The Gift of Portraiture by Dinah Hulet

An interview by
Shawn Waggoner
Glass Art Magazine
Sept/Oct, 2000

Like the Alexandrian glass of ancient Egypt, the glass treasures of Dinah Hulet will eventually be discovered.

Hulet has mastered techniques developed between the 1st Century BC and the 1st Century AD, around the year one. During this period one of Egypt's major exports was glassware, and Alexandria was famous for its manufacture of elaborate, expensive glass aimed at the upper class market in Rome and elsewhere. The most desirable type of Alexandrian glass was made up of what we now call millifiore or murrine, segments of patterned glass sliced off of a pre-made glass rod or cane. The technique of combining simple elements to make a complex design is called "mosaic glass", Hulet's specialty.

The artist began making glass face canes in 1992, which she used in marbles and beads. But a call from Hulet's mentor inspired and challenged her to push her technical abilities and aesthetic approach to a new level. In 1996, after a year of experimentation, Hulet had created a detailed portrait cane of Paul Stankard, a turning point in her career.

Currently the artist is working on a larger scale. She makes glass "cubes", which measure 1.25" high, 1" wide and 1.5" deep. She doesn't stretch the cubes as with traditional canework, because she wanted to expand the size of her image. Instead, Hulet assembles the cubes at nearly full size to create a portrait in glass which captures all the emotion, life and mystery of the human face. Her piece, "Into My Life There Came a Man Named George", represented a leap forward in her work and, more importantly, inspired a new level of intimacy between viewer and subject.

In June, Hulet presented slides and a lecture on her work at the Glass Art Society conference held in Brooklyn, New York. She has instructed at UrbanGlass, Brooklyn, New York, Penland School of Crafts, Asheville, North Carolina, and at various other conferences on paperweights, beads and marbles. Her work appeared in New Glass Review 20, the Corning Museum of Glass publication, and can be found in the permanent collections of The Bead Museum, William Warmus, The Corning Museum of Glass, Robert Liu and Paul Stankard.

In the following conversation with Glass Art magazine, Hulet discusses her technical and aesthetic approach to mosaic glass, and the evolution of her work into its current portrait form.


GA: What is the appeal of the portrait to you?

DH: Everybody is intimately familiar with the human face. The eyes draw me in; the whole world is reflected in the eyes. People have asked me why I don't do landscapes or still life or other kinds of imagery. To me, in the human face, and in the eyes, you can see reflected all the landscapes and all the other imagery in the world. Looking at that person, being drawn in to a narrative with them or beginning to wonder who that person is - that's what motivates me. I try to develop my own answers to those questions. My goal is to challenge the viewer to establish his/her own relationship with the subject. Many times people are so focused on my process. But technique is only a part of what I do.

I provide the face - you provide the story to go with it.

GA: You have master's degrees in both music and library science. How and when did you begin working with glass?

DH: I was on the faculty at the University of Idaho as a humanities for a year until I realized that wasn't what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I quit and moved to Denver where my boyfriend Rob was a chemist at a rubber company. He had gone to Georgia Tech when Godo Fräbel was a scientific glassblower there. Inspired by what Fräbel was doing, Rob set up a torch, and eventually I started experimenting with it too. Once I started selling some of my glasswork, I never went back to the real world.

I was in Denver for about 12 years where we had a small gallery. In 1984, I took my daughter and moved to California where my sister Patty was raising her daughter in the San Francisco Bay Area. I moved in with her, and one day when I was doing glasswork in the garage, I told her, why don't you quit your job (she was a medical administrator), and let's go someplace really nice and just do glass. She surprised me when she said, "OK". We moved up to where we are now, on the north coast, right on the ocean. We've been working on glass and raising our kids here ever since.

Patty does some of the production work, all of the business functions and all of our photography. She allows me the time to work on the canes.

GA: What was your work like in the early days?

DH: The first pieces I made were with soft Italian glass, which we imported ourselves. The customs complications made that too frustrating, so I switched to working with clear borosilicate, which I continued to do for about 10 years. My work at the time was similar to Fräbel's or Milon Townsend's - sculptural work, sometimes as large as 4 feet tall, some representative, some abstract.

GA: When did you first become interested in historical murrine and millifiore?

DH: In 1990, and in 1992 I began working on the idea of creating mosaic glass face canes at the torch using soft glass for use in marbles and beads.

Early Murrine Glass of Dinah Hulet
Early mosaic glass face canes(1992-95), Dinah Hulet. PHOTO: Patty Hulet


In 1995, I decided to attempt a detailed portrait cane in the manner of Giacomo Franchini's incredible miniatures using Paul Stankard as my subject.

In the middle of the 1800's in Venice, Franchini, a beadmaker, began creating mosaic glass imagery in the manner of the Ancient Egyptians. It had taken only 1,800-plus years for this technique to be re-discovered. He created a cane of a rosebud by starting with a simple design and adding additional details to it to build a more complex cane. He then went on to create a series of seven incredibly detailed miniature mosaic glass portrait canes of contemporary Italian political figures. His portrait of Count Cavour is about 1" in diameter. After completing his last portrait, one of the Emperor Franz Joseph, Franchini was placed in an insane asylum, where he died, and the secrets of how he created his amazing portraits died with him.

