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What to see at Refract glass arts festival, celebrating innovative Pacific Northwest glassmaking

Editor’s note: Given the persistently high COVID-19 case count, COVID-19 protocols and other details for events are subject to change. Please check your event’s website for COVID-19 requirements and the latest information, and heed local health authorities’ safety recommendations as they’re updated.

What do you know about glass art in the Pacific Northwest? If you have any kind of connection with art, you likely know that our region is internationally recognized as a creative hub for innovative glassmaking. But, outside those circles, that reputation may not be common knowledge. 

According to Debbie Lenk, executive director at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, “the history of glass in the Pacific Northwest is as significant as any number of the things that people already associate with the region — aviation, coffee and technology — it’s just that few people know about it.”

And that’s where Refract, the newest glass festival in the country, comes in, hoping to celebrate and draw attention to our region’s studio glass movement and the fact that more than 700 glass artists and 100 glass art studios have set up shop in Washington state.

Launched in 2019, Refract had one big splash before the pandemic. Last year’s festival — like so many arts events — was scaled-back and mostly virtual. Now, understandably, Refract’s organizers are using enthusiastic promotional phrases like “Refract is back!” and “Refract makes its triumphant return.”

There is much to be enthusiastic about, with more than 50 events taking place Oct. 14-17 in Seattle, Tacoma, Issaquah, Everett and Bainbridge Island. The programming reflects a desire to include established aficionados and newcomers alike, with events ranging from high-end, ticketed gatherings to free, hands-on workshops to the big opening-night party at Chihuly Garden and Glass (one of the key organizers of the festival). Live demonstrations are being held at Seattle Glassblowing Studio, Pratt Fine Arts Center, Schack Art Center and glassybaby, among other venues. And the list of artists participating in Refract is impressive, with world-famous names like Lino Tagliapietra and Dale Chihuly, and unique artists like Carol Milne, who has invented a casting process to create knitted glass.

Among other studios, I’m planning on visiting Radiant Neon, the Belltown studio of Alleson Buchanan whose work, according to a statement, explores “body positivity and the divine feminine, infused with some general play and silliness.” Check out Refract’s handy map of studios, which lays out North End studios (open on Saturday, Oct. 16) and Central and South End studios (open on Sunday, Oct. 17).

Many exhibitions, big and small, have been timed to open during the festival. The one-room Method Gallery continues its practice of hosting cutting-edge installations with Seattle’s first solo show of work by Morgan Peterson, a glassblower, cold-work and mixed-media artist. In a statement, Peterson describes her exhibition — “Born of Our Culture / American Excess” — as “an immersive, visual experience inspired by true crime.”

Scaling up a bit, Stonington Gallery presents “Luminosity,” a three-person show that sheds light on the special relationship between Northwest Native art and studio glass art. Preston Singletary (Tlingit), Raven Skyriver (Tlingit) and Dan Friday (Lummi) use varied techniques to explore their Indigenous heritage and the idea of transformation, which is also a fundamental trait of glass art.

“Reflecting Diversity” at the Seattle Glassblowing Studio stands out as a group exhibition that, according to the curatorial statement, intends to “bring awareness to the diverse skills, background and talents of glass artists who experience disabilities.” The show of work by 10 artists was organized by Ann Potter — a flameworking, hot-glass and mixed-media artist whose health issues require the use of a wheelchair — along with the Seattle Glassblowing Studio, and with support by such venerable institutions as the Glass Art Society and Pilchuck Glass School.

Pilchuck’s presence can be felt throughout the festival, with many artists claiming connections with the esteemed glass education center, located in the gorgeous foothills of the Cascades.

Pilchuck and the Museum of Glass co-organized “What Are You Looking At?,” an exhibition of work by artists selected for the partnership residency program between Pilchuck and MOG, which has been ongoing for 18 years. As the title suggests, the exhibition will highlight inspiration and process — what artists observe and learn from others as they develop their work. Co-curators Benjamin Cobb, MOG’s hot-shop director, and Benjamin Wright, Pilchuck’s artistic director, will present experiments and prototypes made during residencies, along with work that reveals the artists’ broader artistic practices.

Lenk, MOG’s executive director, commented on the spirit of collaboration that underlies both that exhibition and the glass world at large, saying, “The glass community is a tightknit group. That’s certainly echoed here in the Pacific Northwest. Organizations have a history of working together to support each other and nurture artists, but we haven’t collectively come together to tell the story of glass in the Northwest to those outside of the industry.”

“Refract,” Lenk says, “is the perfect opportunity to shine a light on the creativity that’s been evolving here for decades.”

Refract: The Seattle Glass Experience

Fifty events taking place Oct. 14-17 in Seattle, Tacoma, Issaquah, Everett and Bainbridge Island; masks required in all indoor spaces and each organization may have additional COVID-19 requirements; more info: