March 2 - May 6, 2018
Clay and glass have different rhythms. Sharif Bey has learned to move to the beat of both. He presented an exhibition of his ceramic sculptures that for the first time included glass. “Sharif Bey: Dialogues in Clay and Glass” opened at Pittsburgh Glass Center (PGC) on March 2, 2018.
In November following this exhibition, Bey displays over 20 works of his art in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of the 2018 Renwick Invitational.
Sharif Bey is from Beltzhoover, a neighborhood on the south side of Pittsburgh. He first discovered ceramics as a teenager at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild in Pittsburgh, an organization with the mission to educate and inspire urban youth through the arts. He later earned a B.F.A. in ceramics from Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, an M.F.A in studio art from the University of North Carolina, and a Ph.D. in art education from the Penn State University.
He said it was an amazing growth opportunity as a young person to work with clay beside artists who had been working with the medium for years and people of all ages who were just beginning. “I not only learned new skills and techniques but also built lifelong relationships through this one common denominator,” he said.
Power, Ornamentation and Natural History
Bey uses his work to explore alternative ways of paying respect to tradition, function, adornment, and ceremony. His work cross-references notions of power, ornamentation, and natural history with objects and images associated with traditional African jewelry. For generations, West African beads have distinguished societies of various cultural, religious, and geographical backgrounds. In the United States, African slaves also produced beads that some believed to be connected to slave barter systems. By the 1960s beads were re-popularized as symbols of political resistance and Black identity. Whether their significance was spiritual, political, or fashion-driven, beads have graced the bodies of many African-Americans throughout the 20th century.
Bey says, “In my work, juxtaposing this history with the images and values reflected in bling-bling culture (contemporary urban adornment) brings forth generative questions regarding social responsibility versus social status, tradition versus trend, and wealth versus power. I create and arrange beads with exaggerated forms, weight, and scale with hopes of activating the body and exploring other ways of conveying opulence, strength, power, and the body’s relationship to nature.”
Idea Furnace Encourages Exploration in Glass
Even though Bey had no glass experience, he was invited to participate in the Idea Furnace residency program at PGC. The Idea Furnace program provides support to artists working outside the medium of glass, gives them an opportunity to explore a new material and create a body of work with the help of a glass artist.
During his artist residency at PGC in 2017 and 2018, Bey continued making his large-scale necklace wall hangings in clay and created a new series of necklace forms made from large glass beads.
"The rhythms are different between clay and glass. It became especially obvious when I was learning to kilncast and replicate hundreds of shapes in glass. There is a responsiveness to clay that glass doesn't have and a steep learning curve. It's difficult to cultivate the energy and mistakes are much more costly," he said.
During his multi-month residency, he created hundreds of beads based on six different forms. He challenged the glass artists on his team. He said that it was exciting for him as an educator to push the glass artists who did not frequently work with clay to think about glass from a new perspective. In turn, they opened his eyes to the translucency and reflectivity of glass that wasn't available in clay.
He said, “It was an enlightening experience to explore the different relationship with light that the glass beads have in contrast to the ceramic beads. The expanded color palette in glass has opened up possibilities in my work not currently available in ceramic glazes.”
Funding for this exhibition at Pittsburgh Glass Center was provided by the Investing in Professional Artists Grants Program and the Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Program, partnerships of The Pittsburgh Foundation and The Heinz Endowments.