“It’s like the end of glass art,” says Armelle Bouchet O’Neill. “It’s going to hit artists hard.” The French-born, Pilchuck-trained Seattle artist is talking about the regulatory changes that are threatening to have a lasting effect on her field.
In February, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality revealed that it had detected unsafe levels of cadmium and chromium in the air near Bullseye Glass Company, an artist-run factory, school, and gallery that’s only slightly less influential than Dale Chihuly’s Pilchuck Glass School in a region that rivals Italy for most glass shops per capita. Then later that month the Environmental Protection Agency stepped up its years-long look at the impacts of 18 more small art-glass manufacturers across the country, seven of which operate in the Pacific Northwest.
One, Spectrum Glass, is in Woodinville. And in May, the 42-year-old company announced that it planned to close in June, citing the possibility of stricter EPA regulations and a postrecession business slump. Another local company on that list, Momka’s Glass in Arlington, is shuttering as well, though its owner wouldn’t say if that decision was related to the EPA’s investigation.
At issue is the method by which art-glass manufacturers produce the raw, colored materials—variously called rods, nuggets, stringers, billets, confetti, and dalles—that artists use to create delicate decorative orbs fit for adorning coffee tables and massive blooms of multihued tendrils that hang from vaulted ceilings around town. It wasn’t until 2007 that the EPA wrote rules outlining acceptable levels of pollutants released into the air by the process, but even then many manufacturers, including Bullseye and Spectrum, were exempt because of their small size.
The fallout from ODEQ’s discovery in Portland has forced local glass artists to consider two unwelcome possibilities: Their materials were introducing cancer-causing heavy metals into the air, and longtime providers of those materials might be forced out of business.
Without raw glass, what happens to glass art? It’s hard to say. Only one member of Seattle’s art community was willing to be quoted about the toxins in their materials supply chain.
Bouchet O’Neill, who’s preparing for an October show at Traver Gallery, says she may have to rethink what she’s doing. But for now she has a stockpile from Spectrum that should last a few more years. As for everyone else: “A lot fewer people are going to do art glass. Maybe that’s a good thing.”