When I began to make my first portrait cane, little did I realize the difficulties and frustrations I would encounter. I spent countless hours developing a palette of colors, having to mix glasses to arrive at an adequate range of skin tones, and then I had to determine a method of attack. Like the ancient Egyptians and Franchini, I made separate canes for each feature. I then combined them in stages adding hot glass as I worked to build the shading and the form of the face. Slowly, after many, many failures, the face emerged, and after a full year of working on the project I placed the finished portrait in Paul's hand.

Paul Stankard Murrine Cane created by Dinah Hulet
Portrait cane of Paul Stankard (1996), Dinah Hulet. PHOTO: Patty Hulet


I followed up the Stankard piece with several more small portraits. As I was working on these portrait canes I became interested in creating "lover's eyes", based on the miniature paintings of eyes derived from the portrait miniatures that were popular in the early part of the 19th century. Portrait miniatures were the snapshots of the day - they were small portraits usually painted on ivory intended to be carried around when one traveled or to be worn as broaches or pins.

GA: How did this work evolve into your current process?

DH: After the lover's eyes I decided to return to the Egyptian mosaic glass technique and to investigate the ideal of making what I call half canes, which are mounted together, side-by-side to complete the imagery. First I did a series of four Egyptian-inspired faces and used some fused cane components along with the lampworked face. I followed that with two insect pieces.

Continuing with the idea of using multiple slices taken from a single mosaic glass cane, I did a portrait study using repeated imagery. I then took the concept another step further with a geometric piece, where I mounted multiple triangle-shaped cane slices to create the illusion of depth.

"Aaron" Murrine Portrait by Dinah Hulet
Continuing with the idea of using multiple slices taken from a single
mosaic glass cane,
Dinah Hulet created this portrait study using
repeated imagery (1998). PHOTO: Patty Hulet

And then it occurred to me - I was using this mosaic glass technique in the manner of glass mosaics, where separate pieces of glass (called tesserae) are arranged so that they build an image. I was not only combining separate elements to make a complex design within a single cane of glass -- I was then combining these complex cane slices to form another, larger, even more complex design. This realization caused me to completely rethink the work I had been doing.

GA: Can you describe your process?

DH: Coming up with the imagery is step one. Generally I work from a face that affects me emotionally or that I have a strong response to. It doesn't have to be the face of someone I know, though generally it is. I sketch the face and scan it into my computer where I can play around with color and how I want to divide the face according to the grid. I print out several different versions, some with the grid work, some without, and cut the image into rectangles. I put away all but one rectangular section of the whole face, which I use as a pattern as I'm working. I have a finished picture of the whole face in front of me as I work, but I focus more on the singular rectangle. As I'm making the piece, I try to disassociate that little rectangle as being part of a face. I don't want to be thinking, I'm working on an ear or some specific part. I want to treat the rectangle as an entity unto itself.

I then set about building a series of preplanned rectangular canes or more accurately "cubes". Before I start, I come up with a palette of colors, mix them and pull my canes. I label the colors to correspond to a master sheet. I work more from the reference sheet rather than depending on what I'm looking at. Many times when I mix colors, I don't know what the color is going to look like once it's inside the cane and has been annealed and sliced.

Mosaic Glass (Murrine) Component Cubes by Dinah Hulet
Dinah Hulet's glass cubes, 1.25"h x 1"w x 1.5" deep
(1998). PHOTO: Patty Hulet

As I build these cubes at the torch, I cannot see the detail of line, color and form that I'm sculpting three-dimensionally within each of them. It is only after the glass is annealed, when I slice into the cube, that the imagery I constructed on the inside is revealed. Remember the image is inside the glass, not on the surface. I don't stretch the glass cubes down to a smaller size because my intent is to expand the size of my image - not to miniaturize it.

I refer back to my paper rectangle to see if I got what I wanted. Sometimes I have to do as many as five different versions to get exactly what I'm looking for. It's not until I have all the pieces lampworked, sliced and laid out that I see the actual image of the face. The sliced cubes are adhered to a base frame with silicon adhesive. I want space between each of the rectangles in the grid so the viewer can see the sides of the canes, because there's imagery there, too.

"George" Mosaic Glass (Murrine) Portrait by Dinah Hulet
"George" Dinah Hulet, lampworked mosaic glass(murrine) cane slice
assemblage,. PHOTO: Patty Hulet

A fiction author shows you his characters through the use of words, and then it is up to the reader to visualize how they look. I am presenting the viewer with a visual image, and the viewer can come up with the words to describe the character he/she sees. I have my story (a very interesting one) - what is yours?

