Glass Explorer -- William Morris' Identification With The Outdoors Is Reflected In The Dazzling `Artifacts' That Have Become His Signature

Another in a series of profiles of people in arts and entertainment. Some are up-and-comers. Others, like William Morris, are at the top of their fields.

A pair of industrial-strength tongs in one hand, a big metal spatula in the other, William Morris quickly tweaks and stretches the molten snout of a bear. Or maybe it's a wolf.

Whatever it is, the animal head is a deep rust color, though that may be an optical illusion. Every minute or so an assistant swiftly plunges the head, which is connected to a long rod, into the maw of a 2,200-degree, searingly hot kiln. When it's pulled out the head glows like a burning coal.

With one assistant balancing the rod, and another blasting the head with the flame from a torch whenever Morris gives a nod, the trio works with the precise timing and silent, efficient choreography of a veteran surgical team.

Of course, Morris is no surgeon, and the process under way on this rainy afternoon at Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood is art, not science. And as Morris continues to push, prod and poke in an effort to shape beastlike nostrils, it turns out that the beast is not a bear. He says, "It's some kind of canis." A more explicit identification apparently does not interest him.

With its pointed, erect ears, slit eyes and snout that looks more feral by the minute, the animal has a totemic visage. It could be inspired by a mysterious prehistoric cave painting, or it might be a glass interpretation of a Native American ceremonial mask, a creature from the spirit world. In any case, it's no domestic Fido. Morris says later that he will likely use the backless, canis head as an element in one of his suspended "artifacts."

Beauty in the primitive

Glass "artifacts," suspended or otherwise, have become Morris' signature. He's the artist who created the dazzlingly large and luminous animal bones on display in the U.S. Bank Centre, formerly called the Pacific First Centre, in downtown Seattle. He makes glass bones, skeletons of ambiguous origins, tusks, horns, ossified animal organs, gourds, spears and primitive tools so beautiful that critics have called them glamorous, often noting the irony of finding such seductive beauty in objects meant to suggest ancient shards and discarded fossils.

Before that, in the mid- to late '80s, Morris created vessels decorated with evocative "petroglyphs," often showing abstracted, elongated human hunters in pursuit of prey. Taken altogether, Morris' work of the last six or seven years looks like one long and extraordinary archaeological dig. Indiana Jones couldn't have unearthed relics any more thrilling. A hiker, rock climber, explorer of caves and outdoorsman since his youth in Carmel, Calif., Morris says that he creates paleolithic artifacts that he himself would like to dig up.

His suspended artifacts, many of the newest of which are on display through Sunday at Foster/White Gallery in Seattle, are among the works that curators and glass collectors point to when they describe Morris - as many these days inevitably do - as, if not the best, then certainly one of America's leading glass artists. Some view him as a champion who has finally offered up a body of work so imbued with "content" that even those skeptics who contend that glass can only be craft, not art, will be forced to reconsider. One measure of the status of Morris' work is that it is priced - and is selling - as sculpture: In his current show, artifact works range from $14,000 to $24,000; a new canopic jar, a large work, costs $45,000.

"He's really, really good," says Patterson Sims, associate art director at the Seattle Art Museum and curator of SAM shows that have included works by Morris. "He's simply the best glass blower that America has produced. He has been able to inject content into the ravishing beauty of glass, yet he has in no way compromised the aesthetic pleasures of glass. He has brought an existential depth to glass that is entirely new." Sims describes Morris' work as a heady brew of beauty and mortality.

`On the leading edge'

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where one of Morris' suspended artifacts was on display for half of last year, 20th-century design curator Jane Adlin said, "Bill Morris is working on the leading edge of what's being done in glass. In terms of artistic content, his work is not matched by anything else that I can see."

