Native Nebraskan Chad Fonfara is largely known for his captivating glass blown sculptures, inspired by the inexplicable 2011 event when thousands of dead red-winged blackbirds fell from the sky, littering the streets in the suburban town of Beebe, Arkansas. Chad became transfixed with dead birds when he encountered an Arkansas news story on the buzz created by the phenomenon. The event created a consuming fascination with the possibilities of forms in the bird’s post mortem gestures. It has since inspired new developments in Chad’s practice: begun as a simple method for documenting the glass creations, his delightfully stark digital sketches, sold exclusively through Bicycle Fine Art, have become a beautiful body of work on their own. With this growing collection in mind, we had the chance to talk to Chad about his history with glass blowing, the transition from this medium to his digital sketches, and the inspiration for his work.
Chad was raised on carpentry, and spent much of his early career as a practicing wood sculptor. It wasn’t until 2006, when Chad was assigned to teach a glass blowing course at the University of Nebraska without any previous training in the field, that he was first introduced to glass blowing. He had to teach himself the intricacies of venetian glass at hyperspeed, learning the techniques from class to class, almost in tandem with his students. This accelerated learning is no small feat if you consider the tradition of glassblowing in Mirano, Italy, and the generations of families who take a whole lifetime of patient skill-honing to become masters in the field. Chad, who frequently likens his approach to the dedication of a trained musician, notes “it’s a material that demands attentive and continual practice in order to develop [it], like playing or practicing a piece of music for 2 to 3 hours at a sitting.” As Chad attests, “It can take hundreds of forms just to arrive at that [one] I had in my mind’s’ eye when I first conceived of the idea/concept. This is mostly due to the process of working glass –it is a linear progression that is physically hard, near impossible really, to reverse or dramatically change. Once the glass is pulled, pushed, stretch or marked that move is now imbued in the medium and the chance to change it will come in the next piece.”
As his glass practice matured, Chad discovered a new wave generation in glass blowing, called the “studio glass movement.” Begun in the 1950s and 60s by Harvey Littleton and Dominick Labino, “the movement” developed a method for glass blowing that didn’t just take place within a factory setting. Breaking from the purists’ focus on vessels, they, as Chad notes, “approached it from a purely sculptural medium. No rules.” Chad’s work is a beautiful result of this free form approach, and he revels in exploring the sculptural practice and the multitude of forms and shapes that are possible, with apparent influences shining through from studio students such as acclaimed sculptural glass artist Martin Janecky.
While glass blowing remains Chad’s foundation, his sketches have emerged as a close second, where the bird form becomes translated, and, really, transformed. To make the sketches, Chad spends hours working on the 3D sculptural forms in his studio, chooses the ones with the best shape, and then works out their arrangement together, finding how they might most gracefully lie side-by-side. Afterwards, he photographs the collection to capture this configuration. He focuses on the shapes, the balance between them, and how the gestures of the birds resonate and call for meaning. The meaning for him has everything to do with their form: “the birds on the street evoked an emotion out of me, that was an overlooked fascination with the bird form. Some of them were physically broken…The forms reverted to material. Their bodies lay limp with some feathers disheveled. Internal weight, bone and flesh made tangibly visible beneath the plume. As their bodies were no longer defying gravity their slack forms revealed their complexity. This made a visceral connection to the shared physical attributes of our bodies and a fragile living state.” He notes, “I usually work best when I am not trying to follow an exact sketch….I allow myself to do the idea of the bird, being more concerned with what is happening in the process.” According to Chad, he likes to focus on “just pure form and the interplay of those relationships.” To achieve this, he visually blocks out anything that may distract the viewer from the shape of the bird. Discussing the process, he says, “I try to reduce the colors down, the colors of the birds are solid anyway. But with the print I try to flatten it out even more to get rid of the 3D. I make the shadows and the colors flat.”
“Empty Prophets,” for example, is modest, subtle, and eloquent –evocative of something familiar but still striking. The focus plays with a limited set of neutral tones that are dark and almost black. Set against an entirely white background, you see the forms less as outlines of bird bodies and something closer to abstract shapes. The white background makes the sketch airy, and opens up the number of places that it could be hung. All of the sketches are a beautiful contrast to a vibrant room, and yet also complement neutral tones. They are complex without being dark.
Recent works like “Repercussions” and “Quelled” display Chad’s most masterful, and divergent, explorations to-date.
In “Repercussions”, Chad shows a new ease in creating the “fantastical,” as he puts it, dispersing the figures throughout the frame and creating resonant, almost sinister, creatures from his usually melancholy birds. In the “Quelled” sketches, Chad plays with scale and depth by shifting and layering bird silhouettes, illuminating a more sophisticated pathos. The birds’ necks appear bent, as though they were tired, or looking to something beyond the frame. The piece suggests an endless number of birds, huddled together, with what looks to be mournful camaraderie enveloping the mass. Their gestures are human, engendering an overwhelming sense of solidarity between observer and subject — a theme Chad has been developing since his glass work began. Chad’s plan is to investigate these experiments into the mystical and humanoid further in adventurous spatial relationships between the birds. At the end, as Chad says, his objective is simple: “The touchstone for these pieces, is the outright vulnerability of these forms.”
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