Washington-based artist Rik Allen creates stunning retro-futuristic starships using the age-old technique of blowing glass.
It invoked in us feelings of both wonder and curiosity — so we got in touch with the artist to learn more about how, and why, he does what he does.
Why have you chosen spaceships as your subject matter? What personal significance does space hold for you?
Since I was a kid, I have fantasized about flying, and flying fast and far. Both the real and fictional flying machines have always been a part of my imagination, though I have always had a bent for the nostalgic designs. Blimps and flying fortresses are some of the coolest things built. My father worked with aircraft all his life. When I was young, he was always bringing home technical diagrams and images of planes and engines. I didn't understand much of it, but I loved the idea of all the complex parts hidden away behind the big silver hulls.
When I first started playing around with the rocket form in the glass studio, I felt strongly that it was an excellent sculptural form. I loved how infinitely configurable the forms could be and still read as a spacecraft. Now, I find myself thinking about the spacecraft in different ways. The ship is more of a projection of our personal hulls for our imagination and curiosity.
How long have you been making glass sculptures? How long does one typically take to make?
I have been making and showing sculptural work since the mid-Nineties. The rocket series and spacecraft related work began more than 10 years ago. The rockets began simply as a fun object to make, but didn't take long before I could see their sculptural potential. As I have developed each body of work, a variety of processes have been developed. The length of time for each individual work varies, but some certainly take more time than others. The main difference in the length of time is obviously tied to each piece's complexity. Some of the work is made entirely in the hotshop (the glass blowing studio), with the parts assembled while the glass is hot, and applying and burnishing silver into the surface. The more complex work is assembled from parts; some glass, some metal. These always take the longest amount of time, fitting components together and fabricating whatever is needed in my metals studio. Some of these — a month, or more, to build. Regardless of the process, they all stem from my drawings.
One reason I use glass is because I have a lot of years of working skill behind me, and my ideas fit nicely with my skill set. The process of glass blowing/sculpting can produce some of the nicest surfaces and forms that I can imagine. While hot, the glass is very plastic, making shapes and details only limited by imagination and patience (maybe energy and lunch too). Glass can be manipulated in an amazing variety of ways, cold or hot, making it one of the more satisfying materials to work with, though also frustrating at times. While many of the glass pieces I make are largely cased in silver, the glass windows and openings reveal the interior of the glass vessel, whose interior walls are reflected, as if mirrored. The drama from that interior created is always exciting to me. I like having the interiors somewhat obscured, making the interior somewhat mysterious and obscured.
In some of your pieces, you have placed a single object or chair. To me, combined with the bubbles in the glass, which echo the stars in the cosmos, that produces a poignant feeling of aloneness, but also endless discovery; is that a conscious choice? Can you expand on what you want people to feel when they look at your pieces?
Yeah, the aloneness is what these express to me too. The hull of the ships, our physical construction is steered from within ourselves and with our will. The single chair brings people into the ship, the bubbles bring a reflection of the cosmos. Some work has ladders or stairs, leading the viewer into the ship, on the chair. It's really very simple, but I think very effective. I get lots of different reactions to it, but I think most people have little trouble putting themselves in the chair, thinking about blasting off to some new thing ... In my newest work, I have played a bit with figurative forms, cosmonauts and helmets. I have had fun making large helmets with similar interiors, with chairs, even telescopes.
Some would say that spacecrafts are a futuristic technology, but your work also seems to also look back, with its retro appearance and structure that resembles the scientific equipment of 100-150 years ago. I find that combination of future and past fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit more about why you have made your art in this way?
Aesthetically, I find the craft of aeroplanes, ships and technology of the early- to mid-1900s much more interesting than the sleek designs of the modern and futuristic depictions of the advanced technology. Somehow the simple hand crafted, raw construction feels more human to me, more relatable. I have a favourite museum not far from me in the pacific northwest [of the US] that I love visiting for inspiration [the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention]. The collections of old brass-trimmed experimental gadgets, bell jars and radio tubes are incredible to look at and admire; though I am always amazed by what the world of micro computing and advanced aerodynamics have brought to humanity, it's generally not terribly interesting to look at.
Click through the gallery below for a sampling of Rik Allen's work, or visit the website he shares with his artist wife Shelly Muzylowski Allen, Scavo.net.