil there is a symbiotic relationship between conceiving and making, between the material and the maker. Unlike many artists working today, MacNeil works alone. Her creative process demands an intimate involvement with the actual execution. As Lonier notes: “the design of her work springs from neither the material nor the shape alone, but a union of two during a process of mine to completely draw the thing. It would be nice if things went that way, but it never does”, she explains. “I have to keep changing with what happens during the process.”
Drawing for MacNeil serves another purpose, “I make sketches to save ideas”, she says. “My sketchbook only makes sense to me. I just jot down details or ideas before I forget them and then use it as a resource later.”
Because of the way MacNeil works, materials play a very important role in both the final object and in its forming. Trained as a metalsmith, she believes that metal is beautiful, but she says, “I always felt that I needed more of a punch. I wasn’t interested in working with chemicals and patinas and all that”. She has always mixed materials: ivory, ebony, plastics, and, of course, glass – “glass was exciting”. For a 1995 benefit sale of gold and silver jewelry at the American Craft Museum, MacNeil wrote: “The unique characteristics of glass, the many ways it can be worked, offer unlimited possibilities. Color can be optically clear, subtly translucent, or boldly opaque. The surfaces can be brilliantly polished or lustrous satin, or textured and dull. These various properties guide my approach to visually compatible metals and the emphasis of certain elements of design.”
Both the metal as well as adding “a unique twist” to her work is absolutely necessary. She exhibits widely within the gallery network that began developing in the early 1970s to showcase the glass arts. Metal plays a vital role beyond the decorative as she uses it for “the mechanical connection”, which becomes “an integral part of the design”. In jewelry merely stringing the individual glass elements together does not interest her. It is the manner by which the parts are held together by metal that serves her aesthetic as well as her practical needs.
In her sculptures she works with brass that she plates with 24k or patinates a rich brown. Her jewelry may be 14k, although often she uses gold-plated brass. “I have more freedom if I use brass, yet with some of the jewelry where I can use gold, I do it. With the collars it would be ridiculous. I don’t mind plating things at all. I feel like I have more freedom. Sometimes I even plate the 14k with 24k to get that really rich yellow color.” She does not use silver because it tarnishes.
MacNeil executes everything herself. She enjoys the labor, although she is considering casting rather than fabricating as a technique. It will “ease off the physical labor” and “give it a softer look”. She has already incorporated cast glass components in her work. When her husband was working in France on a pate-de-verre sculptural edition for Cristallerie Daum in the late 1970s, MacNeil was able to cast many elements that she has subsequently incorporated into her work.
In 1984 she made several pate-de-verre vases that were an updated take on Art Deco. There were many weighty and geometric pate de verre decorative objects made in the 1920s and 1930s, notably by Daum and Lalique; MacNeil’s vessels are even more geometric and mechanistic although the cast glass has a softer appearance than the plate glass and Vitrolite that she more typically has used in her work.
In her jewelry she has hung the more organic cast elements on ropes of woven gold mesh. The effect was, as always, contemporary but evocative of the Renaissance. MacNeil’s pieces done since 1993 recall pendants seen in Hans Holbein’s royal portraits for Henry VIII or even the chain and pendant found in the grave of Caterina Jagellonica, the Queen of Sweden, who died in 1583.
In addition to the consistency of format and materials in MacNeil’s oeuvre is an element of humor. She sees it as a necessary corollary to the strictness and precision of the work. Everything must fit exactly and is a “… serious procedure, so I try to get a little bit of humor in”, she explains.
MacNeil’s subversion of function adds a slyly comic note to her sculptures. For example, in Tri Form Vessel Construction, one can see the cobalt blue conical blown form as the vessel, but it has one side sliced off and it has slipped on its axis so it looks like a vase gone slightly mad. The thick red rim, bolted to the top, is echoed by a similar structure that might have been the foot, but now acts more as a decorative circular form on the quite substantial base, substantial both in its material: granite, and shape: a thick y. It sits on even thicker clear crystal feet, which are stepped half cylinders similar to the one which half-covers the opening to the vase. One could discuss the relationship of the forms (various hard-edged geometric shapes), of the colors (primary for the glass to mottled gray for the stone), and of the materials (glass, metal, and stone), but it is the overall composition that remains memorable and funny. Humor can also be seen in MacNeil’s Pyramidal Vessel: The opening is far too small to accommodate the introduction of its contents.
There is also wit in MacNeil’s jewelry. A 1992 Neck Collar of gold-plated brass set with cabochons of colored glass evokes the Middle Ages, but it looks like a caricature of a necklace for a Dark Age princess or even a crown if it were turned upside-down. But it is not just a joke. In the medieval period, it was common practice to set jewelry and reliquaries with glass gems so MacNeil’s strategy has a venerable precedent. The idea of necklace/crown also refers to the tiara russe, which could be worn both ways. Based on the traditional kokoschnik, the form originated in the Russian court.
In recent years MacNeil has made more jewelry than sculpture because it is less demanding. “It’s relief from making the sculpture. The sculpture is physically hard one me.” But lately she’s been feeling the pressure to make sculpture and a desire to move beyond the vessel format. Having “only investigated the decorative arts”, thinking about other forms has been “… difficult. I have a desire to not use the vessel form any more, but haven’t quite resolved it yet. That’s probably why I haven’t made sculpture in a little while because I’d like to make a step.”
Whatever the step may be, one can be sure that it will be carefully considered, compositionally resolved, and beautifully executed.
Karen Chambers writes on glass and metals. She resides in New York, NY.
All quotations from the artist, unless otherwise noted, come from a telephone interview conducted on 29 November 1995.
MacNeil, Linda, “Artists’ Statements”, Glass Art Society Journal, 1981, p. 54.
Black, J. Anderson, The Story of Jewelry, New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1974, p. 96.
Cooper, Michele, “Glass/Wood”, Craft Horizons, Vol. 36, No. 6, December 1976, p. 59.
Linda MacNeil”, American Craft, Vol. 40, No. 1, February-March 1980, p. 45.
Lonier, Terri, “Linda MacNeil – Artistic Innovation in Glass”, Neues Glas, No. 2, 1985, p. 61.
MacNeil, Glass Art Society Journal, p. 54.
Lonier, p. 61.
MacNeil, Gold and Silver, New York: American Craft Museum, 1995, np.
Pâte de verre is a technique purported to have been invented in ancient Egypt and revived in France in the 19th It is a glass casting process in which crushed glass, frit, is placed in a mold and heated in an oven until it melts and fuses in a solid form.
Evans, Joan, A History of Jewellery 1100-1879, Boston: Boston Book & Art Publisher, 1970, plate 66.
Gere, Charlotte, American and European Jewelry 1830-1914, New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1975, pp. 32-33.