Elements of everyday life and nature inspire glass artist James Vella
by FAITH DAWSON
Glass, temperamental and fragile, is born in the furnace at Vella Vetro Art Glass and Custom Design, and shaped and perfected in the hands of its owner, James Vella. The studio is dim, loud and unbearably hot, but the delicate sculpted flowers and gossamer-thin Italian-style vases speak nothing of their untidy origin.
But even the daintiest of pieces comes from the humble studio and intense physical work, Vella says, and this is the part of the job that he enjoys most. Vella, a Denver native who attended Hastings College in Nebraska to play football, pursued art and education degrees. It was during graduate school at Hastings that he discovered glass blowing. After that, professionally speaking, he put down the paintbrush and picked up the tube.
The artist combines blown glass with sculpted elements to create individual fine art pieces (“fine” as in, “That’s one fine-looking oyster poor-boy”—which looks quite tempting in glass) and custom work, as well as pieces for other artists and restoration work for chandeliers, clocks and similar items. His exhibit “In the Garden,” which was recently on display at Ann Connelly Fine Art in Baton Rouge, represented his love of flowers, plants and still lifes. But these flowers were more than impressive: At 3 1/2 to 5 feet in diameter, the overgrown specimens belonged in a jungle rather than a New Orleans garden.
This summer, nature will give way to second nature —dining, toys, household furnishings—when Vella starts a monthlong residency and ultimately installs an exhibit at Glashütte Eisch in Frauenau, Germany, a town where he has taught for several years.
“Lately I’ve been very interested in the concept of a still life, and how whoever looks at it, whoever views it, gets to make up their own little story about it. I’m going to do a lot of elaborate table settings and food, all made out of glass,” he says. “That will symbolize the decadence of adulthood … toys in the corner will symbolize childhood—it will actually be a little journey through life.”
Vella arrived in New Orleans to work at Studio Inferno almost a decade ago as a gaffer (a master glass blower), nurtured his creative impulses by dedicating one day a week to making his own art and bought Inferno’s glass-blowing business about three years ago. Because Vella Vetro still operates at Inferno’s location and maintains a workload for some of Inferno’s clients, Vella honors the groundwork that was laid since its 1991 founding. But he separates his work from that of Inferno: While his style is influenced by 16th-century Venetian style, his look, he says, will be no look. And that will be Vella Vetro’s signature, he says: to have people assume a piece originated there because it doesn’t look like it came from anywhere else.
While he praises his assistants, Vella also looks forward to the summer’s activities. “Being around other [glass artists] really tends to inspire me. The time I take off away from my shop every summer inspires me because I’m working with other people, I get to watch other people work—which I never get to do in my shop—I get to share ideas.”
Vella Vetro’s furnace closed in early June (“Once it’s shut off, you feel so helpless. A painter can always paint”) and will reopen in August. But the break won’t find Vella sitting idle; his schedule includes three exhibits, the residency at the Frauenau glass factory, and a short but intense stint at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. Then—and this part is crucial—comes an honest-to-goodness, roughly 10-day break during which he will spend time with his wife, garden, perhaps golf or fish, and ultimately get bored and anxiously await the return of the blowing “season.”
“My wife has it down on the calendar,” he says. “I’m halfway tolerable for seven to eight days.” •
James Vella, Vella Vetro, 3000 Royal St.,
2nd floor, 948-0414, www.vellavetro.com