Kari Minnick's
A recent sculpture is composed of curved-glass planels that have undergone at least four firings.
Pieces like
A diptych titled
Minnick begins by applying paint over sheets of manufactured glass.

Painting with Glass

Kari Minnick's luminous work distills abstract designs into translucent layers of color

Kari Minnick’s lyrical abstractions cast a shimmering haze over the concept “clear as glass.” Broad brushstrokes sweep across diffused areas of color in her luminous works. From a distance, the flat wall panels hanging in her studio could be mistaken for paintings. Those panels and curved variations, standing on a table nearby, are predominantly opaque—blocking much of the light, but none of the beauty, associated with the allure of glass.

“I wanted a richness and intensity. Letting in tons of light can wash that out,” Minnick explains about her unconventional approach, which channels light selectively. She likes to embed a sliver of transparent glass, sending a blast of light through opaque designs, like a sorcerer controlling nature and art.  

“That’s the magic of glass,” observes the artist, whose enthusiasm remains undiminished after two decades working with the medium. “It’s exciting to have transparency and opacity in each piece. And shiny, matte and tactile choices too. The nice thing about glass is you can have it all—or at least a lot more than with paper or canvas.”

Minnick knows about those media as well. After studying painting and drawing at UC Davis, she was a painter for a dozen years. “I love that I can return to my roots and get that extra dimension in glass,” says the artist, who draws on her arsenal of tools and skills in recent work, which she happily refers to as “paintings on steroids.” 

The new pieces take shape in her loft-length studio in downtown Silver Spring. On a worktable up front, she composes designs from a dizzying selection of manufactured glass sheets, spaghetti-thin rods (“stringers”) and chunks and powders (“frits”). Before glass particles or imagery are applied, she brushes a loose wash of black or white paint over sheets of clear glass. Once arranged, the composition is fired in one of five electric kilns at the back.

If pleased with the results, Minnick fearlessly proceeds to cut up the sheet, arranging selections with others measured from solid glass sheets as in a collage. The composite design is returned to the kiln. If Minnick finds any stage unsatisfactory, she repeats the process, and often ends by using a hand cutter or saw to reduce large sheets down to one or more smaller compositions. The outtakes, saved in a bin, may be retrieved for use in future work.

When Minnick began experimenting with paint six years ago, she wanted to achieve a painterly look entirely with glass. To do this, she sifts glass powders onto the glass surface, then pushes the particles around or runs a palette knife, a comb or even a piece of paper through them to get a brushstroke effect. Working with stiff particles to produce a fluid appearance can prove daunting, as she learned. “I’ve gone from being a total purist to using paint in a minimal way,” she says. “Finding the right balance has the best outcome.”

Most pieces are built up in three layers: a designed sheet, plus one or more opaque and transparent sheets in solid colors. The entire process requires at least four firings, each overnight. Controlling the temperature is critical, as successive firings must integrate and fuse the latest step without undoing the ones before. The hottest temperature comes first (1400 degrees Fahrenheit), gradually lowered until the final surface texture is applied (1300 degrees). In a secondary process, Minnick sometimes shapes, or “slumps,” the corner of a panel at still lower heat (1200 degrees). 

Every new series involves a battery of preliminary technical tests. “Five degrees in either direction can make a difference,” Minnick points out, adding with a grin, “There’s a certain mad scientist aspect to it.”

The maximum size of a single work is limited by the dimensions of a kiln shelf (20 by 40 inches). However, Minnick assembles larger compositions from small designs, especially in commissions such as “Chain Letter, ” a wall sculpture that joins six parenthetical shapes in a 45-inch-long row. The artist also groups related works, as in the diptych “Careen.” 

That pairing was drawn from Minnick’s first series of abstractions. The artist’s slow evolution away from representational images culminated in 2010, after she attended her first artist residency at North Lands Creative Glass center in Lybster, Scotland. While others in the program sketched local buildings and interiors, Minnick became absorbed with an abandoned boat, turned upside down next to a pub. 

“I was taken with the paint peeling off and how many layers there were, the wonderful staves and curves, and the way everything went together,” Minnick remembers.” It seemed an opportunity for a painterly and architectural treatment. She took many photos and made lots of drawings, but wasn’t sure what to do next. 

Back in the studio, the “eureka” moment hit when she viewed the images on a computer screen. “I zoomed in and found the most beautiful compositions,” Minnick recalls. “It was a way of taking the information and distilling it, breaking it down into parts. Instead of a literal homage to a boat, I took sections and made panels of them.” As she soon recognized, “Abstraction opens up a whole new world!” 

Tina Coplan is a writer in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Photographer John Woo is based in North Bethesda, Maryland. Kari Minnick will exhibit at the Smithsonian Craft Show from April 25 to 28, 2013.  For more information on her work, visit kariminnick.com.