The Metropolitan owns the suspended artifact and has been promised two of Morris' highly acclaimed canopic jars - interpretations of ancient Egyptian burial urns used to preserve internal organs of the dead - by a New York collector. Such is her conviction that Morris represents the apex of the contemporary glass scene that Adlin is organizing a two-part glass show that will start with Tiffany glass and end with work by Morris. The first segment opens in June; the second, which includes work by Morris and many other studio glass artists, opens in October and will run through spring of 1996.

The Met also owns work by Dale Chihuly, the Tacoma native who founded Pilchuck and turned Seattle into the nation's glass capital, and Ginny Ruffner, also a much-praised Seattle glass artist and Pilchuck vice president. Adlin says both artists will likely be represented in the glass show.

Chihuly is better known than Morris, nationally and internationally, and is, as Sims notes, "unquestionably the senior figure in American glass." And no one disputes that Chihuly, longtime friend and mentor to Morris, is a gifted designer and energetic impresario of spectacular public art, and the creator of extravagantly gorgeous work.

But Morris is the man of the moment, the glass artist who is at or near the top of everybody's short list of studio glass stars. Adlin says that Morris, 37, "has really come into his own in the last five or six years. Before that, I felt he was too derivative. His early pieces weren't particularly innovative; I felt I was seeing Dale and not Bill. But when he started making the artifacts and the canopic jars, they're spectacular."

A love for ceramics

Morris, an easy-going man who appears to accept his current success with relative modesty, said that in high school his first love was ceramics.

"Basically, I was fortunate enough to go to a high school with a ceramics program," he said. "Otherwise I probably wouldn't have gotten through. I wasn't much of a student. Then, at another facility, I tried glass blowing. It was everything that ceramics was, but more. I loved it."

After brief stints at California State University at Chico and Central Washington University, Morris heard about a job opening as a truck driver at Pilchuck. It was 1978 and the 7-year-old Pilchuck Glass School was moving slowly from a no-frills summer camp where students spent half their time building hot shops and pitching tents, to a hip summer art colony that attracted talented artists as teachers. Morris spent his free time learning glass blowing, often as an unpaid member of Chihuly's team. Aside from a brief period in the early '80s when he worked out of a Seattle studio, Morris has continued to work at Pilchuck's hot shop during the nine months of the year when it is not in session. He has a studio and home nearby.

Though critics and curators have waxed poetic about what they see as Morris' fascination with death and mortality - it's a logical assessment given the elegance of his lustrous glass burial sites - Morris says it didn't occur to him that people would see such a theme in his work.

"When I first started doing the bones, the whole issue was about the ceremony of it, the uncovering of it," said Morris. "Now that people see death and morbidity in my work, I do think about it, not because I have a propensity for death, I don't. But I am fascinated with what people think. The point is that we are as unique as our impressions allow us to be, and that interests me."

It's easy to see how a kid who scrounged around in California coastal caves for Native American arrowheads could grow up to make art about spears and pre-historic beasts. And Morris says that his lifelong interest in the outdoors and man's relationship to it partly explains the look of his work. "I think primitive man's association with the world we live in was a purer relationship," said Morris. "And I like that."

A streak of Hemingway

Morris is something of a primitive man himself - or at least a guy with some Hemingwayesque hobbies. Along with hiking in the woods and mountains of the Northwest, he spends six weeks each fall hunting elk and deer with a bow and arrow. (He says his hunting skills have improved in recent years; he now counts on a freezer full of elk meat after hunting season and was feeding it to his kids for a dinner last week.) In the past he's trekked to famous cave paintings in France and to ancient stone formations in England with Chihuly. And last summer he rode his motorcycle to Alaska, which inspired him to make glass sculptures of narwhal tusks that look something like stacks of medieval spears.

Given that glass blowing, with its demanding physical requirements, is often viewed as a particularly macho pursuit, Morris says that he sometimes hears people describing his assemblages of bones, spears and cave-man objects as masculine art. He disagrees.

"Some of the elements in my work are not masculine, such as the spoons and gourds," he said. "And I honestly don't view myself as macho . . . But I have always loved the outdoors. For me, that's where it all comes together."