Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Glass Struggle

Tom Philabaum's career survives several near misses.

By Margaret Regan

APRIL 6, 1998:  AS A KID, Tom Philabaum used to go over to his great-uncles' house, in a front-porch neighborhood in Toledo, otherwise known as Glass City.

Right across the street was Libby, the glass factory that gave the town its nickname. The uncles all worked in the plant, blowing glass into tumblers or stretching it out into big sheets for car windows. But the young Philabaum, future glass-maker, was blissfully unaware of their jobs. In fact, what he remembers most about the Polish uncles is not their ways around the kiln but their game of drink-and-spit. Out on the porch they'd keep two pails at their feet, one for beer, one for spit; one would gradually empty and the other gradually fill up. When the kids had seen enough, they'd climb the factory fence and toss a ball on the lawn just feet away from the great furnaces.

It was the first of a series of near-misses with glass-making for the man whose name these days is almost synonymous with art glass. Philabaum, now 50 years old, has been making glass in the desert for 20 years at least, 13 of them in his glass gallery and studio on South Sixth Avenue. He's trained dozens of Tucson's ever-increasing number of glass artists. And he's well known outside the Old Pueblo too, exhibiting in Germany, Denmark, Mexico and Canada, and all around the U.S. Last year he helped bring to town the international Glass Arts Society conference, an extravaganza that lured 1,200 visitors from 40 countries to Tucson, and inspired dozens of glass exhibitions all around the state. The glass show he co-curated at the Tucson Museum of Art, resplendent with inventive work, was one of the best shows of the year.

A month ago, these sundry activities won him the Governor's Arts Award, a competitive annual prize whose previous recipients include the likes of photographer Frederick Sommer, musician R. Carlos Nakai and poet Alberto Rios.

"I'm in heady company," Philabaum said in his studio one day last week. Tucked away in a hot corner back near the furnaces, he kept an eye on four workers who periodically plunged poles topped with twists of glass into the fire. "I never thought I'd get me one of these...I feel humbled."

Shelley Cohn, executive director of the Arizona Commission on the Arts, said the individual artist award is the most competitive of the five governor's prizes (the others go to corporations, arts groups and the like). The jurors, she said, were "impressed not only with Tom's energy and enthusiasm for glass, but with his efforts to raise the visibility of glass art."

Philabaum himself agrees that even after all these years, he's enchanted by glass, by "its interplay between light and color, and the way glass refracts and reflects light. In grad school (at the UA), one of the professors, Keith McElroy, used to say, 'Beware the seduction of the material.' But I'm seduced by glass."

The seduction was a long time coming, though glass seems to have hovered around the edges of the young Philabaum's life like a melody half heard. For instance, after the Libby close encounter, during junior high he took Saturday classes at the Toledo Museum of Art. While he and the other kids labored away at painting, drawing and sculpture in the "bowels of the museum," out back, unbeknownst to him, a pair of famous glass artists--Harvey Littleton and Dominic Labino--were in the museum parking lot tinkering with new ideas for glass furnaces.

The next near-miss was in college. He went all through an art major at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale without ever touching glass, though he fell in love with clay. Too late, after he graduated, the school began teaching glass. Finally, the man and the medium collided, sort of. At a grad class at the SIU Edwardsville campus, a clay professor told him, "Your ideas are too fluid for clay. You should try glass."

Suddenly it made sense. Philabaum packed up his truck and headed to Madison for the University of Wisconsin's glass program. Teaching school for a year while he waited to qualify for in-state tuition, Philabaum coincidentally taught the children of glass artist Littleton, and met the master himself at a parents' conference. Once in grad school, Philabaum continued working with clay and studied his new medium first under Littleton and then under Eriks Rudans, now a painter in Tucson.

"Eriks made me love the studio life. He turned me on to the joy of hard work where time has no meaning."

After his glass epiphany, Philabaum had a Tucson epiphany.

"A cousin was out here on spring break. I came and I flipped. I had been making sculptures out of ceramic and wood; some of them were sort of saguaro things. The first time I saw saguaros in the sunlight I went crazy. I've been looking for a place, searching for a sense of place my whole life...Tucson fits the bill more than any other place I've been."

By 1975, Philabaum was living in the Old Pueblo. He quickly joined up with the Tucson Clay Co-op, and bought up the lease on the Clay Pottery Workshop on Sixth Avenue for a new glass and clay co-op. He worked any and all jobs--teacher, carpenter, janitor--to support his glass habit, which tended toward the abstract, toward towering twists of color and transparency. But after marriage and the birth of a son, he felt compelled to think of glass in a more practical way.

"I discovered that people love my wine goblets," he said a bit ruefully. "...I had a family to support...My assistant told me, 'Just remember how many people make love after drinking out of one of your goblets.' "

The production of functional and aphrodisiac glass notwithstanding, Philabaum's reputation as a fine arts glassmaker grew. Some glass luminaries--Dale Chihuly and William Morris--came to work with him periodically in Tucson, helping him refine his technical skills. They in turn invited him to teach at Pilchuk, the famous glass school in Seattle. By 1985, Philabaum and a partner, Bob Carlson, bought an old Tastee-Freeze building on Sixth Avenue south of downtown. They converted the lunchroom into a gallery, and constructed a sprawling studio in the back. After Carlson bailed out the following year, Philabaum remembered, "I was on my own and reveled in it."

Nowadays, Philabaum employs eight people full time, five part time. Most of the studio workers stay long enough to be trained and then move on.

Philabaum has tried with no luck to interest the University of Arizona in setting up a glass program, making his studio by default the only glass training program around. Over the years his own style has evolved, progressing from blown glass to hot molten glass to painted glass. But he's getting itchy. He'd like to scale down the production line ("right now we're making 10 to 20 pieces a day"), and move more into limited editions. The gallery's too small, and his shows, he says, are not taken seriously. He'll probably keep the workshop intact, but he'd like to move the gallery downtown.

"I'm a big supporter of the Downtown Arts District," he said. "And with Davis Dominguez Gallery moving downtown things are starting to happen."

Naturally, wherever the next move takes him, he intends to keep exploring art. "I want to work with paper, with clay, with steel. I want to paint and draw." And glass? He smiles. "And work with glass."

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