Nature Into Art: Judi Harvest’s Glass Still Life

installation view

by Barbara Rose 
Judi Harvest fell in love with hand blown glass and Murano, where it has been made since the Renaissance when she visited Venice for the first time as an art student in 1973. Drawn by the art and architecture of Venice, she moved there in 1987 as a painter who had studied in the best art schools where glass making was not taught even as a minor art. The following year, she met glass master Giorgio Giuman, with whom she has worked in Murano for 30 years, translating her painterly concerns with color and light into glass equivalents.
Previously, she had spent 20 summers on the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily, where the volcanoes and black sand made a great impression on her. In 1992 she created a glass volcano filled with the black sand of Stromboli—an utterly ambitious idea to which Giuman replied: “nothing is impossible.” The dramatic Stromboli Vase was her first Murano glass sculpture and the beginning of her lifelong love affair with the medium. For Harvest, the similarities of Murano glass and painting are the liquid quality of the materials and the high degree of skill and experience involved in controlling them. Glass making fascinates her because of the contrast between the initial fluidity of the material and the solidity of the finished object. Often the results are surprises, which Harvest cultivates as part of her adventure. She sometimes works years until a piece is finished. But, she says of the arduous process: “It is magic. They are precious jewels when they come out of the furnace.”
The blown glass centerpiece she has created for The Gritti Palace, the emblematic Venetian luxury hotel on the Grand Canal, is a summation of her interest in the history of Venice, which has been a center of glass making since the ninth century when the practice was imported from Byzantium. At its height, Murano was visited by royalty, popes and leading businessmen—all attracted by glass “à la façon de Venise.”
The idea of creating a still life in glass refers back to the decorative still life mosaics found in the homes of prosperous Romans, which depicted foods enjoyed by the upper classes and functioned as signs of hospitality and as celebrations of the seasons and life. In the late 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci created watercolor studies of fruit and by the 16th century, food and flowers again appeared as symbols of the seasons and the five senses. The great baroque painter Caravaggio was among the earliest practitioners of the independent still life with his 1595–96 Fruit Basket. By the 18th century, religious and allegorical connotations of still life paintings were dropped, and kitchen table paintings evolved into calculated depictions of varied color and form, displaying everyday foods, often as trompe l’œil exercises. The French aristocracy employed artists to execute paintings of bounteous and extravagant still life subjects that graced their dining table, but without the dour moralistic Vanitas message of their Dutch predecessors. 
For The Gritti Palace, Harvest has created a glass centerpiece inspired by Caravaggio’s still life. Transforming nature into art, Harvest’s Centrotavola Veneziano is an elaborate glass basket filled with blown glass fruits and vegetables grown in the Venetian Lagoon; a real vessel that holds three-dimensional objects. The basket and its contents are not alive in the sense of conventional still life, but are creations of the artist’s imagination. They shimmer with light and translucent color, but no matter how appetizing the fruit appears, no one in their right mind would try to eat one. This play on illusion and reality is more extreme in its deception than trompe l’œil painting. 
Creating this centerpiece was a special endeavor for Harvest. In the 19th century, elaborate, festive centerpieces were seen by the aristocracy as a celebration of beauty and wealth. Embodying this sense of allure, Harvest’s Centrotavola Veneziano for The Gritti Palace is a masterful homage to the history of Murano glass and the ancient form’s namesake island.

Barbara Rose, Ph.D is an American art historian and art critic.
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