Glass Magazine, Spring 1995, No. 59 "Matters of Mood: The Glass of Sonja Blomdahl," by Janet Koplos.
Why should the work of Sonja Blomdahl be so satisfying? It isn't spatially inventive, and it exploits only the two most popularly appealing aspects of the glass material; color and transparency. It has no political or narrative "meaning," and it doesn't make claims of preciousness. What, then, makes it special?
Perhaps it's precisely the acceptance of limits that make Blomdahl's work effective. She operates squarely within the glass tradition, so she knows who she is and what she's doing. There is no identity crisis, no search for missing meaning our values. She doesn't have to make the world anew with each work. She measures her actions against technical and visual criteria that challenge her but that she can meet. Thus it may be that her own ease and satisfaction permeate the work and communicate themselves to the viewer.
Blomdahl doesn't bother with the art/craft debate. She makes things that may be looked at or maybe used, as the buyer wishes. Her only concern is that her vases and bowls be treated with respect. This attitude must save her a lot of worry, and it's no-nonsense directness is consistent with the no-nonsense character of the work-a combination of serviceable forms and glorious colors. Blomdahl doesn't pander to the dramatic attractions of the glass material: there are no elaborate details, no bravura fillips, no dazzling complications. Her vases and bowls can be described as understated. She makes simple, stable, serene forms of layered are joined colors that often seem to glow from within, that seemed to be (in the words of Seattle critic Regina Hackett) "condensations of colored, liquid light." Perhaps it's because she speaks of her work in a way that's neither smug nor apologetic but matter-of-fact, but perhaps it has to do with her personal presence. Whatever the explanation, both she and her works radiate strength and confidence. She has achieved artistic maturity. She first came to glass as an observer of the modest glass offerings at Massachusetts College of Art where as a senior, she took the available courses from Dan Dailey, who was in his first year there. She was a ceramics major, because no glass major was available.
After graduation she ran a small glass production business for a while but when the business came to an end, she decided to go to the Swedish factory and vocational school, Orrefors Glasbruk, to learn more about glass. Not only had she visited Sweden before but, as the birthplace of her father, the country had welcoming relatives. At Orrefors she was drilled in technique and learned the factory's regimented ways of working. Her earlier business experience showed her the value of efficiency: it saves both time and money.
A few years later she had the opportunity to assist Dan Dailey in a residency at the Pilchuck Glass School. She's been in the Northwest ever since. Blomdahl's history is one of doing whatever is necessary, not being afraid of hard work, assuming no claims to glamour or status: she managed to stay on at Pilchuck after Dailey's residency ended by working in the kitchen. But many of the seemingly incidental facts of her life- the physicality of early athletic interests, the unpretentiousness of her first glass business, the mundane "domesticity" of kitchen labor, the efficiency and thoroughness of Sweden-have contributed to her work since she took the big step of establishing her own glass studio in Seattle in 1983. She continues what seems to be a lifelong practice of relative independence, working with only one assistant yet turning out something like 85 pieces a year.
Blomdahl's work arises from three motivational forces. One is technical. She is happy with the challenge of process and is known for using a double-bubble (incalmo) technique she learned from Checco Ongaro, an Italian visiting artist at Pilchuck. Technical difficulty is satisfying for her, in part because of the sophistication she was exposed to at Orrefors. Another aspect is aesthetic. She pursues what is appealing, beautiful, pleasurable. And joined indelibly with that aesthetic is a philosophical character that, she says, is expressed in feeling more than thinking. She wants her work to communicate serenity and calm. Not for her are the theatrical effects of glass demonstrations or the wild stuff of Pilchuck men. She has been involved in self-search for many years, in dream therapy, for example. She thinks of her symmetrical forms as suggesting parts being made into wholes, as having a meditative or even healing quality. The circles that naturally result from the blowing process are like mandalas for her, and she hopes they can be that for others, too. The symmetry is an essential part of the effect: in a sphere are no surprises, nothing is concealed, formal expectations are met. That's reassuring. She also wants her forms to look full, and to be neither too opaque nor too transparent, so that they might conceivably appear to be emanating light or energy. Blomdahl first made small open bowls, and then made the same size forms more closed, as they are when first off the blowpipe. Gradually she began to think of the horizontal lines were colors meet in her pieces as alluding to landscape. The most recent works are vaguely figurative, with her current variations giving them more suggestion of shoulder. Although Blomdahl is productive she is not a production glassblower, because she does not repeat. Each piece is a variation; while one can easily identify series, there are no sets. She has found it extremely difficult to repeat colors or shapes when commissioned, so she no longer takes such assignments. She says that her mental attitude doesn't suit the attempt to repeat. Of course glassblowing is a skill, so she can't do something only once an expect it, to come out well. She repeats an action, but she's always going for difference-and maybe improvement. She makes a practice of "working just beyond my comfortable level."
As much as for symmetry Blomdahl is known for her rich and brilliant colors. Her technique allows various color configurations: joining two colors, mixing two colors inside and out, making three bubbles so that an inside color is revealed on top, pulling up the mouth to give a greater access to that inside color, etc. With these combinations, changes in lighting can strikingly change the appearance of the vessel. She is more interested in color effects than in form, but she has no particular color theories. Some Kugler colors are incompatible, but what can be used together, she eventually will use. She tends to blow glass for a month or six weeks then turn the furnace off for a while. At each of these breaks in the flow she usually notices some color preferences she has worked through, but they are matters of mood rather than meeting. She sees that her colors have tended to become stronger through the years, and it she says that's because of for increasing confidence.
The clarity of Blomdahl's work may be a conscious preference, but it may also be something that's so basic to her that it could be called instinctive: Scandinavian design may be in her blood. She laughs and shrugs when asked about the relationship between her work, the Swedish tendency to underplay and the Scandinavian design stereotypes of clean, simple lines and colors. She is more certain about her stand on the art/craft distinction: that she doesn't care about it. She says her work is not fine art, because it's not confrontational and she's not defining new forms. The vessel has a long history in art, but she takes pride in her craft, so to be categorized as craft is not offensive to her. As to how such craft work relates to our times, she says there is always time for such forms, always a place for the beautiful-but still, that doesn't mean everyone has to do it. It's her choice.
Practicality runs like a reinforcing rod through the construction of Blomdahl's work. Someone looking at a selection of her vessels at William Traver Gallery in Seattle might be most impressed by how sensible they are. Just as some aestheticians have asserted that pure function is inherently beautiful, so Blomdahl's work seems to demonstrate that calm and certainty are inevitably appealing.
Unlike glass that strains for effect, that labors to be striking and different, her vases don't seem to prompt the viewer to ask "why"? That's because they do not reject tradition; the forms evoke working vessels from the whole of human history, amphorae to perfume bottles. And at the same time, the colors straightforwardly but deliberately present what's by available in the world, appreciating each color for what it is.
Color and form coincide with natural ease. Since hue is not manipulated for meeting or for dazzle in Blomdahl's work, it can cooperate with form. Most of the time but color shifts with changes in form: a slight bleaching out where a form inflates, a deepening of hue were the glass is thicker, a change at the neck were a color-bubble ends or at the waist where two of them are joined. Form and hue look coherent rather than arbitrary. One aspect supports the other. This coherence is reinforced by the roundedness of all Blomdahl's vessels, so that no part is abrupt.
Scale contributes to the effect. If the vessels were tiny they would have a compressed tension of concentration. If they were huge they would intimidate us with their difficulty. But they are a generous size of about 18 in. tall, which we can visually relate to our own bodies. Maybe the message of Blomdahl's glowing orbs is that beauty can be strong. And in the presence of that strength we can relax and enjoy the calm.