A Conversation with Silica Valley Curator John Sharvin

Glass Artist John Sharvin, curator of the Silica Valley exhibition at Pittsburgh Glass Center

We had a few moments to talk with John Sharvin, curator of Pittsburgh Glass Center's new exhibition Silica Valley. John is a glass artist living and working in Pittsburgh, PA.

He has been working in glass since late 2008. He graduated from The Ohio State University in 2012 with a BFA in glass. He stayed in Columbus for a few years working in galleries, doing public glass demonstrations and tutoring students. He took a Technician Apprenticeship in Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh Glass Center in 2014. He currently is the Studio Coordinator at PGC. This is the first time he has curated an exhibition.

“I am so thrilled with this exhibition and so very proud that it was curated by our very own, John Sharvin. This is the first exhibition John has curated and it turned out to be stunning. Not only did he come up with the theme, select the artists, and title the exhibition, but he also did all the exhibition installation and lighting. The result is an exhibition that will really get people excited about the possibilities of an ancient material like glass mixed with 21st-century processes like 3D printing. It is not easy to curate an exhibition and the result has been over 18 months in the works, but it was well worth the effort and wait!” said Heather McElwee, the Randi & L. Van V. Dauler, Jr. Executive Director at Pittsburgh Glass Center.

PGC: Tell us about your first curatorial experience.

John Sharvin (JS): It was stressful, fun and educational all at the same time. It was a lot more work than I thought, especially the amount of communication.

It would have been easier with a solo show. With a group show like Silica Valley where I was communicating with people from Seattle, the UK and New York in different time zones, it was very challenging.


PGC: Do you think that being an artist helped you as a curator?

JS: Yeah, I think it does. I’ve been in the gallery world for a long time for about nine years. That was my first job out of college. I've still been making art for that entire time as well. Working in galleries that whole time has helped me be able to visualize space and artwork. They kind of grew simultaneously. Seeing more artwork and more gallery setups, and then installing more shows and making my own work, helped me visualize an idea of what I wanted to see when I walked into the gallery. Being an artist helps me think spatially, especially as a 3D artist. I'm terrible thinking 2D, I just can't do it.


PGC: How did you come up with the idea for the show?

JS: I didn't want to have just one artist because the show is meant to showcase this realm of art that I don't see a lot of, especially in the glass world. It’s art and technology but not digital art. I didn't want it to be a digital art exhibition. I wanted to showcase modern technology. I use technology a lot in my day to day life and also in my artwork. I knew other artists did this and I wanted to showcase this whole movement of art. I think some of the people making this art fly under the radar.

Many of these artists fly under the radar but they're doing such cool things. I really wanted to showcase their expertise and their own specific way of using technology in their artwork.

Silica Valley Artist Talk and Gallery Tour at Pittsburgh Glass Center


PGC: It was interesting to hear Vanessa talk about working in the public sector and making artwork. She said an important part of her process was about sharing her learning, as well as learning from others. There was a give and take.

JS: I think that's true. A lot of the artists have had other jobs in other industries. Dan Cutrone also worked for the private sector and so  diddoes Phirak. They had other jobs that enriched their skills. As artists, they want to continue working with that medium, really explore it and discover the capabilities of the material and the machines and how to push the boundaries. Both Vanessa and Dan talked about finding the limits of what the machine can actually do and trying to push the work to the limits of the machine. Vanessa's work is pushing water jet technology, pretty far, and especially with glass. That hasn't really been done. She’s pushing the limits on what she can get away with the line quality and how thin she can make it. All of this work is pushing the relationship that the artist has with the machine and vice versa.


PGC: All of these artists are pushing the limits. They all talk a lot about experimenting and failing.

JS: Yes. I think that's general across the board. It's unique to this show that the artists were able to experiment and fail a whole bunch because this technology has gotten cheaper and more household friendly. You can even have a water jet in your house. It's expensive but you can have a desktop water jet. It's the same with household CNC machines. If you want one, you can buy one and use it at your house and experiment with it. Without having these capabilities you are not able to explore and play with the machine to see what it can and can't do. It really enriches the final product. It’s research in an artistic sense, which I think is really nice.

