It seems to me that any artistic endeavor should move freely at will. This concept is not merely a fleeting notion, but reflects a continuum of self-purpose. Mediums become vehicles, and a variety of vehicles make for a variety of realms. Each conceives and brings about the existence of a not yet inhabited domain.

Thomas Stearns

Thomas Stearns: American Artist in Venice

Jim Oliveira

In recent years, much has been written about Thomas Stearns and his famous residency at Venini from 1960 to 1962. It is now a matter of record that his radically asymmetrical vessels drew violent public criticism from Venini’s venerable master blower, Arturo Biasutto, that the young master  blower “Checco” Ongaro came to Stearns’ aid and worked furtively after-hours to produce a visionary group of experimental objects, that the best of these were ultimately exhibited at the Biennale of Venice and won the gold medal, and that this award was rescinded after the judges realized Stearns was an American.

This work is certainly the greatest work by Stearns ever to come to market and perhaps the most important piece of glass ever created at Venini.

Stearns’ creations at Venini, most of which are unique, all of which were made through great difficulty and with experimental techniques, have become objects of veneration for American artists and collectors, and rightfully so—not only are these rare, beautiful and interesting, they also reflect a pivotal moment in the history of art and design. And at the center of it all and as his final creations at Venini, we find La Sentinella di Venezia.

In his essay, The Facades of Venice: Recollections of my Residency in Venice, 1960-1962, Thomas Stearns' thoughtfully remembers his brief tenure at Venini. Originally published in the catalog for the seminal exhibition of Murano glass at the Muriel Karasik Gallery, The Venetians: Modern Glass 1919-1990, the text provides a rare glimpse into the life this celebrated master. 

Read The Facades of Venice

Thomas Stearns

On November 1st, 1960, the young American artist Thomas Stearns arrived in Venice and began a tenure as guest designer at Venini, an appointment which would last until 1962. Working closely with Venini’s youngest Maestro, ‘Checco’ Ongaro, Stearns would design a number of highly refined and experimental glass vessels and objects; a group of these pieces would go on to win the coveted Gold Medal for Glass at the Venice Biennale of 1962, only to be rescinded after the judges realized that the designer was an American. Stearns’ odyssey at Venini is beautifully captured in his own essay, The Facades of Venice: Recollections of my Residence in Venice, written in 1989 and published in the catalog of Muriel Karasik’s seminal show, The Venetians, Modern Glass, 1919 – 1990.

Due to the fact that most of Stearns’ designs were produced in very limited numbers, today they are highly sought after by collectors. More importantly, these pieces exhibit an innovative sculptural integrity which perfectly expresses the spirit of the times in which they were made.

And while Stearns was not the first American to work at Venini, he was certainly the most influential. In fact, his time there changed the very dynamic between designer and craftsman, as his constant presence at the Venini furnace challenged age-old Muranese traditions and class distinctions. The next generation of American artists to study at Venini, including Dale Chihuly, Toots Zynsky, Richard Marquis and others, owe a debt of gratitude to the patient and intrepid Thomas Stearns.

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