Inside a converted warehouse south of the James River in Richmond, a white-hot flame darts wildly from a hand-held torch. Sean Donlon, standing at a long workbench, holds the torch in his gloved hand. With the other, he coolly, continuously turns a teapot that minutes before he blew, shaped and assembled from three hollow glass tubes. The intense heat reaches 3,000 degrees, sealing connections between the pot, spout and handle while smoothing out imperfections. With the blow-hose mouthpiece still between his teeth, Donlon continues the conversation.
“I used to want to make each piece absolutely perfect,” explains the 31-year-old artist. “But when I got to that point, I thought it was a little boring.” He started changing details—exaggerating the curve of a spout, punching in and pushing out the body, “owning the ability to manipulate it to what you want it to be,” he says.
Bringing a sense of movement and life to the familiar teapot is just the first step. Equally unexpected, these clear-glass objects take on the illusion of polished silver, a look Donlon achieves by applying a reflective coating to the inside, similar to that on the back of a mirror. He removes any lingering functional associations by mounting his teapots in dynamic, sculptural wall compositions.
From a distance, the playful installations become glittering abstractions. Up close, teapot contours emerge, but not the traditional kind. “They’re misshapen, mis-formed, some are wrinkled, melting, drooping,” the artist says with affection. “I kind of look at teapots as a metaphor for people. We all have perfect parts and imperfections.”
It might be said that Donlon sees the world—and his art—in the teapot. “It’s a universal object that people of all nationalities and languages can identify and understand,” he notes. His contemporary expression has been recognized with honors. In 2016, the first year he entered Richmond’s Craft + Design show, Donlon won best in show. And at the 2019 Smithsonian Craft Show, again his first time exhibiting, Donlon garnered the award for New Directions: Excellence in Design of the Future.
The artist made his first teapot seven years ago, after graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a major in Craft/Material Studies. There he advanced his glassblowing techniques, using flame-working to shape molten glass rather than employing a furnace as the primary heat source. He remembers the curriculum as “very concept-heavy,” an approach that plays down utilitarian design in favor of ideas. “I thought of the teapot as a boring, mundane object,” Donlon reveals in disbelief, his crystalline-blue eyes wide open. “It wasn’t until getting out of school that I realized the teapot was actually a really beautiful, staple craft in America.”
He recalls that after fabricating his first teapot, “I was hooked.” Lessons learned as an undergraduate were not lost. Within a year, he had mirrored and hung teapot installations, realizing, he observes, “my own idea of intertwining elements of craft and concept.” After traveling on a fellowship to Lauscha, Germany, and to an invitational class in Murano, Italy, he integrated European influences into his technique.
Now working in a studio shared with seven artists, Donlon retreats to an enclosed space to assemble individual components of his wall pieces. He just completed one commission measuring 13 feet long for the Metropolitan Gallery in Austin. Another major installation hangs in Richmond’s Quirk Hotel. The circular arrangement, which comprises more than 100 teapots and teacups, appropriately adorns a dining area. Standing before the sparkling piece, Donlon comments on the way its silvery surfaces reflect the colors and activities of its surroundings. “I like that as you move close in and walk past it, you see yourself distorted in the reflections and can interact with the piece in a subtle way.”
The artist’s latest work wedges exuberant teapots into nine- and 12-inch-square frames. The exaggerated forms slink, droop and dissolve upside down in corners—an homage to the drawings of Donlon’s maternal great-grandfather, a cartoonist in Germany.
While he was growing up in Springfield, Virginia, Donlon’s parents encouraged his interest in art. His mother, a former fiber artist, had a studio at the Torpedo Factory. His father, who worked at the State Department, shared a hobby painting miniature soldiers with Sean and his brother.
Donlon discusses his own evolving art with enthusiasm. “I feel like I’ve just touched the surface of using the teapot as a sculptural element,” he says. “I’m excited to see where that goes.” He compares its potential to the myriad impressions created by his teapots over time. “As the light changes throughout the day, you can see how the piece changes,” he reflects. “It’s not always what we think we see that’s right in front of us, but what it turns into.”
Sean Donlon’s art is represented by Page Bond and Quirk galleries in Richmond. seandonlondesign.com