Artist Casey McMains has made a name for herself through her intricately carved cameo glass vessels. Her interests in mythology, symbolism, comparative religion, and history have strongly influenced the themes and perspectives in her remarkable works. While her process is rooted in old-world craftsmanship, it is implemented with a decidedly contemporary perspective. After meeting Todd Merrill in 2017, the two collaborated on the concept of a cohesive collection of works with a distinctly narrative direction in a Gothic style, using the poetry and stories of Edgar Allan Poe as the genesis.
The art of cameo glass dates back to the the Ancient Romans and was produced in two periods; between around 25 BC and 50/60 AD, and in the later Empire around the mid-third and mid-fourth century. While the practice fell out of fashion for a time, the 19th century saw a revival of cameo glass, suited equally to Neo-Grec taste and the French Art Nouveau. It was largely promoted through the efforts of Thomas and George Woodall for Thomas Webb & Sons.
McMains’ painstaking process, which requires her to implement a number of disparate skills, begins with the creation of a “blank,” the name for the body of the vessel. First she creates the vessel through glass blowing with multiple layers of colored glass fused through a technique called a Swedish Overlay. Once the layers of colored glass are in place they are blown and shaped into its ultimate vessel form. McMains states “When I am blowing a piece of glass, I am connecting with the piece as I create it. There is an intimate and individual connection to it that truly transforms that bowl, that vase into a symbolic icon. The process of blowing glass allows me to transform that symbolic icon into something different, something deeper.” McMains looks to historic vessel forms for inspiration for each works specific shape. Before carving McMains spends time with each blank, sketching ideas and creating a roadmap for a final image.
The action of bringing out the image and revealing the individual layers of glass is done through direct carving. In reduction, the work is actually built up. McMains uses a very traditional technique of hand engraving allowing for a much greater range of results, textures, gradual fading, and a more organic feel then modern sandblasting techniques produce.
McMains’ works have been celebrated for their dynamic imagery and meticulous balance between form and image. She believes that the form of the vessel gives shape to the image and the image gives life to the vessel. “When someone handles the piece; to touch and feel the art, another connection is formed with the artwork and the viewer; with the viewer and the artist,” she says. The alchemy of glass work, with its reliance on each of the four classical elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) is of particular interest to McMains. In working with glass she has found a certain kind of magic – sculpting with light and shadow, transparency, translucency and opaqueness to create something both timely and timeless.