Dorothy Shinn

This story was originally published Sunday, October 2, 2011.

Talk about serendipity.

Akron Art Museum Director Mitchell Kahan and I have been having an ongoing discussion about crossover exhibits, which appeal to art lovers as well as a large segment of the general public. I happened to recall a small but wonderful show the museum had several years ago of glass paperweights and tiny glass sculptures, but I couldn’t remember the artist’s name.

So I made a call to Betty Wilson, museum director of communications, but before I could even broach the subject, she said, “Guess what? We have a wonderful announcement coming up. During the next board of trustees meeting we will unveil the Mike and Anne Belkin Collection of Paul Stankard Glass.”

It was the very artist whose name I had been trying to remember.

Stankard had an exhibit in 2002 in what was then the Children’s Gallery. He’s known internationally for his rethinking and reinvention of the traditional glass paperweight.

Stankard’s work is beyond incredible. It’s unbelievable — so precise, so perfect, so beautiful — that the first time you see it, you think it’s real.

But it’s not alive. It’s tiny works of art, miniature realist sculptures, made of glass.

Last Tuesday the museum unveiled the world’s largest public collection of objects by Paul Stankard — 64 sculptures and paperweights.

A new display case has been built for the collection on the museum’s Myers Industries Inc. Balcony, which has been renovated especially for Stankard’s work. Items will be periodically rotated in so that return visitors can see more of the works. Currently, 32 objects are in the case.

The collection is a gift made at the end of 2010 to the Akron museum by Mike and Anne Belkin, who have amassed more than 300 works by Stankard, said to be the largest single holding in the world.

Mike Belkin met Stankard in 1981 and the two became fast friends, with Belkin offering career advice and support. Since then, the Belkins have loaned their collection to various museums and have given works by Stankard to more than 20 national and international institutions that have shown interest in his work.

The new gallery area at the museum will be able to satisfy that interest quite thoroughly. Visitors will be able to watch a video about Stankard and his process and see the beautifully displayed small sculptures and paperweights first hand.

And don’t be embarrassed if you do as I did and get up so close to the case that you leave nose prints on it.

“That’s a sign that it’s doing its job,” Stankard said.

His depictions of plants and insects are so like nature, that you can be forgiven for wanting to get as close as possible.

Close inspection reveals tiny worlds, often mythical and metaphorical motifs nestled among the leaves, flowers and sphagnum moss, then pressed into clear glass globes and cubes.

On the underside of the tiny landscapes viewers can see, intermingled with the roots, are masks and figures.

“I enjoy kidding people who ask me if the flowers are real,” Stankard grinned. “I say ‘no, but the little Root People are. I get up early in the morning to catch them and put them in glass.’ “

Indeed, if it weren’t for those Root People, viewers might be hard put to imagine that the works are actually made from glass.

The new exhibition area has been designed in-house by Joseph Walton, museum chief preparator, with casework by Proto Productions Inc. of Addison, Ill.

“My focus is native flowers and the cycle of life,” Stankard noted.

“Over the years I have worked to show the botanical motifs in different forms. They are about the mysteries and the life cycles of nature, the earth and decay and rebirth. I capture the flowers when they are at their peak bloom, just before they start to wilt.”

The paperweight is an art form that was developed in the 1840s by the French, and Stankard has long begrudged them that. So he set about reinventing it.

“I developed what I call the upright presentation for the process, showing my flower designs three-dimensionally on four sides.

“From upright presentations came the cloistered presentations then diptychs and triptychs.”

The cloistered presentations are upright paperweights with colored glass sandwiched on three sides, so that the flower sculpture seems to float in a jewel-toned field.

Stankard has had 35 public exhibitions since 1996, including Glass! Glorious Glass! in the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1999; and Paul Stankard: A Floating World, 40 Years of an American Master in Glass, a major retrospective in 2004 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City that toured the country. He was also featured in the long-running PBS series Craft in America.

Publications include Paul J. Stankard: Homage to Nature by Ulysses Grant Dietz; and No Green Berries or Leaves: The Creative Journey of an Artist in Glass by Stankard himself.

Stankard tells a story about that book. He had just finished writing it and had sent it off to the publisher in 2007, when he was told he had been given an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Muskingum College here in Ohio.

Planning his commencement speech, Stankard thought he would tell the students about the challenges he had faced in getting an education.

“I’m dyslexic,” Stankard said. “But for whatever reason I never mentioned it in my book. So I give my speech about my challenge in education because of that.

“I didn’t know it, but the publisher of my book was a Muskingum graduate, and he was sitting in the audience. He came up to me afterward and said ‘I’m stopping the publication of your book because I want you to rewrite it to include your commencement address.’ “

And that’s what they did.

Stankard was born in 1943 in North Attleboro, Mass., and graduated from Salem Vocational Technical Institute (now Salem Community College) with a diploma in scientific glassblowing, which includes making beakers and test tubes.

But Stankard has a poetic bent. He can quote Walt Whitman at length. While fabricating glass equipment for use in the chemical industry, he became drawn to the tradition of South Jersey glassmaking and the paperweight.

He began making his own paperweights in 1969, which were seen by Reese Palley, an Atlantic City gallery owner, who gave Stankard his first show. Palley urged him to devote himself full time to his paperweights.

In 1972 with the encouragement of his wife, Patricia, Stankard decided to follow his heart and make studio art glass full time.

Since then he has enjoyed continued success, which he credits to his love of what he’s doing, a strong work ethic, a deep commitment to technical excellence, “and a very supportive wife.”

“I’m on the adjunct faculty at Salem Community College,” he said. “I enjoy interacting with the young people.

“I tell them it’s about identifying your authentic interest and working at it until you do it better than anyone else — that’s how you develop your own vocabulary as an artist.”

Stankard spent the day last Tuesday being wined and dined and given the star treatment, and he said he was probably getting a swelled head from all the attention.

“But as soon as I get home, my wife will say ‘take out the trash,’ and that will bring me back down to earth.

“The Belkins have been so generous,” he added. “They are making the Akron Art Museum the museum of record for Paul Stankard works.

“I’m going to come back here and bring more components. I’m going to offer the museum more materials,” he said. “This is for the future.”