I followed up "George" with Lynn: Image/Self-Image", using as my subject a combination of the faces of my mother and my daughter. I limited myself to a palette of blues and black in order to set a mood and to develop a tone-poem in glass.

""Lynn: Image/Self-Image" (detail),
Dinah Hulet, lampworked mosaic
glass(murrine) cane slice
assemblage, 2000.


GA: How has your use of color evolved over the years?

DH: In 1998, I was commissioned to do a portrait of an abstract-expressionist painter and decided to work with a more exciting, bold range of colors. Then when I was teaching at Penland two years ago, I was expressing my frustration with color to Mary Ann Zotto who was teaching the drawing class during that session, and she casually said "Look back at the Fauves" and so I did. The Fauves were a group of young avant-garde artists at the beginning of the last century that grouped themselves around the painter Henri Matisse. One of them, Andre Derain, said they "treated colors like sticks of dynamite, exploding them to produce light". A somewhat shocked critic called them Fauves, the French word meaning wild beasts, and these artists then adopted the name and used it proudly.

Color study of th Fauves (detail), Dinah Hulet, lampworked mosaic
Color study of th Fauves (detail), Dinah Hulet, lampworked
mosaic glass(murrine) cane slice
assemblage,. PHOTO: Patty Hulet

I am an autodidact (meaning self-taught) when it comes to both glass and art, and it is said that the problem with autodidacts is that they tend to have really crummy teachers. Well, I decided to use the Fauves as my teachers for a series of "etudes" focusing on the use of color. I was not interested in creating a likeness of these individual artists but instead I wanted to use the paintings themselves as my subjects -- to make portraits of the portraits -- I wanted to focus on their inappropriate use of color and the way that color was applied as a series well-defined shapes. In working on these four faces, I became interested in doing another smaller piece based on Henri Mattise's portrait of his wife, Madame Matisse. Here I constructed the portrait in a single cane within which I varied the colors of the background, so that as I stretched the cane to reduce the size of the image, the transition between these color variations was blended . It is interesting to see the changes that happen to the face with the use of different colors to the background.

GA: Can you talk about your most recent work, "The Men of Alexandria Make Glass"?

DH: When I was invited to speak at the Glass Art Society conference, I decided that I wanted to create a new piece that would reflect my work with glass, my interest in history and the fact that we were all there, fascinated by and involved with glass, in the 21st century. This piece took five months to create.

Let's look back again at ancient Egypt, to the 1st and 2nd century AD, and to a location south of Alexandria -- to the Fayum. The Fayum, one of the richest and most important provinces of Egypt, was a very lush agricultural region only about 150 miles south of Alexandria. Large quantities of grain and papyrus were produced there, and then sent by boat up the Nile to Alexandria and exported on to the entire Roman Empire. Various goods were then brought back from Alexandria to the Fayum area. Among these goods was glass -- indeed at one archeological site in the Fayum there was discovered over twice as much glassware as has been found at any other single site in Egypt. Another very significant archeological discovery of this period, and located primarily in the Fayum region, are the famous mummy portraits. A major exhibition of mummy portraits closed in May at the Metropolitan Museum.

These wonderful mummy portraits were painted in tempera or wax on canvas or on thin wooden panels that were then mounted over the face of the mummy. It is believed that these portraits represent the Egyptian elite -- those who could afford to have their portraits painted and their bodies mummified after their death, and those who were most likely to have had beautiful Alexandrian glass in their homes. Remember, this was during the time of the initial development of glassblowing. Just think, these were most probably lips that drank from some of the earliest blown glass vessels. These wealthy citizens would also most likely have been early collectors and patrons of mosaic glass that was used as decorative inlay in their furniture and wall pieces.

I decided to select from among the more than 100 ancient mummy portraits, two as models for my newest portrait. It's difficult, without the class distinctions of clothing, jewelry and hairstyles, to distinguish the faces of these affluent Egyptians from the Alexandrian glassworkers.

I created a double portrait of two fictional ancient Alexandrian glassworkers -- one, who, like me, created time-consuming, labor-intensive mosaic glass, and the other, who was captivated by the newer, exciting and much more immediate technique of blown glass, a development that contributed to the loss of the older mosaic glass technique.

"The Men of Alexandria Make Glass . . . ", Dinah Hulet,
"The Men of Alexandria Make Glass . . . ", Dinah Hulet, lampworked mosaic glass(murrine) cane slice
assemblage,. 10.5" x 20.5", 2000. PHOTO: Patty Hulet

In doing my research on the mummy portraits I came across a great quotation: "Immortality is the gift that portraiture bestows upon the portrayed." Look beyond the technique I have used, past the grid, and see the faces of these men who are looking back at you from 2000 years ago. Think about another group of people (maybe glass lovers like us) that may gather together in the year 4000 to look back at the studio glass movement at the beginning of the 21st century and wonder what life was like for us.

With this work I encourage artists to do whatever they can to nudge the boundaries of glassworking outward and to further expand the possibilities of what can be created out of this remarkable substance we call glass.


Glass Art Magazine Logo