Phirak built several of his clay 3D printers. You can buy this technology on Amazon and buy parts for a 3D printer and have them shipped to the next day, which is something that just didn't exist previously.

The whole industry has gotten cheaper and better because people have been exploring it and building their own machines. Dan bought his new CNC machine and decided to see what it can do. He took it apart to make it better. Everyone kind of voids the warranty and starts playing with the equipment. Dan modified his equipment to grind and blast with a water feed, which it's not intended to do at all. He made a wet bed as a containment unit to hold water, so that you can have a water feed on the glass and use it as a CNC glass router to carve glass with the machine instead. That is not what that machine is meant to do at all. He said I think it can do it so I'm gonna do it. That's interesting.


PGC: How did you select this group of artists?

JS: I'm very nerdy and I like technology. I use it a lot in my own work. I look around to see what is happening and try to find information on how to do stuff in my own work. That led me to a lot of these artists.

I knew of Daniel Cutrone and had seen this work in 2007 or 2008 and thought it was really cool. I didn't make the connection at the time until I needed help finding fusion speeds for graphite carving for CNC equipment. They're not readily available and most companies won't share because it's proprietary information used in the aerospace industry and for NASA. You can send them your files and they'll cut it for you and charge you thousands of dollars. That's pretty much the way those exchanges go so I have to find the artists that are using the same technology. Look at what they're doing and reach out to ask for help.

Most artists are pretty forthcoming about helping you. It’s nice to be able to chat and learn about different processes with artists. That's one way I found artists for the exhibition.

I knew Vanessa Cutler's work from working at Hawk Galleries back in the early 2000s. When I got into water jet cutting, I read her book. Then then I read her dissertation. From her dissertation, I found Jo Mitchell. From like Jo's dissertation, I found other people. The more research you do, the broader spectrum opens up of artists that are doing this work.

I met Brandyn and Phirak at Pilchuck two years ago. A friend told me about the cool work they were doing so I invited them to be a part of the exhibition.


PGC: If you were to curate Silica Valley in 10 years, how would it be different? Where do you think this technology is going?

JS: If I did this same show in 10 years I feel like it would be weird.

There are two ways to look at it. If this show is the same show exhibited 10 years from now, I feel like it would be like looking back at a photo album or looking at that awesome camcorder your dad had with a VHS. It would feel ancient, like old technology or that was an old way of using that technology.

Or it might be like that technology is still used in that same way but it's so commonplace that it doesn't need to be portrayed as technology anymore. It would ideally be looked at just as another tool, and it's accepted in the same sense of using a table saw, or a computer to send an email or text. It's just commonplace.


PGC: How do you think new technology like computer CNC and 3D printing will affect glass art in general? Why is it necessary?

JS: If you look at the work in the show, most of that work cannot be made without the use of technology. It’s just it's not possible.

It’s shaping the kind of glass art that is possible. That work just couldn’t be made otherwise. It's very unique to the process. In order to move that forward, you have to have time on the machine. You have to be able to play with the equipment and experiment. It’s the same as playing with a paintbrush on canvas. The more you practice, the better you get and the more you're going to grow as an artist. And it's just another tool. If you know how to use a paintbrush really effectively you can make masterpieces. If you're just starting out, you're still learning how to use it. The more you learn about technology the more you're able to use it creatively. Technology isn't being used prevalently in glass. It's definitely been explored a lot more in the last couple of years but it's still extremely new. No one knows what it can actually do because there's not been that much experimentation.

Opening Reception for the Silica Valley exhibitionPGC: What were some of the highs and lows of curating this show?

JS: One of the highs was finally seeing the artwork in the gallery after hearing about it for so long. For example Dan Cutrone told me vaguely what he was making, but I didn’t see any images. So when he finally dropped off the work I thought that this is awesome. It is super cool. I realized that this whole show was actually going to work out great because I gave them all free reign to make whatever they wanted. They all made new work that was incredible and that was really fun to see.

