Years in the making
A psychedelic poster hangs in memorial hall. On it, an afro-wearing, mustachioed silhouette sits beneath the words “Then and Now.” This disco Einstein is actually the 1977 faculty photo of Richard Bird. It is advertising Bird’s retrospective art show, which will hang in Memorial Hall’s Main Gallery until April 4. Bird, the CSC visual arts professor department chair, has been teaching at Chadron for 27 years. During this time, he has produced storage lockers full of work. These pieces range from hand-blown glass vases to bronze platters the size of birdbaths.
“I wanted to do this show because I’ve been here so long,” Bird said, in his office on Wednesday. This space is filled, like the gallery, with works and projects from across the years. Bird explained that although the show reflects his legacy of work, it’s also there to teach. “I will talk in class about a process, and students will have never seen it,” he said.
The works present cover a spectrum of techniques Bird learned over his art education, including bronze casting, electroforming, and screen-printing.
Bird’s selected projects were created between the 1970s and present, and each piece hangs besides a name card with its respective decade. This gives the impression that each piece represents Bird’s education during that time. In a way, it does. Each piece came from a creative era that left its mark on the piece’s creator. Bird made his dyed wall-hangings, for example, in the 1970s. These faux tapestries are called batiks, and they are created by covering sections of the cloth in wax and dyeing it. This produces a crazed, crackled look, reminiscent of African textiles. Bird made these batiks during the decade of their re-birth, when the hippie crowed sought new ways to express through craft. Now, 40 years later, Bird teaches the same technique to his “creative crafts” students.
His earthen-ware pieces, labeled “1970s,” Bird made for his MFA in ceramics. During that time, Bird investigated a new process called electroforming under the University of Iowa’s jewelry instructor. Bird covers objects, like his pots, with an electric-conductive paint. He then connects them to a current and submerges them in a tank lined with copper bags. The copper breaks down and attaches to the piece, but only where it’s painted. One piece features an incredibly detailed copper wasp. This unfortunate insect died in Bird’s car, and he decided to electroform it.
Bird’s unorthodox approach keeps his craft fresh and his pests nervous, because he is always willing to try something new. When he finished his MFA in ceramics, Bird stayed to study glassblowing under Vernon Brjacha. After Bird’s first experiences with glass, he was hooked for life.
In his show, Bird’s glass pieces run the gambit from quirky to classic. A large green fish, resting elegantly on a stand, has shamrocks etched into its tail. These Bird made by masking over the smooth glass and then sand-blasting the design. Another piece, a towering
orange vase splashed with purples and reds, Bird made by rolling the still-molten vase over a table, or “marver,” covered in broken bits of colored glass.
Glassblowing is a fast-paced, incendiary art. Every fall, while he teaches his glassblowing I and II classes, Bird spends his evenings in the glassblowing annex behind Memorial Hall. It is here, with the help of Silas Kern, a fellow artist and CSC employee, Bird experiments with glass. Many of the pieces in his show were born in this shed, which is about the size of a one-car garage. Two brick furnaces blaze within, one to hold the molten glass, the other to reheat the piece being worked. From the end of a five-foot long blowpipe, Bird will heft his piece back and forth from the furnace to his workbench. It is hot work, but the pieces reflect his commitment to the molten art. One couldn’t guess, looking at the cool, clear glass beneath the gallery lights, but these platters and vases were once blazing at 1,900°F. Bird’s wide, colorful platters are one of his specialties. One of these confetti-colored pieces sits in a box of sand on the gallery’s floor. To create this platter, Bird must heat a large vase, already laden with melted colors, until it is almost plastic, then spin it furiously at the end of a thin metal rod. One misstep, and the whole piece falls to the floor. In 37 years of glassblowing, Bird has seen plenty of pieces fall to the floor.
“I’ve dropped pieces so many times it doesn’t bother me,” Bird said, shrugging. “My first reaction is to think, ‘where did I go wrong?’ Sometimes it’s a beginner mistake.”
Bird asserts that you never stop learning, especially as a professor.
Bird’s show tracks his technical progression through his different mediums. His stunning “winged” vases have flat, triangular bases, an effect created by re-dipping the finished vase in the molten glass on either side, over and over, until it gathers “fins.” He developed this style to avoid pieces that looked “machined.”
“I’m looking for organic forms.” He said. “I just want something that doesn’t look like it was made in a factory.”
Many of these pieces shimmer with a metallic, oil-slick color. This comes from the addition of metal oxides, spread in a thin layer over the hot glass. This effect creates iridescent glass, which appears to have many, interbred colors. Bird’s artistic past is like these mingled colors. His retrospective show reveals his breadth of interests, from collage to ceramic, and also shows how the mediums intersect. His powerful bronze platters are carved with delicate flowers. His bold screen-prints feature the intersection of line and circle, just like his round, stripped vases. Bird’s cross-medium eye for detail, and his careful, craftsman’s tact make him an artistic resource. Chadron is lucky to have. Throughout his long artistic career, Bird has practiced and retained a wide variety of crafts. He worked at a foundry, studied up-and-coming techniques in ceramics, and dove into an art which many colleges hadn’t even heard: glass. He has kept what he learned over the decades to share with his students now. “I’m going to retire at the end of next year,” Bird said, “and I wanted to do a show that covers what I’ve learned.”
Bird, age 66, is still learning. Of his teaching experience, Bird said, “I’ll try whatever you guys want me to and I’ll probably fail. But I will have fun doing it and learn something new.”
Throughout his artistic career, Bird has kept this curious attitude alive. Thankfully, he decided to ditch the afro.