When Graham Caldwell’s furnace telephoned him at about 8:30 on a recent Sunday morning, it had bad news. Housed in the DC GlassWorks studio in Hyattsville, Md., the furnace was issuing a distress signal. “The electricity had gone out,” recalls Caldwell. “The oven’s safety system was set off.”
During a drive to his studio on the following afternoon, he explains that whenever the safety system is activated, the oven shuts down and triggers a device that autodials his phone. “The message is actually read in this fake-robot voice by one of the other guys who works in the studio,” he says. Caldwell and his colleagues must keep the furnace hot—it idles at 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit—to keep its ceramic crucible from cracking and to maintain the fluidity of the glass inside.
For the 31-year-old artist, who lives in North Cleveland Park, it’s a chore to drive the 8 miles or so to relight the furnace. “I’ve had to drive over here in the middle of the night,” he says. “Luckily, one of the other guys was in the studio this morning. He took care of it.”
Though Caldwell doesn’t mind dealing with such typical annoyances of glass artistry, he’s certainly not your typical glass artist. For the past five years, he’s created voluptuous multi-part sculptures that evoke strands of hanging viscera, cascades of teardrops, or especially sinister spider webs. They’re beautiful, delicate-looking things, of course, especially when the light hits them. But unlike so much glass art, they’re not just beautiful.
“Although he works with glass, Graham is clearly a sculptor,” says Chris Addison, co-owner of Georgetown’s Addison/Ripley Fine Art, where Caldwell’s most recent solo show, “Slowly Growing Things,” closed last month. “The best artists have the ability to show me the world in a new way. I think Graham does that.”
Works in the show included Cirsus, a sky-blue representation of a branching blood vessel, and Interversalis, a catenation of 99 maroon, musclelike pieces of glass that dangled between metal hooks. They seemed to belong in some glittering, fantasy-world butcher’s shop as much as in the gallery.
“When I look at muscles or an engine, I’m always impressed by the way the individual parts work together,” Caldwell says. “It looks totally chaotic, like each piece is interchangeable. But there’s a lot of order involved. There’s really only one way to put it together.” As proof, Caldwell proffers a photo of his sculpture, complete with letters and numbers for each component.
Earlier, with the aid of a pair of large tweezers and a set of snips, he had crafted one of his trademark shapes, slowly turning a blob of molten glass into an elongated, clear banana. Then he whacked his just-completed handiwork against the concrete floor, shattering it into a few large pieces and several smaller ones.
“I love things that seem to have a function, but you’re not sure what that function is,” he said, surveying the damage. “Systems, clues evoke why it functions. I think a lot of life is like that.”
After graduating from Georgetown Day High School in 1991, Caldwell experienced just how chaotic systems can be in real life: He raced all over downtown D.C.’s often-jammed streets as a bicycle courier.
It was the perfect job for Caldwell, then an aspiring fiction writer. “The courier job gave me plenty of time to read,” he says. “I caught up on some of the big books that I’d always meant to read—Moby Dick, lots of Dostoevski.” After months of cycling and reading, he enrolled in New York’s New School to study writing.
In his junior year, after he purchased a multicolored glass vase in a knickknack shop, an impulse changed Caldwell’s life: He decided to turn the vase into a bong.
“So I went into this glass studio in Brooklyn called Urban Glass, hoping that they could cut a hole in it,” he recalls. “I saw what they did, and it was amazing. Before then I’d never for a moment even considered glass art—not just considered doing it, but hadn’t even considered that it existed.”
Caldwell signed up for a class and was immediately hooked. “When you go into a glass shop, you see all these bits and pieces that accumulate around a workplace,” he says. “They’re beautiful. If you saw one on the street, you’d stop and pick it up.”
Within a year, Caldwell had transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduation, he found his way to Penland, N.C., where he assisted in glass-art classes at Penland School of Crafts. “Being there was a great transition for me,” he says. “I was able to work on pieces I was interested in, and outside of school I was able to make my first set of coherent works.”
In the summer of 2000, Caldwell returned to D.C. The next year, after the owners of a Capitol Hill glass shop Caldwell had been using lost their lease, he and his brother Jesse teamed up with them to open a larger studio in Maryland, which eventually became DC GlassWorks.
All the while, Caldwell was placing pieces in shows in New York, Cincinnati, and Louisville, Ky., as well as exhibiting locally whenever possible. A piece he entered in the 2000 Art-O-Matic caught the eye of a curator at the Octagon, the museum of the American Architectural Foundation, which featured Caldwell’s work in its 2001 bicentennial exhibition. Other Washington-area shows quickly followed.
