Featured image (top) © James Schnepf Photography for American Craft Council (2012)

Sea Glass: Artist overcomes fear of diving with exquisite results

What does water look like when you’re immersed in it? Can you see wind? Artist Shayna Leib began exploring these questions about a decade ago when she embarked on “Wind and Water” – her series of intricately hand-crafted glass sculptures that appear to flow like anemone tentacles moving with an incoming tide. She says:

“Wind and water possess no intrinsic color, are clear to the point of invisibility, and yet move through space. We see not their form itself, but can detect their patterns and shapes only vicariously though the objects they affect. The trace of water’s touch over moss and sea life, the wind’s passage over marshlands… – these two forces make their presence known. Their character is contradictory and fickle, encompassing fragility and violence, placidity and turbulence.”

"Andaman" (2010): 22" H x 40" L x 6"D, 
Photo © Jim Gill

“Andaman” (2010): 
22″ H x 40″ L x 6″D, 
Photo © Jim Gill

To a scuba diver – or really any ocean lover – it’s immediately clear that the soft, vivid bodies of marine invertebrates inspire much of Leib’s remarkable work. What is not apparent, however, is that the artist herself spent much of her life afraid of the water – even the deep end of a swimming pool. Even then the colorful shapes and flowing movements of marine life fascinated Leib, if only through the glass of an aquarium tank. But that was not enough. Leib sought to observe these captivating organisms in nature, and six years ago she finally confronted her fear and became scuba certified. Leib not only gained access to a previously hidden world of inspiration, she discovered a new side of herself: “I’m calmer and calmer the deeper I go. It’s serenity, and it’s bliss. It’s just the most wonderful thing in the world.”

“Two Seas” (2012): 24"H x 44"L x 7"D,
 Photo © Eric Tadsen. “Two Seas” is the literal translation of the country of Bahrain, located in the Persian Gulf – one of Leib’s “dream dive destinations.”

“Two Seas” (2012): 24″H x 44″L x 7″D,
 Photo © Eric Tadsen. “Two Seas” is the literal translation of the country of Bahrain, located in the Persian Gulf – one of Leib’s “dream dive destinations.”

Much of Leib’s series highlights the tiniest visible elements of undersea ecosystems as they move with currents and tides. Coral and anemone tentacles, nudibranch cerata and seagrass are all represented in larger-than-life compositions that transform rigid glass into flowing movement, reflecting the invisible forces of wind and water. “My visual concept of beauty has always been fractal,” Leib says. “I am intrigued by multitudes of tiny little parts, like blades of grass all bending in the wind to the same rhythm. As you pan out you have waves of form. Zoom in and you see each individual blade of grass moving to the flow of the wind.”

"Meniscus" (detail) (2007): 12"L x 2"W x 5"H, Photo © Jaime Young

“Meniscus” (detail) (2007): 12″L x 2″W x 5″H, Photo © Jaime Young

Although she became interested in glassblowing at age seven and minored in glass while earning her bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Calfornia Polytechnic University, Leib didn’t focus on it as a career until beginning her MFA in glass and metal at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2000. Having found her calling, she is a skillful, independent and patient artist. With only one assistant, Leib spends hours of intense labor creating custom-colored and hand-pulled canes of glass that she then slumps, cuts and affixes into intricate arrangements. One four and half-foot by two-foot wall sculpture might contain 40,000 individual pieces of glass.

"Diablo" (detail) (2006): 4"H x 38"L x 5"D, Photo © Stephen Funk

“Diablo” (detail) (2006): 4″H x 38″L x 5″D, Photo © Stephen Funk

Leib says she meditates to visualize a piece from start to finish before beginning to build it. Much like the calm she experiences while scuba diving, the sense of peace and purpose Leib feels when starting a piece seems to allow her to improvise and let the composition develop organically: “I can’t work one area, then skip over and work on a spot in another area. I have to chase the edge, see how it unfolds.”

The natural and soft appearance of Leib’s work contrasts with the hostility of glass as an artistic medium. From fire, molten glass and colored frits she is able to create quite an opposite effect. As Shirley Koehler puts it, “There is a transformation through chaos.”

“Cirrhipathes anguina”
 (2007): 
40" H x 10" W
, Photo © Tom VanEndye

“Cirrhipathes anguina”
 (2007): 
40″ H x 10″ W
, Photo © Tom VanEndye

Leib believes that her work has changed as she has become a more experienced diver. She has begun creating large freestanding sculptural pieces and seems to have picked up a bit of marine invertebrate taxonomy as well. Her “Cirrhipathes anguina” (2007), freestanding at over three feet high, explores the barbed wire-like structure of its namesake species of black coral, which is prized (and threatened) by the jewelry trade. A more recent work – “Crevice” (2011) – stands six feet high and allows viewers to experience the piece from all sides as a diver might.

"Crevice" (2011): 
72"H x 18"W x 7"D, 
Photo © Eric Tadsen

“Crevice” (2011): 
72″H x 18″W x 7″D, 
Photo © Eric Tadsen

Her fascination with wave motion reflected in sea life has also inspired Leib to explore ways of illustrating waves and currents themselves, as in her “Stiniva” pieces. On her website, Leib writes, For 6 years now, I have been creating works in the Wind and Water series, and it wasn’t until I visited Croatia a year ago that I had the urge to directly depict the water itself. Up until now, my goal has been to capture the flow of water vicariously through anemone-like landscapes.” She continues:

“During a sailing trip, I came upon one of the most beautiful and remote coves on our planet, Stiniva Cove on the island of Vis in Croatia. I dove off our sailboat, swam a quarter of a mile in high surge, through the narrow opening to the cove, and stood upon a beach renowned for its high cliffs and crystal clear waters. The color of the water was unlike anything I’ve seen before, part blue, part green, part white. This piece is one of five I am working on in an attempt to capture the beauty of that experience.”

"Stiniva 1/5" (2011): 
19"H x 30"W x 8"D, 
Photo © Jim Gill

“Stiniva 1/5″ (2011): 
19″H x 30″W x 8″D, 
Photo © Jim Gill

With such a vast “ocean” of inspiration, Leib’s Wind and Water series could become as widespread and diverse as its subject matter. It will be exciting to see what she dives into next!

Stay tuned for Leib’s new body of work coming out this year, focusing on another aspect of water movement.

For more on Shayna Leib’s work, visit her website.

By Courtney Mattison

Featured image (top): Shayna Leib in her studio. © James Schnepf Photography for American Craft Council (2012)

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