Everyone will be Illuminated for 15 Minutes: Tschida Stories

by William Warmus


This essay appeared in Glass magazine in 1996

Lucy shines. Her coat is the glossiest by far. Fred Tschida knows how to achieve this effect. He has mastered light to the extent that his dog has become a luminous creature. The secret behind this is only partly revealed to us, not because it is the trick of a magician, but because it is the result of a nearly infinite sequence of decisions, and time allows us to sample only a portion: when Fred and Lucy last visited, he arrived with her special sled dog coat (dapper shade of dark green), bowls for food and water, grooming kit. I suspect that the portion of our meal that Fred selected for Lucy to share increased her luminosity by a few watts.


From Fish and Rocks


The composer Moreland in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time  reflects that “The arts derive entirely from taking decisions.” (1) Tschida’s decisiveness stems from his father’s interest in Muskie. As his friend, artist Cork Marcheski, tells it, Fred’s dad would only fish Muskie, a specimen most never catch because of the meticulous preparation entailed. On a fishing trip together in the early 1980s, the three each caught one, but only after buying the exactly right knots pre-tied by an expert, a visit to the regular donut shop hangout in another town, learning how to protect a slack line, much else besides. And Tschida says that his interest in geology developed on family fishing trips, when he and his sister collected rocks: he still has the collection. The phosphorescent properties of certain rocks advanced Tschida’s interest in light as art. But probing deeply into geological and fishing roots is as impossible as soliciting the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane. Its what becomes of the stuff that matters, and out of fishing and rocks have come Tschida’s stories about luminosity and movement.


Uniform Harvests and Rich Ones


You don’t know Tschida until you have backtracked into the early 1970s and looked at Rich Harvest. (2) In 1973, he harvested a dumping field of its glass, the glass remelted and made into tumblers. What seemed conceptual at the time is now recognized as narrative: the tumblers tell a story of the field, how its pristine glass was exposed to the weather, collected the earth. The spirit inherent in the field is in the tumblers, they are the story of its days.


Rich Harvest diverges from the history of studio glass and its Ur-event, the 1962 Toledo workshops, where the much more uniform #475 marbles were melted as a source for glassblowing. Bang! Studio glass was off on an adventure to create the perfect artist’s studio for glassmaking, an expanding technical spiral that in the 1990s has encircled the city of Seattle, with its constellation of technically superb artists and studios. Tschida’s Rich Harvest, and all his work,  while building on and requiring proficiency of techniques, prepares continuously for the big question: what is the story I will tell with all this stuff? How well can I narrate it?



But How Do I Begin?


 Tschida has prepared a compellingly eloquent solution to the narrator’s stickiest problem: writer’s block or “how to begin.” Some technically superb pieces of studio glass seem poised at the edge: forever ready to begin without having a story to tell. Their excess technical baggage makes them forgetful of their purpose as artworks: to be telling. Rhetoricians call these events aporias: affectations of being at a loss as to how to begin.  For rhetoricians and Tschida, making a beginning is only an affectation. Tschida prepares meticulously for his beginnings, as with Lucy and the well crafted neon pieces, and because of that he fears no block, no unaffected aporia: preparations over, the spotlight goes on, the coat shines, the image is recorded. The spirituality of A is realized in B. No problem. 


And yet Tschida’s stories end at their beginnings, are not so much ephemeral as eventful. The stories stop us. What is anchored is moved, what is buried is unearthed and transformed,  what is solid is hollowed out,  what is dark is spotlighted, what is cramped is expanded. Tschida, piling detail on detail as he prepares for the main event,  is decisive at the final moment, transfixes us like deer in a car’s headlamps.


Imagine driving through the night out in the woods, headlights beaming. Brilliant pebbles shine up against you, scattered on the road ahead.  The space they create halts your car. Out in the country. Alone. With the headlights off, the pebbles blend into darkness.  Is it O.K. to move? If we encountered the brilliant pebble road installation in Arkport, N.Y. (1990), the last thing we would need to know is that Tschida spent hours finding a way to heat stones, without exploding them, so that reflective tape could be molded to their irregular shapes.  These bright pebbles are for getting hold of time and space. We, who move easily through space, its transparency lubricating our voyage, are brought up short by pebbles that halt us. The transparency of space is an illusion. Space is filled with an atmosphere, and sometimes an atmosphere rains on us. Tschida’s work precipitates time as we apply the brakes.


Open. Vacancy.


