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In Waiting for Nightfall, glimmering, 17-inch-tall forms are assembled in a graceful arc.

Two views of Baer’s "Turning Leaves," shown here and in next image, reveal how colors change in a single sculpture when seen from different angles. Photo: Rhoda Baer and Adam Auel

Baer composed that 2010 color-laminated sculpture from rounded pieces of glowing glass. Photo: Rhoda Baer and Adam Auel

In her more complex 2021 Wolf Moon Rising (shown from four perspectives), clear-glass squares and rectangles glisten in tones of yellow, oranges and blue. Photo: Rhoda Baer and Adam Auel

Seated at a worktable in her Bethesda studio, Baer marks spots to refine after having shaped and laminated pieces together. Portrait: Adam Auel

Fields of Light

Rhoda Baer’s radiant sculptures move glass to a higher plane

A  continuum of light surges through Rhoda Baer’s dynamic career. The stacked, pivoted and cascading glass sculptures she creates gleam with chaste beauty. Depending on the time of day or direction of a light beam, colors shift from faint to intense, or disappear completely as the viewer moves around each geometric piece. And a sense of mystery deepens.

“With what I do, there’s a conversation going on between the glass and the light,” says Baer, sitting in the living area of her luxuriously spare modern home in Bethesda. “I’m intrigued by how light interacts with glass, how light interacts with colors and how people interact with the sculpture.” Baer designed the lighting as well as the installation for her first solo museum exhibition, “View from Within,” at the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center from June 17 through August 13.

This fascination with light didn’t begin when Baer first cut a piece of glass in 2005. At the time, she had a successful career as a photographer with a roster of corporate and editorial clients. “Photography is all about light,” she observes. “And these sculptures come alive with light.” From the moment she started working with glass at a Glen Echo Park workshop, Baer says, “I understood it and I could see the possibilities,” adding, “Everything I had learned up to that point informed the glass.”

Since then, her glass art has evolved, becoming larger—up to 19 inches tall—and increasingly complex: composites of pure, solid blocks that appear as floating volumes. At first, Baer created colorful glass panels with a feeling of fluid movement. Reflecting on these early pieces, she says, “I think my intent was always to get more sculptural; I was moving toward sculpture on a flat panel.”

In 2010, Baer took a class in color-laminating at the Corning Museum of Glass. That cold-working process involves cutting and bonding together pieces of glass; it differs from such hot-glass techniques as glassblowing or kiln-forming, the method Baer had used until then to heat up and fuse her tabletop-size panels. 

Turning to color-laminating, she constructed glowing mounds from glass sections joined at narrow, colored seams. “I was exploring what happens in the intersections, how one color influences another as it interacts with the light,” she notes. Next, small disks were arranged in pillars, poised on rectangular or cylindrical bases. Like a juggler balancing elements in mid-air, the sculptor then rotated individual parts on one another or on their bases. Altering the stacking relationship, she says, “changes how light interacts with the whole piece.”

All parts come together in Baer’s lower-level studio. The soaring spaces, formerly used for photography, can easily be converted back—for example, to take the photos shown in this story. 

While glass sculptures often have a shiny surface, the artist favors a soft, matte finish that scatters the light. To achieve it, she begins by using a diamond-bladed saw to cut blocks of optical glass, the purest and most transparent type, into varied sizes and shapes. Connecting surfaces are ground flat and smooth before they are glued together with a colorless, museum-quality epoxy called Hxtal. For color—blues and oranges are favorites—mineral pigments are dissolved into the epoxy, then filtered to eliminate any air bubbles or imperfections. As a piece progresses, surface refining continues with tools and hand pads embedded with diamond particles; as Baer notes, “I grind and shape and grind and shape, then I grind again.”

Describing the optics behind her enigmatic art, she explains, “Color is in the seam and only in the seam. Because of the finish, color flows through the glass.”

Once a piece is complete, its entire surface is treated again to be certain the finish is semi-opaque and identical throughout, allowing colors to disperse evenly. Baer has shared her technique with other glass artists; few give it a try. “It’s so time-intensive,” she acknowledges. “Gluing these colors down is an insanely precise process. A whole lot can go wrong and often does when I join two pieces together.” A single sculpture generally requires 12 individual laminations; each takes about seven days to harden. To ensure a uniform line of color during that stage, Baer builds wood platforms with intricate glass crossbars that protect each lamination.

On a recent visit, one sculpture on her worktable had been underway for several months. Reviewing the steps, she says, “I cut up pieces of glass and move them around the way a child would play with blocks—stacking them, taking them apart, cutting them up and stacking them in a different way.” 

Photos document the sequence for future reference. “I don’t know where the ideas come from, but I know when a piece is complete,” the sculptor affirms.

Commenting on Baer’s “superlative technique,” Jack Rasmussen, director and curator of American University Museum, says, “She has perfected a way of presenting light in very simple and elegant forms. It takes the medium to a higher realm, becoming a kind of glowing presence that moves you. It’s gorgeous.”

“View from Within” is open from June 17 to August 23 at the American University Museum; american.edu/cas/museum. For more information, visit rhodabaerglass.com.

 

 

 

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