Like an orchestra conductor, Marlene Rose is at the center of her glass casting workshop, overseeing a carefully coordinated production that yields each piece of sand-cast glass.
“The process is very labor intensive,” says the artist, who uses this relatively rare technique to create luminescent glass sculptures depicting African masks, Buddha heads, monastic bells and butterflies, as well as abstract work layered with symbolism. “The technique is new for glass, but it’s based on an ancient bronze casting technique.”
She creates these dense but translucent structures in a multistep process. First, Rose makes a mold for the glass, sculpting the prototype out of a substrate, like polystyrene foam, clay or wood, which can take days for each piece. Then, she presses the sculpture into her “sand box,” making a sand mold.
It takes an orchestrated effort to make the next step go off without a hitch. Several assistants use ladles to pour molten glass into the mold. Rose must be on hand with a blowtorch to keep the glass at a consistent temperature so that it all fuses seamlessly.
“It’s a beautiful, flowing dance. There’s not a lot of verbal communication, but it’s all choreographed. There’s an art to keeping the piece from cracking,” she explains, adding that a large sculptural piece might require six ladles to fill its mold. “Between the first and the sixth ladle, there’s a lot of time that the glass is cooling. You have to be fast, read the glass and do a bunch of torchwork to make sure it doesn’t crack.”
The intense, nerve-racking process could also be halted by a typically insignificant occurrence—a bead of sweat or someone’s sleeve brushing the glass could destroy a work in progress. “There’s a million ways that the glass could potentially crack,” she says.
Despite the level of difficulty, Rose has mastered this technique over the decades. Now her work appears in tony establishments, such as the Ritz- Carlton in Hong Kong, as well as in prestigious collectors’ homes and yachts. Some pieces fetch a cool $80,000.
Rose is represented by nearly 20 galleries across the United States, from Miami to California, Montana and Massachusetts, as well as in Toronto, Canada. She also operates her own showroom in Clearwater, Florida.
One of her biggest wins was when Fay Gold, a famous gallerist from Atlanta, who has represented Robert Rauschenberg and Jean-Michel Basquiat, asked Rose to be in the inaugural show at her new gallery.
Rose will share the show with photographer Edward Mapplethorpe, younger brother of famous photographer Robert, at Fay Gold Gallery in April. “Fay is an icon in the art world,” Rose says. “She’s represented some really big names.”
And to think Rose almost passed up a career in glass. She says she just wasn’t interested in the medium when she was earning her Bachelor of Fine Arts at Tulane University.
“It intimidated me, quite frankly, as it was—and is still—a male-dominated field. It’s very dangerous and very physical,” Rose says. “I also wasn’t interested in perfecting a craft skill like glassblowing. I was drawn to sculpture and painting— using material to communicate an idea.”
She avoided it for as long as she could. “I figured I’d try it and just get it over with,” Rose says, laughing. She immediately connected with her professor, Gene Koss, who still teaches at Tulane. “He was different—a sculptor who found glass, rather than using glass as a functional medium. He was truly ahead of his time.”
Rose learned how to sand cast just years after the technique was developed. She was hooked. “I love the team effort, the intimacy of working in the mold, the sculptural aspect. I feel like I’m painting when I’m working in the sand, then there’s the experimental nature of the technique,” she says.
The visionary sand-cast technique manifests in Rose’s workshop as unique, vibrantly colored, luminescent sculptures. Between her hand-sculpted molds, color variations in the glass and the sand that remains embedded in the pieces from their time in the sand box, no two are the same, and they are stunning.
Alaena Hostetter is a Dallas-based journalist who writes about her favorite things: art, design, culture, music, entertainment and food.