When asked if he identifies more as an artist or a designer, Thaddeus Wolfe seems genuinely stumped. But perhaps it’s that way for anyone working with glass, a material that’s notoriously hard to confine: “I don’t think I’m a great designer,” he muses. “Maybe it’s because I’m not a master of glass yet that I never quite get what I intend. But sometimes cool things happen from mistakes.” It’s a pretty self-deprecating summation of process coming from someone whose chaotic, mysteriously opaque Assemblage vases are the subject of a solo exhibition opening tomorrow at Chicago’s Volume Gallery, which has in the year and a half since it opened become somewhat of a barometer for the Next Big Thing.
Chalk Wolfe’s humble outlook up to a healthy Midwestern upbringing: He grew up in Ohio, the son of an architect, always building small figures in clay. “I did art on my own in high school,” he says, and in some ways he’s been working in a similar fashion since moving to New York nearly a decade ago. While paying the bills with fabrication jobs — terrariums for landscape designer Paula Hayes, or cast-glass pieces for architect Michele Oka Doner — he was constantly making his own work on the side, and it’s only recently begun to see the light of day.
The Assemblage pieces began during a residency at the Creative Glass Center of America in New Jersey, but after seven failed attempts he set them aside. “I made the forms way too crazy,” Wolfe says, resulting in holes or material inconsistencies. When he returned to them almost three years ago in his Brooklyn studio, he began perfecting what’s become a relatively crude, improvisational process. At its heart is a one-shot plaster-silica mold, which means that no matter the planning, each piece remains fundamentally different from the one that came before. Such mixed results can be frustrating — “sometimes the shape is too strange for a glass bubble to fill, and I’ll have to throw it away,” Wolfe says regretfully — but they can also be freeing for Wolfe as a maker, saving him the drudgery of creating the same thing over and over and allowing him a measure of delight each time he breaks open a mold to find the whole thing has worked. The fact that each piece is different and beautiful in its own right is also part of what makes his work so appealing to the outside viewer — and what made it almost impossible to choose the images featured in this slideshow.
Event that inspired you to be a maker: “I’ve made things my whole life, and it provided some solace at times. When I was about five, I wanted to be a potter, which is pretty much what I turned out to be.”
Style movement you most identify with: “Lo-fi. I’m more analog than digital. I practice simple, non-computer-assisted processes.”
If you weren’t a designer, what would you be? “A painter or a ceramicist.”
Thing you love most about New York: “It can be exciting just to bicycle or walk around aimlessly and discover new things. The city is inexhaustible.”
Thing you hate most about it: “Stupidly long lines for everything — lines for shows, lines for bathrooms, obnoxiously long waits on a Tuesday night for restaurants in the middle of nowhere.”
Favorite place to shop for materials: “I usually just go to the local Ace hardware in my neighborhood, on Knickerbocker Avenue. An old-school Italian family runs it. The place is a dump, but they have everything I need — even art supplies.”