Jonah Ward: Sparking a Process That Burns

(photo by Ryan Stirtz, Stirtz New Media)

Jonah Ward (Glass 2006) makes his work with molten glass . . . but the glass is absent in the finished pieces. With deft movements he pours the material onto wood panels laid out horizontally on the floor, creating a crystalline tracery. "People are always asking me if Jackson Pollock is my favorite painter," he quips. There's definitely some logic to the comparison: the substrate laid flat, the artist standing above, crouching and extending his arms in sweeping motions. Ward's movements are more like those of someone spreading honey from a dipper on (giant) morning toast, though, and necessarily involve a great deal less spattering and flinging. In the end he removes the solidified glass from the wood, and the burnt patterns left behind constitute the artwork in its final form: ready like a palimpsest, with shadows that trace of the nimble choreography of the artist's actions.

"I entered CCA as a Painting/Drawing major, but switched to Glass partway through," Ward explains. Although, in a way, he has come full-circle by returning to work that is essentially a kind of drawing. Solo exhibitions at the cool new San Francisco gallery 12 Gallagher Lane and a flurry of media attention attests to the appeal of his unique approach.

Check out the 2010 feature on Jonah Ward in California Home + Design

Ward was nominated, and was a reader's choice finalist in 7x7's "The Hot 20 Under (and Over) 40" (and he mentioned CCA!)

Ward cites as critical for his artistic development the opportunities he had at CCA to experiment with different media. "CCA has such amazing facilities, I wish I could tell students now to try everything and really take advantage. You never know what will spark your process." And while he attributes the origin of his interest in glass to a high-school visit to the Waterford Crystal Factory in Ireland, he also says that "studying with Clifford Rainey, the Glass Program chair, and with Bill Sistek, CCA's fantastic studio manager, really changed everything for me." It was during his third year at CCA, in Rainey's class, that he had the breakthrough that led to the idea of using glass to burn patterns in some other material. At first the substrate was wetted paper. "That class was the best experience because it was designed to break you out of your shell. The first month was just drawing after drawing, but ultimately the goal was to find a process that was important and new, and to drill a vital question into us: Why glass?"

During his senior year he first experimented with molten glass on wood panels, and also with running streams of water down sheets of paper while burning them from the bottom. He displayed these by hanging them below hand-built light boxes and titled the series Burning Water. Pitting fire against water, Ward says, got him "really interested in the ways I could interact with the natural world -- and with my inability to have total control. I am still very interested in the destructive power of nature as well as the idea of remnants, of what's left behind."

For his second show at 12 Gallagher Lane, the works' wall labels included scannable QR codes. Using a code reader app on a smartphone, any visitor could access text or video about the artist and his work. Using new interactive media to deliver information about pieces made using fire on basic, raw, natural materials played on the conventional idea that nature and technology are somehow opposed.

Ward's process also lends itself to some fairly dramatic documentation, and visitors to his studio frequently ask to see his collection of still images and video footage. There is something fascinating about his obvious ease around heat and fire, and the speed and smooth flow of his movements as he manipulates the glass in its molten state. In a T-shirt and jeans, wearing dark glasses to shield his eyes (but no protective gloves!), he has a definite James Dean charm. The performative element of the making of the work is becoming more and more a part of the work itself; in December 2011 for the first time he took this element public and made a piece in front of a small crowd of about 35 at Glow Glass Studio in Oakland.

Christina Linden is a writer and curator based in Oakland.