EXPERIMENTING WITH NEW FORMS – “Discovery 12”   17” x 20”, fused glass powders, by Steve Klein.            – Photo courtesy of the artist
EXPERIMENTING WITH NEW FORMS – “Discovery 12” 17” x 20”, fused glass powders, by Steve Klein. – Photo courtesy of the artist

By Claire Swedberg

Inside a nondescript tractor storage building in La Conner farmland, glass artist Steve Klein has been testing the nature of glass. Klein has been renowned for his work with colored, kiln-formed glass for several decades and may be better known in the international glass world than he is right here at home. The creative work is taking place in his studio, facing out over the fields where he marvels over the palette of changing skies but also practices his craft of glass firing in various kilns. His latest work features a new exploration for Klein – glass powder and silk screening. This month, until Sept. 28, his work hangs on the walls of Perry and Carlson gallery in Mount Vernon. 

After 25 years of fusing, casting and blowing glass, he is trying something new. The discovery of combining powdered glass with silk screening has given him the opportunity to play, learn, experiment and be challenged, Klein says. 

The silk screen technique involves a mesh screen to transfer ink onto a substrate, except in areas made impermeable to the ink by a blocking stencil. In Klein’s case, the ink is instead glass powder and he makes his own stencils to shape the glass in swaths of color. He accomplishes textures with multiple layering and firing of powder, as well as other techniques including water that shapes the glass during the firing process. 

The exploration began during the slowdown caused by COVID-19. Then, he says, as he considered the glass in his studio, “I decided to try new things. COVID gave me a pause in obligations and shows and gave me time to do something completely different.” The resulting abstract pieces experiment with the world around us. One piece represents the many colors and shades of the Skagit Valley sky, another expresses the same for the Northwest fir and deciduous trees. 

All the pieces have served as an education for Klein. “Each one is an ongoing development that transforms as it goes, not a single one looks like what I envisioned when I started.” Klein only numbers his pieces, there are no titles. “They’re all about something, sometimes it’s only the process and sometimes it reaches deeper into my feelings, but I don’t feel a need to hammer a message home.” 

And while he has had years of honing his discipline as an artist, in this case the glass has a voice in the work’s results. “It’s freeing to let things happen and not try to control every bit of powder.” He delights in the way two pieces – that are laid out and fired exactly the same way – ultimately came out very differently. You can’t predict everything, he says; and he was ready to accept any results. “I didn’t worry about the reactions, I let the reactions happen. But that one surprised me.” 

Klein moved here from Long Beach, California 15 years ago. Formerly an industrial supplies salesman, he made a shift to the arts 25 years ago. Today he may be best known for his Exploration Series that combines spheres with kiln-formed bases. That series is still relevant for him after more than 20 years and 200 pieces. 

His work represents another way to look at glass art, says Joanna Sikes, Museum of Northwest Art director. “When you think of Pilchuck or [Dale] Chihuly you think glass blower, but there are other ways to work. I think what holds Steve apart is that he works with flat glass in a particular way that a lot of people don’t understand and he is excellent at that. He is very important in the way he works.” 

Klein’s love for glass dates back many decades. He remembers a uniquely beautiful crystal decanter and the moment in which he was decanting wine, highlighted by candlelight which shone through the glass and the red wine inside it. “I’ve never forgotten that, the light was magic.” The process of working with glass, with or without blowing, requires both discipline and patience. Ultimately, however, the artist also has to surrender some of their control. The material is going to have a voice, Klein’s view. “It’s a negotiation between an artist’s concept, the process and the material: everybody gets to speak.” He sees that as the fun part. 

“Steve’s work has been acknowledged as masterful for a long time now,” says Christian Carlson, Perry and Carlson gallery co-owner. “And he continues to grow as an artist – challenging his medium’s edges and boundaries and looking within for what this luminous work has to say.” 

Every piece he created over the past 18 months is on display at the gallery, arranged chronologically and represent his entire body of work during the pandemic. All are 17 inch by 20 inch glass pieces and only two are narrative. 

Klein is preparing for an exhibit opening at MoNA Feb. 26. His new work, together with La Conner artist Meg Holgate’s paintings, will focus on the precarious nature of our environment today and climate change.