Sara Pierdonà meets Italian glass artist, Lilla Tabasso, and discovers the inspirational story of a woman who, driven by artistry and childhood obsession, taught herself the traditional, highly skilled and physically demanding technique of Murano glass.
In Lilla Tabasso's studio, on a simple wooden table, lies a clod of earth from which, in poetic disorder, brushwood, tufts of oats and garlic flowers that seem yellowed by the sun, protrude. Only when you get close do you realise the deception: the earth is actually chalk covered in glass dust, and the grass stalks are Murano glass.
This particular work is inspired by Tuscany and intended to recreate the strong impression of warmth, of Mediterranean nature, of 'summer’, that Lilla felt the last time she was there (and managed to collect a couple of flowers to copy).
Lilla's exquisite glass works require creative vision and extreme technical expertise; it is astounding, while listening to her story, to discover that she learned these skills virtually single handed, on her own. "The first ten years were hard," she admits. Now the glass obeys her without resistance, but rather, bends to her 'impressionist' taste. "I am attached to realism and verisimilitude," says Lilla. "But the most important thing for me is the hidden meaning: the beauty of decadence, the beauty of fragility...".
How did you come to glass?
It was love at first sight for me, and a passion that, after 20 years, shows no signs of abating. Looking back, I can glimpse episodes that anticipated the 'discovery.' I come from a family of artists and antiquarians, and I remember that when I was a child, my father used to take me to Bruno Amadi, the famous Venetian master, to buy tiny glass crabs and cuttlefish, which enchanted me. As an adult, I became fond of certain naive art objects (often called 'crowns'), produced mainly in France by cloistered nuns as religious ornaments and decorations for village festivals. They were made from glass beads, and I started collecting them. Perhaps inspired by them, I started going to Murano to buy beads and assemble jewellery, and so it began.
What happened next?
The jewellery I was creating already tended to emulate natural forms, but technically, they were much more basic and, being accessories, were not suitable for conveying deep poetic meaning. Gradually, I moved from jewellery to pure works of art. There wasn't enough time to do everything, and I had to choose what to devote myself to: I chose the thing I loved the most. Of course, it was also the most difficult.
How did you learn the technique?
It was a very hard path, almost entirely self-taught. The right place for an apprenticeship would have been Venice, but my family was in Milan, and I could not move. Also, it was no surprise to me to realize that the craftsmen of Murano are a restricted guild, suspicious of newcomers. In addition, glass art is a physically demanding job, hence the skepticism that it was suitable for a woman.
To learn, I took an initial four-hour lesson with a master from Murano, then began practicing alone for hours on end. Five years later, I had another lesson, which was actually a kind of interrogation: I kept asking the master how I could achieve a certain effect or a certain color... Basically, I told him all the problems I had not been able to solve on my own after years of trying.
Where do you work?
Each work takes weeks to be finished, and of course, it takes space, also because I always want the flowers to be life-size. It seems unbelievable, but I used to work in my bedroom: my daughters were small, and I worked while they slept, so I organized myself to do everything within the walls of the house. I dream of one day having an atelier inside a greenhouse, immersed in a forest, completely surrounded by nature... It would have to be an old greenhouse, say early 20th century, made of wrought iron.
What challenges have you faced in production?
Many techniques are only acquired after a great deal of experience. When it is hot, Murano glass has the consistency of honey, and the gestures must become automatism in order to work. And then there is color, which is a challenge in itself: in contrast to what happens with pigments, where, for example, mixing blue and yellow results in green, fusing blue and yellow glass results in a streaked compound, with both original colors still present. Therefore, to get closer to realistic colors, one must proceed by layers. Moreover, when glass is worked, it is always orange because it is incandescent, and if one does not know from experience what shade it will take after cooling, it is impossible to predict the final result.
Who or what most inspires you?
After I have chosen a flower, I spend a lot of time studying it: I make sure to see several specimens or document myself with photographs because I have to understand, for example, how the bud is attached to the stem and all the other details that are overlooked at first glance. However, it is never the flower or the plant per se that inspires me to start a work, but rather abstract concepts: transience, the imperfect, death. I have done a series of works with pieces of concrete: it always moves me when I see flowers growing on cracks in the sidewalk or from cracks in the stone. I find it a sublime metaphor for endurance and tenacity.
A moment that changed or defined your career?
Years ago, I had already started making my own works, and to be honest, I thought I was doing pretty well. Then someone mentioned to me the work of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, whom I did not know, and my mother gave me their catalogue. Glass craftsmen originally from Dresden, they made more than 4,000 specimens of extraordinary verisimilitude for the Harvard Botanical Museum in the late 19th century. They were a thunderbolt: I realised that technically I had to reach the same level as them. In those days, their creations were checked under the microscope to make sure they reproduced every detail correctly. I did not need to be so 'scientifically accurate,' but I aspired to the same mastery of the matter.
Have you visited the collection at Harvard?
Yes, and it was incredible! I cried. I was travelling with my daughters, but I couldn't tear myself away from the museum. I went back again and again.
What is one goal you have achieved, and one yet to be achieved?
Obtaining recognition from the artisans of Murano, who had been so wary at first, was a great satisfaction. As if to apologize, they told me that, at first, they were convinced it was some sort of artistic hobby for me, and that they had not understood the sacrifice and dedication I was putting into it. Regarding plans for the future, I am aware that there are realities to which I should direct my ambitions, for example, the Corning Museum in New York State, which represents absolute excellence in the field. But I can never focus much on career goals: it is more natural for me to fantasise about how to progress artistically and improve my work. For example, I would like to increase the format and get to reproduce large-leaved plants like water lilies or even trees.