by Nancy E. McCarthy
Camillus glass artist Stephen Brucker took the leap in 2022 to sell his glass sculptures and objects full-time. Soon after, he was juried into the prestigious Smithsonian Craft Show: an annual exhibition and sale of contemporary American crafts and design in Washington, DC.
“For American craft artists, this is the pinnacle of recognition,” said Brucker who felt incredibly honored and excited about the opportunity.
Jurors, experts in the fine crafts field, selected 120 artists from a large pool of more than 1,500 applicants. Artists are chosen for originality, artistic conception and the quality of their work.
The term “craft” conjures images of hobbies (think crocheting, origami, decoupage or wood carving). Fine craft is about artistic excellence in working with a particular material. The Smithsonian show features artists who produce one-of-a-kind and limited edition works by hand. Media considered include ceramics, decorative fiber, glass, jewelry, leather, metal, paper, wearable art and wood.
Brucker was one of five glass artists accepted into the May 2023 show. His glass works focus primarily on forms and structures found in nature and align with themes signifying home, inclusion and equity.
Jackie Campbell of Camillus is an avid collector and longtime friend. “Stephen’s work combines fragility with strength, which is why I am so drawn to it,” Campbell said. “The amount of time, care and expertise is plainly evident when you look at any of his pieces.”
Favorite works she owns include an ornate spherical sculpture (“I love the texture of it and the way it catches the light.”), a transparent tree ornament with delicate branches (“To me, this piece represents strength.”) and a sandblasted opaque feather with a pinkish tint (“Stephen’s feathers remind me of hope.”).
Hope, but also despair, was the backdrop of Brucker’s childhood and young adulthood. His journey to become the accomplished glass sculptor he is today was not a quick or linear path.
A long and winding road
Brucker, 56, is a lifelong artist, starting with copious drawing and making found objects into sculptures as a child. He grew up on a cattle farm in Westmoreland. The farm’s staffing consisted of his father, Brucker and his brother. Beyond attending school, Brucker had scant time for art-making or anything else.
The upside was the strong work ethic instilled in Brucker. An effective time manager, he found a way to fit in playing trumpet in his school’s music program. But there was a
“As a young gay male growing up on a cattle farm in rural Upstate New York, I endured constant harassment and bullying,” said Brucker. The forests surrounding the farm became his protective sanctuary – even from his own family. Today, trees are a recurring theme in his work. “They are the structure that supports home and hope,” he said. To Brucker, trees represent places of refuge and reflection.
An art career was out of the question. His parents steered Brucker firmly towards a business degree at Herkimer County Community College. In 1991, after graduating with an associate degree, majoring in travel and tourism, he worked for resort hotels in Florida for nine years. Brucker’s hospitality industry career in its entirety would span 33 years while art took a back seat.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 impacted tourism substantially and was a turning point for Brucker. He moved back to New York and pursued a bachelor of fine art at SUNY Oswego with a studio sculpture concentration and minor in art history. He funded that through student loans and working at hotels.
At Oswego, Brucker began sculpting by casting metals. He relished the analytical thinking about the three-dimensional object, creating a multi-piece mold around it, removing the original object and then filling the negative space to create a second object. Brucker started with aluminum, then tried bronze, then iron. “Although I enjoyed the casting process, it would yield objects that were heavy, dense, dark and, for me, lifeless,” he said.
So Brucker tried plaster, then molding fabric and eventually thinner and thinner paper. It wasn’t until he visited a Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) exhibition in 2004 that he saw glass as a sculptural medium.
Brucker went on to pursue an MFA at RIT with a studio sculpture concentration and minor in glass sculpture. He was living in Syracuse, managing three hotels and commuting to Rochester for classes on his days off.
As a beginning glass artist, Brucker experimented with different glass types and various forms of manipulation – furnace working, flameworking, coldworking, casting, fusing and slumping. His preferred technique is flameworking: forming objects from rods and tubes of glass that, when heated with gas-fueled torches in mid-air by hand, become soft and can be manipulated into a desired shape. His glass medium is borosilicate (which is also used to make sturdy Pyrex cookware).
Brucker views his borosilicate glass sculptures as a metaphor for his lived experience as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. “They create a perception of delicacy and frailness that often parallels common misconceptions about members of my community,” Brucker said. But borosilicate is an exceptionally strong glass that resists thermal shock while allowing fine detail. “Metaphorically, my work, much like my community, appears delicate. However, by design, there is an unseen strength and durability that belies its aesthetic appearance.”
It took seven years but he earned his MFA in 2012.
A new chapter
In 2014, Brucker began working for Corning Museum of Glass (CMOG): the esteemed institution in Corning that collects, educates, preserves and shares the experience of the art, history and science of glass. He served in different roles at CMOG including community relations manager and flameworking instructor.
By then, Brucker was living in Camillus with his own fully outfitted flameworking studio and domestically partnered with Dr. Jean-Francois Bedard, a college professor. Moving to Corning was not an option but the two-hour commute wasn’t feasible. So, he rented an apartment in Corning and returned home on weekends.
Brucker continued to create his own glass works. He squeezed in a few fine craft shows a year to sell his work and began to make a name for himself. In 2019, Brucker received the Best in Glass award at CraftForms, the internationally juried contemporary fine craft exhibition at the Wayne Art Center in Wayne, PA. He also participated in Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) juried shows in Rochester: the Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition, Clothesline Art Festival and Fine Craft Show.
“Stephen’s flameworked borosilicate glass sculptures are skillfully executed with creative designs and interesting forms in clear and colored glass,” said Charlotte Herrera of Webster, a passionate advocate and collector of fine crafts. “I continue to be impressed with the level of his work, his continuing exploration and development of techniques and in teaching others.” Herrera, a long-time MAG board member, co-founded their annual Fine Craft Show and coordinates the annual event with other gallery volunteers.
It’s been a year since Brucker left CMOG and he couldn’t be happier in his hard-won role as a full-time working artist (and living in one place!). Brucker has participated in about 20 northeast shows this past year. His reputation and clientele continues to grow.
The path has not been smooth as glass but through his own resilience and persistence, Brucker is living the creative life he’s always dreamed of.
The Artist’s Process: Creating a Glass Tree Sculpture
Brucker starts with a thought that he conceptualizes into a three-dimensional object that conveys the message of his idea. It’s the most time-intensive part of the process. “I map out the size, shape and external texture of the work in my head before I begin,” Brucker explained. He thinks through the steps involved to produce the work and makes pencil sketches of the object.
Active production begins by melting borosilicate glass rods with a 4,000-degree torch flame. For a tree sculpture, Brucker makes the smallest pieces first, such as roots and branches. They are later joined to other component pieces to eventually arrive at the finished work.
He heats and shapes the tree trunk from a glass rod and adds three large roots for support. The piece is slowly cooled down over nine hours in a kiln. Once cooled, Brucker welds the secondary roots with a small hand-held torch. The roots must fit within the confines of the glass dome that will cover the sculpture. Then he adds branches to the upper portion of the piece, making sure the canopy fits.
The pin-point angle of the torch is important. Unintentionally warming other parts of the sculpture can cause the work to droop, sag or fall apart.
The completed piece is returned to the kiln and heated to 1,150 degrees for 30 minutes (removing any internal stress from the making process). Then the annealing cycle begins by lowering the temperature slowly to room temperature.
More information can be found at stephenbrucker.com.