Another high point was talking to the artists. Some of them said that they had been in a slump and said that this exhibition happened at a really good time for them. They needed this kind of extra push to make new work and finish it off. I thought that was interesting because it’s something I struggle with in my own practice. I assumed that since I'm not a gallery artist and I don't have representation, I wasn't like them. I assumed these other artists were making work and producing all the time. It was nice to learn that everyone gets in slumps. It’s also nice to be the one pushing them.


PGC: What were the challenges?

JS: Communication was the number one challenge. Again because we were communicating across a broad spectrum of artists with different experience whose ages span about 25 years and the fact that they were located all over the world.

Professional experience was also a challenge. Some of them have been working in glass for five years and others have been working in glass for 30 years. It’s a challenge working with artists at different professional levels in their career. Some artists have been working in the field for a long time. They have photographers on retainer that they know and trust. And other artists don't have the money to hire a professional photographer. I recognized the fact that everyone was coming from different backgrounds and different stages in their career, and had different ways that they conducted their own professional practices.

I get it. Everyone's making new work and everyone has a deadline coming up. If I request images and everyone's thinking I'm still cold working my stuff right now. I don't have a photo. I’m barely getting it done. I know the feeling. When I've been in shows and the gallery asks for information four months before the show, which I think is still a long time but now I know they need the information. It was an interesting revelation seeing the different expectations of the artists versus the gallery.


PGC: What advice would you give to artists with an upcoming exhibition or yourself?

JS: If I was talking to myself or any other artists that I know I would say:

Keep the communication open and frequent.

If you get asked to provide information to the curator or gallery, and you don't have anything, it's okay to say that. Tell them that you are not ready. Just keep the communication open so that the curator knows what you're doing. I feel like most gallerists know the process of art making so it's okay to be forthcoming with them and honest. For me it was nice when the artists did that. I was frustrated when I wouldn't hear from artists for a couple months.

For me, just talking on the phone is equally as effective. Just give them a call. You can get a lot accomplished on a phone call rather than a string of 30 emails.

Work together with the curator.

To get your work displayed the way you want it and also the way the curator wants it, be open minded about the installation and setup. Recognize that your viewpoint is different than the viewpoint of the curator. You are not always going to see eye to eye. Know when to let the curator take charge. The curator has a vision for the show. They invited you to the show for a reason. They liked your work and that's why they invited you. There has to be a balance. The curator wants to respect your work and you should also respect the curator's viewpoint.

Finally, meet your deadlines.

PGC: Are you planning to curate another show?

JS: I would like to curate another exhibition. It was a great experience. I have a couple of ideas but nothing really fully formed.

It goes back to the question of what was I thinking when I came up with this show. It didn't all happen at once. I wanted to showcase art and technology but I didn't know what I want to do with that. The more I thought about it and researched it, it funneled down from this broad modern technology and glass concept to this idea of a more focused modern technology and glass, that's hidden and used in a very specific way, and it has a very heavy hand in it type of exhibition. It was digital and handmade.

One of the ideas I'm tossing around right now is storytelling, but more so storytelling about yourself and internal dialogues and internal dilemmas that people have that they don't share with people, but they make art about it.


PGC: How will this experience curating this exhibition influence your art making?

JS: I'm hoping to get back into the studio and start making stuff. I'm upset that I took last year off of art making almost completely for personal reasons and because of work and the show. I got really busy last year. But this year I'm hoping to make new work. After talking with all of these artists I’m inspired. There's a lot of stuff I want to experiment with using technology. I worked with artists here at PGC when we had the Idea Furnace show and started doing some 3D printing in conjunction with different blow mold techniques. I want to continue experimenting with that. I thought that was interesting using the hot blow mold that you could pick up the resolution lines of 3D prints. At first it frustrated me, but then after looking at all of this work you see that residue of technology and I think I'm becoming more okay with that. 

Silica Valley opened March 6, 2020. Images of the exhibition and supporting educational materials are now viewable online due to the closure of the Pittsburgh Glass Center facility during the COVID-19 health crisis.

Learn more about John Sharvin at www.johnsharvin.com