Sybren Valkema

The Sybren Valkema archives, and the pivotal
role of art education for independent studio glass:


Photo: First glass furnace at the Rietveld Academy, Click on the image →

Sybren Valkema (1916-1996), artist, teacher, deputy-director of the
Gerrit Rietveld Academy, founder of the studio glass movement in the
Netherlands, and a seminal figure in the establishment of a European
network of educators and artists involved in independent studio glass.

The Sybren Valkema archives excels at providing a contextual look at studio glass
in the Netherlands by stipulating historical background on industrial glass in
Leerdam in the early 20th century and explaining the rise of a global studio glass
movement in the 1960s. Sybren Valkema’s early commitment to the education of
the workers in Leerdam during wartime, providing them with a more holistic
program that included fine arts and physical education as well as the more
traditional vocational curriculum, indicated an innovative and experimental
approach that would become a lifelong pattern. As a member of the generation
who lived through the war years and its deprivations, Sybren Valkema exhibited
the spirit of invention and self-reliance in many areas of his professional life that
would become so indicative of the later studio glass movement.

Photo: The Sybren Valkema Archive, Click on the image →

The Sybren Valkema archives correspondingly gives insight into the enlightened
administration of the Leerdam factory during and after the war, as the director
P.M. Cochius — in a parallel effort with his peers at Orrefors and Venini and
other European factories — steered industrial glass production away from the
traditions of the past and towards a design-oriented golden age of mid-century
icons. At the Leerdam factory, Valkema’s design work followed in the footsteps of
Chris Lebeau and was contemporaneous with that of Andries Copier. These are
the years that gave rise to the Serica (limited edition) and Unica (unique art
pieces) series, in what might be considered a precursor to the idea of glasswork
that is not conceived of in unlimited multiples.

A historically noteworthy part of the archives details what could be termed the
Big Bang of the European studio glass movement: the World Crafts Council
conference of June 1964, held in New York. This was the event where Harvey
Littleton first demonstrated the small furnace designed by Dominick Labino to an
international audience that included Erwin Eisch from Germany and Sybren
Valkema, many of whom would return to their home countries to found regional
and national movements, and maintain the peer communication that would later
grow into the international network of artists working in glass that exists today.

What came apparent whilst sorting this archive — which also includes early
correspondence with Harvey Littleton, Dominick Labino, Marvin Lipofsky and
other pioneers — was that the truly revolutionary achievement of the studio glass
movement lay not in objects or technology or even an aesthetic manifesto but was
by its nature rather conceptual.

Early glasswork from the 1960s is too often dismissed as being technically clumsy
and poorly crafted, a judgment that entirely misses the point of work that was
made in a spirit of rebellion against the virtuoso skill of traditional glasswork.

The essence of the studio glass movement, the inspiration that all of those artists
and educators took away from that first encounter, was an idea; that artists could
have direct access to a unique material without the mediation of a factory or a
system that divorced craftsman from designer. That single idea was the real spark
that led to university-level glass departments, which in turn disseminated
information to and inspired independent studios across America and Europe and
that would later spread around the world. Without extensive knowledge sharing
studio glass would not have been able to thrive, nor exist outside a factory setting.

The invention of the small furnace is often celebrated as the turning point that
made an independent studio glass movement possible. Indeed, this archive
recognizes the critical role of that technology by having exact drawings of the first
Labino furnace, the burner and flame control system on hand. Small furnaces
had existed for some time before that and were used for test melts in the factory
laboratories, as both Erwin Eisch and Sybren Valkema would have been aware of.

The Sybren Valkema archives underline the importance of understanding our
history, which can serve as a touchstone even today for maintaining contact with
that fundamental idea. These days when glasswork is made with such technical
assurance, when objects have such impressive presence, when all of the formal
elements of color, scale and form are so much more easily commanded, it is
important to keep searching for that earlier spirit of discovery and that ineffable
sense of liberation that was present at the beginning of the independent studio
glass movement and the pivotal role of art education.

All the documents in the Sybren Valkema archives are currently being restored,
sorted and prepared so that this exceptional archival material can be digitalized
in its entirety.

Through additional funding, necessary searchable in-depth descriptions can be
added to the digitalized files, including the relevant metadata so that students,
artists, and researchers, and a wider audience will have access to the material
that is being kept in the Sybren Valkema archives. The final result will serve as
an open source knowledge database for glass education and research.



Sybren Valkema, Wikipedia

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