Art Glass: A fresh, new take on a 3,000-year-old art form

If you’ve loved Italian art glass for years, have collected it with passion and thought you knew all that there was to know about it, think again. This beautiful art form has been reborn and is attracting fresh interest from collectors world-wide – thanks to the unique talents of a master artisan of Japanese origin – Yoichi Ohira. His “songs in glass,” which marry both the ancient 3000-year-old Japanese ceramic art form with Italian Murano glass-making techniques are causing “glass fever” that is nothing short of contagious. To see a Yoichi work of art in glass is to want to touch it, to own it and to cherish it for its simple, elegant, yet complicated beauty.

And now you can. At the upcoming Pier Antiques Show, Nov. 15-16 on Pier 94, 25 of the master’s most sought-after early pieces along with five stunning, new departures from his traditional mosaic style, will be offered by art glass specialist Odetto Lastra, a collector and dealer in fine glass for over 38 years. And it’s an offering that is certain to bring out collectors in the numbers! Prices for Ohira’s work are skyrocketing. If you purchased an Ohira piece in the early 1980s, you are very satisfied, indeed. That same jar would command $28,000 in today’s market – more than doubling your investment. Ohira’s success has added a whole new chapter to the Italian art glass story – re-energizing the market with beautiful, serene works in exquisite hues that delight the beholder.

Born in Japan in 1946, Yoichi Ohira grew up fascinated with the play of light on glass, rock crystal and water. Around the age of 20, he read a novel by the noted Japanese author, Hiroyuki Itsuki – a novel about the love between a Japanese glassmaker and a blond Finnish glass dealer – that was to change his life forever. The novel describes in extraordinarily poetic terms the character’s fascination with art glass – how he felt through his glass, “music without sound.”

But his music was destined to be very different. He set forth on a personal journey through two very diverse cultures, starting in Tokyo as an apprentice at the Kagami Crystal Company and moving on to Venice where he would live and work for more than 25 years. In Italy, he would meet Egidio Costantini, known for his glass sculptures, who then introduced him to Murano glass circles – a wonderful opportunity for this young, visionary glass artist. In 1978, Ohira graduated from the Accademia di Belle Arte with honors and received the highest possible grades for his degree thesis, The Aesthetics of Glass.

Soon after, he decided to venture in new directions. He daringly took two opposing traditions – Oriental aesthetics and traditional Italian glass techniques – and fused them into one. In the process, he elevated the art of Venetian glass making to new heights. “Ohira’s pieces are very complicated and difficult to execute,” explains Lastra. “Yet, they are simple and elegant in their final form. There are very few glass artists who can do this – use such little pieces of glass to make an organic, beautiful whole. “The moment you take one of these pieces in your hands, you can truly appreciate the work and thought that have gone into the making of it … it’s like a new language.”

Often called the Maestro of Mosaic Glass, Ohira creates his vases using murrines (pieces of glass), which is a centuries old technique. These small glass “windows” invite light in, where it glitters and beckons your eye, forcing you to see the object as a whole. It is the area around these windows that astounds the viewer. Ohira magically integrates the feeling of Japanese porcelain and wood into glass. And, there are some surprises – vases that look as though they were carved from wood, but are actually glass; other where the glass appears to be a rough, earthy clay. His use of color is remarkable. He mixes mediums using primary colors next to glass that emulates the grain of wood, embedding patches of bright opaque color that draws your eye to the base. And as Barry Friedman of the Friedman Gallery writes in a recent article, “One never tires of looking at his work. Each piece stands on its own merit and ‘sings’ its Japanese-Venetian song.”

The five new pieces Lastra will bring to the Pier Antiques Show once again demonstrate the artist’s ability to depart from the expected. The five translucent, colored glass bottles and vases are elegantly styled and refined – created by the artist for Cleto Murari, a leading Italian architectural firm. The set of five pieces is valued at $25,000. Ohira’s success at merging the tradition of Venezia and Tokyo has been rewarded with international acclaim. His silent songs in glass are now being heard.

Show hours for the Pier Antiques Show are Pier 94: Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Pier 92: Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is $15 for both Piers, which are located at 52nd to 55th Streets and 12th Avenue, New York City. Contact: 973-808-5015. Details and dealer lists at www.stellashows.com.

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