We are accustomed to common neon words affixed permanently to storefronts and motels. Tschida takes neon into open places, affixes it to moving creatures and things.  In 1975  he harnessed 180 feet of neon tubing to a portable gas generator and with 28 friends walked this light line 4 miles: the longest neon tube ever to have crossed the Mississippi river. On the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah, in 1980, Tschida mounted a 22’ tall neon column atop his car because he “wanted to make light drawings, to create spaces while driving using the car as a moving platform for that vertical tube, so I could make planes of light in space, ribbons of light, walls of light...I like the idea of moving pieces and creating volumes that exist in space without any commitment of materials.” (3) In his rotating neon works, Rotating Cone and Torus and Martini Glass, Tschida continues to put neon in places it hasn’t been before, filling space with light, using light as a three dimensional material.


The Big Sneeze


In the world of physics there are scientists who deal with string theory, probing the origins of things, and those who deal with condensed matter, the things themselves. In Tschida’s stories, a like polarity reigns: stories drawn by beams of light, and stories told with real stuff. In Atmosphere, dubbed by one fan “The Big Sneeze,” Tschida has created a cloud of literally thousands of parts, tracings of his decisions that saturate space and move delicately within it. Focused electric lamps reveal the workings of this mechanism, where space and time tease each other, compete for attention: do we take the time to look at each part, each decision, or do we absorb the main event, the big space the decisions occupy. In Burning Bush, Tschida’s notebooks identify three qualities of this biblical image that attract him: although on fire, it still produces blossoms; it does not consume itself; it is black. The Burning Bush sketches out some central facets of Tschida’s recent work. The branching bush is a skeletal atmosphere where opposites interact: darkness is overlaid with light, the force that consumes is transformed into a force that produces. Tschida’s Molas are a denser species, guardians of the dark. Desktop size, Molas are made of solid, clear glass with a thin casing of black. Tschida has drilled down through the black, opening pinholes for light to enter, inspired by the topography defining building lights he saw one night flying over Chicago. If anything, the darkness that is cocooned within the Mola gains strength from the frailty of the weak penetrating lights. The Molas pose a question: is there an absolute darkness that light cannot penetrate? Or can all darknesses be resolved by light?


Among Tschida’s stories about putting something somewhere it has never been before (he says he was inspired by the U.S. space program), none work more abstractly than certain optical pieces where a big space is “packed” into a small one. In Block with Bubbles and the Dohne Triplets, Tschida uses a light refracting aspect of transparent media noticed by the philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel in the 19th century: “an object in a vessel will appear to be displaced and raised if the vase is filled with water. Those who shoot fish know that because  the place in which they see their prey is raised, they must aim below it.” Hegel seeks an explanation of this effect using humane metaphors: “It is as if a human soul should be transplanted into the body of a beast, and by preserving itself, should transform it into a human body” or “as if the soul of a mouse were to become elephantine within the body of an elephant, and at the same time diminish and bedwarf this body into its own dimensions.” (4) In the bubble block, dense glass bends light, making the space inside seem bigger than the containing walls of the block. In Dohne Triplets, three multi-faceted frosty glass objects are covered with numbers, each indexing the personality of the subject. One facet on each is left empty and polished clear, allowing us to look inside, where the space looks bigger and the numbers are reversed. Again, light is bent by dense glass, but the metaphor is powerful:  A transplanted human soul has transformed the glass into a spiritual substance.


Tschida began with fish and rocks, the light that rocks emit and water bends becoming his most powerful tool for getting hold of time and space. But there is more: he found a way to give time and space a human dimension. In Radiant Figure  (1985) (5), Tschida sliced night with dissecting lights, revealing Deborah Dohne, his longtime friend and artistic collaborator on the piece, truly radiant in a light amplifying suit. Tschida is still probing that deep darkness where every light is out, every space dissolved. Under such a night sky, our gaze deflected by the leaden heavens, our fears that we are alone grow ever more ponderous. Then Tschida surprises and delights us with fireworks.


William Warmus

Ithaca, New York

December, 1995



1- Hugh Moreland in A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. Volume Six, “The Kindly Ones”, p.77.


2--In collaboration with Mark Stanley.


3-I am thankful to Deborah Dohne, John Black, Tina Betz, and Cork Marcheschi for insightful stories about Tschida and his work. New Light: Fred Tschida by Gene Endres in New Work, Spring 1987, provides an overview of Tschida’s development and role as a teacher and is the source of the quote used here.


4-Georg . W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Nature. M. J. Petry, ed. London: Unwin Brothers, 1970. Vol. 2, pp.125-131.


5-Dohne’s suit, actually a pair of overalls, was covered with a type of surplus 3-M reflective tape used on street signs.