“I first saw Graham’s work at Millennium Arts Center a few years ago,” recalls local artist and curator James Huckenpahler. In 2003, he included Caldwell’s work in “Meat and You,” an exhibition at Georgetown’s Strand on Volta gallery. “One piece in particular looked suggestively—to me, if no one else—like a jawbone, like something an apeman in a Kubrick film would fling up into the night sky.
“When I started thinking about [‘Meat and You’] and about a number of works I’d seen around that time that dealt with the physical stuff of the body, I thought of Graham’s work. Aside from the forms he chooses, his use of glass conveys the fragility and preciousness of the body. And his supports have a kind of creepy Inquisition/19th-century-medical-museum quality. Hard to forget that.”
Caldwell thinks of the various bits of metal that connect and hold up many of his glass pieces in less sinister terms: as a way to capture the liquid quality of his material. “I would love it if I could take one piece of glass and trail it around the room, over metal armature, to let it cool,” he says. “But because of…the way it cools, that would be impossible.”
Besides, Addison notes, “[Caldwell] doesn’t have the largest furnace in the world, so that limits him in some ways.” The artist admits as much. “For Interversalis, for instance, I had to make several smaller pieces instead of a few larger ones.” Between tackling such problems and his other duties at GlassWorks, Caldwell is usually kept busy for at least 40 hours a week, although he is currently taking a break from teaching at the center to work on a commissioned piece for a winery in the Napa Valley.
Essentially an outsized group of blood-red droplets, the sculpture will hang from the ceiling of the vineyard’s tasting area. A smaller, similar piece, titled Aquifer, was exhibited in “Slowly Growing Things,” where it caught the eye of Washington Post art critic Jessica Dawson. Among Caldwell’s more challenging “embryos crossed with jawbones,” she wrote, it reminded us that the artist could still be “complacently decorative.”
Caldwell takes such criticisms in stride. “It’s a form I’ve worked with for a long time,” he acknowledges, promising that the piece for the winery will be a progression. After all, even his prettiest sculptures are just variations on a theme. “Nature would create these pieces with lots of similarities but also small variances,” he says. “A system contains its own logic and can limit options, which can be a very nice thing in art. A system can become its own spine.”
“I think fractals are a good comparison,” suggests Addison. “The more you see, the more these small, naturally occurring patterns emerge. It’s order as defined by nature….Graham is attempting to replicate that.”
Standing in “Slowly Growing Things,” amid sculptures that resemble bouquets of antlers and patches of flowering trumpets, Caldwell points out Soon. Perhaps the most striking piece in the show, it seems like an odd aesthetic choice for him: It contains no glass.
Composed of orange rubber cord, welder’s nuts, and several slim metal poles, a couple of which reach from the gallery’s floor to its ceiling, the room-hopping installation is exuberant and playful. Pairs of wires hang loosely, looping from pole to pole, escaping down a hallway and overflowing into the nearby curator’s office. Taken as a whole, the piece resembles an intricate system of telephone poles.
To hear Caldwell explain it, the work is less a departure than the culmination of several old themes. “It uses modular parts, which I’ve always enjoyed,” he says. “It deals with gravity and utilizes similar shapes, like Interversalis does. And clearly there are veins of connection….Just like Cirsus, it’s also a very honest piece—everything is out in the open.”
“It’s a self-contained system,” adds Addison. “Not only does the rubber and steel form a counterpoint to what he has done, when you look at the piece, you see someone who sees a whole. With Graham’s case, he’s got it down. He knows what elements are open to him as a sculptor.”
In the Post, Dawson wrote, “I think ‘Soon’ will propel Caldwell to the next place. He hasn’t quite arrived, but he’s on his way…there’s a long list of extrapolations from this new form.”
The artist agrees about the turning point Soon could represent. For one thing, he’s ready to try out some new ideas. “This is the sixth piece I’ve done with these shapes,” he says, referring to Interversalis. “I think this one is the last. I think this is about as much as I can do with the form.”
For another, he thinks it might be time for the sculptor in him to be, well, just a sculptor, one who works in whatever medium suits him best at the moment. “I love knowing that glass is there for situations in which I need to use it,” he says. “But…it’s nice to know I don’t have to force all of my ideas into the form of glass.”CP