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Studio Visits: Sculptor Norwood Viviano

Norwood Viviano uses glass to tell stories about the urban landscape. His glass work, which spans nearly 30 years, uses a data-driven approach to personify changing cities. A city’s history – and the people who make it – are the foundation of his work.

Stateside took a trip to Viviano’s studio on the campus of Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, where he teaches. The studio is spacious with 20 foot ceilings and a garage door. Equipment is affixed with wheels, allowing them to be moved easily depending on which class is in session.

Glass blowing is a type of sculpting that involves taking a large pipe and molten glass from a furnace. Molten glass is at the end of a pipe and the sculptor blows through the pipe to make shapes out of the molten glass before it hardens. For Viviano, blowing glass is like a dance.

“[The] whole experience is about [a] kind of choreography. It's a very visual experience,” Vivano said.

Now, Viviano works with a kiln — different from a furnace — but still thousands of degrees in temperature. To use the kiln, Viviano uses heat protective gloves and a leather coat, but after working with heat for so long, Viviano hardly notices it.

“I think it's just you get accustomed to it and you realize that, you know, every once in a while you do burn yourself. Usually not very badly, but every once in a while.”

Working with glass using a kiln is a careful practice. Viviano must slowly fill plaster molds inside the kiln with pieces of glass to prevent cracking or damage to the machine. He said that glass is “a humbling material to work with.”

“I could make the same piece twice, [but] it never comes out the same way. I could make the same piece twice, and one of the pieces could crack. … And so I try to be really responsive as I'm working on a project. I try to really respond to what I'm seeing.”

In his series Recast, Viviano used intricate molds and tiny pieces of glass in the kiln to create images of urban skyscrapers. The cityscapes sit on top of the industry that the city is or was known for. Detroit sits on a V8 engine block; Chicago on Morton salt. To determine the size of the final piece, Viviano uses census and geographic data.

For his blown glass work, Global Cities, Viviano charts population over time – the most bulbous part of a piece shows a city’s highest population, and points on the piece show areas of population decline or growth

Viviano has worked with other mediums like bronze, aluminum and wood, but he said that glass is a great medium to tell stories about our cities. Just as the glass gets shaped by the mold and other outside materials like tools, gloves and newspapers, our cities are also shaped by the people and industries that make them.

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April Van Buren is a producer for <i>Stateside</i>. She produces interviews for air as well as web and social media content for the show.
Lauren Nyong joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023 and is a Junior studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Calvin University.