Toots Zynsky

by Beverly Copeland, Editor & Publisher, Glass Focus

Toots Zynsky Mary Ann Toots Zynsky was born in Boston in 1951 and received her BFA from Rhode Island School of Design in 1971. She is internationally known for her innovative use of colored glass thread to form graceful vessel shapes in a profusion of glorious colors. Her distinctive heat-formed filet de verre (glass thread) vessels enjoy a widespread popularity and deserved acclaim for their often extraordinary and always unique explorations in color. Defying categorization, her pieces inhabit a region all their own, interweaving the traditions of painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts. Zynsky says, “I like glass because it breaks, it sticks to itself, you can blow it, you can bend it.”

More than 100 items about her work have appeared in catalogues, books, magazines and newspapers, including The Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Glass Focus. Articles have also been published in Paris, Milan, Belgium, Germany, Amsterdam and Japan, etc. Since she began showing her work in 1973, she has exhibited widely, both in the United States and abroad. Her work is included in more than 40 public collections including The White House Collection, Hokkaido Museum, Japan and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In 1984, her work was the first piece of contemporary glass commissioned and acquired by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Toots ZynskyZynsky first became enthralled with glass while touring the RISD campus, as a painting and sculpture student. She states, “ At the end of the tour, I first came upon the glass department which was a very tiny place. It was in one of the old glaze rooms of the ceramic department. That day, the doors happened to be open, glass was being drawn through the air, the furnaces were roaring, and everyone was having a very lively time. I was very taken by it. By coincidence, the next week after school ended they opened the shop to anyone who wanted to try working with glass. I was standing at the doorway when one of the guys saw me looking in and invited me to have a try. I did and I loved it! The following spring (1971) Toots Zynsky
Dale Chihuly was going out with some people to start to build Pilchuck. He asked me to be part of the team. It sounded so exciting. I was part of the original team that built Pilchuck. It was a wonderful adventure! We built for six weeks and during the seventh week, we started to blow glass. I still think that one of the best ways to learn about glass—and to start to have a deep understanding of it—is by blowing it. You learn that you have to work with glass, that you can’t just impose your desires on it, because it’s always doing something on its own. Glass moves, it’s hot, and you have to be moving with it.”

Zynsky quickly became frustrated with just working on the blowpipe. In 1980, she became assistant director and head of the hot shop at the New York Experimental Glass Workshop in New York City, which is now known as Urban Glass and located in Brooklyn. At the Experimental Glass Workshop, she brought together her interests in barbed wire and glass. “I wanted to make a vessel that was a perfect heavy glass, a simple crystalline object enveloped in barbed wire,” she says.

Toots ZynskyThe pieces she creates today are created from many single strands of glass. She describes her process, stating, “The glass thread pieces were originally done by pulling glass thread in the traditional manner, you stick two pipes together with a blob of hot glass in the center and then run in opposite directions across the floor. One day a friend visited the studio and couldn’t believe what he saw. It was so medieval! Within 24 hours he had invented a machine that pulled glass to thread. Colored canes of glass are fed through the machine. They get pulled and then they’re glass threads!”

Toots ZynskyZynsky and Mathijs Van Manen collaborated on the development of the glass thread-pulling machine. Now incorporating sophisticated electronics and custom software, these unique machines,which make thread in a manner not unlike how glass optical fiber is made, are still used by her. She says, “There is no secret to my technique. It’s just a bunch of different colored glass threads, which I select and then put in the oven to fuse. Then the fused piece is put over a mold and the form starts to slowly round out. Each piece goes onto four or five different molds. Then the fun begins, and I start doing the forming and squeezing…there is no secret to this at all. It’s a bunch of glass threads. Anyone can make it.”

Toots Zynsky
In early 1983, Zynsky set off on a three-week trip to Europe, and she ended up staying there for 16 years. Settling in Amsterdam, she also spent time in Murano, Ghana, West Africa and Paris. In 1999, Zynsky and her family moved from Europe back to the United States, establishing themselves in Providence, Rhode Island where Zynsky lives and works today. Zynsky, who was born Mary Ann, once considered using her given first name, because she thought it sounded more professional. She was in a show with Dale Chihuly at the time and they were making up the show advertising posters. One day she got a call from Chihuly and he says, “Toots, what’s this nonsense? They’re trying to put Mary Anne on the poster.” Zynsky says, “I started to tell him about Toots not sounding professional and he said, “Cut it out. Toots is a great name, use Toots.” And she has, ever since.

Excerpted from Glass Focus, Interview with Toots Zynsky, June/July 1997
also “Masters of Studio Glass: Toots Zynsky” by Tina Oldnow