Story by Sandra Davidson
Rob Levin is a glass artist and sculptor based in Burnsville, North Carolina. Like so many artists in the Toe River region of western North Carolina, Rob was drawn to the area by Penland School of Craft, where he first fell in love with glassmaking. He moved permanently to Burnsville nearly 40 years ago, and has since built a career of international renown that’s included two North Carolina Artist Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Fellowship, and acceptance into a number of esteemed collections around the world (the Museum of American glass, the Contemporary Glass Museum in Madrid, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York). A longtime friend of the North Carolina Arts Council, Rob is one of many Toe River artists who contributed to the design and construction of the Burnsville SmART Community Gateway public art project. He created hundreds of colorful glass shapes that fill the very first piece installed for the SmART project.
What drew you to working with glass in the first place?
When I was in my early twenties, I came to Penland to take a clay class, and I saw people blowing glass and I was just fascinated with it. Somebody let me try it, and I just felt this immense connection with it. I came back to Penland the following year and took a glass class and then was able to go to graduate school at Southern Illinois University on the strength of my other artwork. They were just starting a glass program there, so I got in on the ground floor of that program and was able to make glass for two years and just found ways to keep doing it until, eventually, I was invited back to Penland in 1975 to teach and then stayed on as a resident. Things just kind of evolved from there. We moved here in 1980 and I’ve been here ever since.
What makes this a great place to do what you do?
There’s a great community of fellow artists and craftsmen in the area. There’s a history in the area of appreciating handmade work. It goes back to the people who used to make berry baskets and quilts. Also, the proximity to Penland School which brings in such a range of interesting artists. I also have to say one reason that it’s a very good, supportive area for the arts is because of our arts council. They’ve really started working on making this area a great destination for people because there are so many artists. That has snowballed somewhat in terms of making it a good place to do artwork. It’s a very attractive place to live. It gets a little hairy in the winter sometimes, but otherwise it’s[a] quite pleasant place to live and work.
“There’s a great community of fellow artists and craftsmen in the area. There’s a history in the area of appreciating handmade work.”
Tell me how you got involved in this gateway project.
I went to Jack [Mackie’s] first presentation where he was talking about public art. We just got to talking there, and I got more directly involved once he started thinking in terms of doing a project that involved glass. Originally Jack’s idea was to use solid glass chunks in the sculpture. I brought up the idea that it would weigh less and be more practical to make hollow glass. The idea developed from there because we have the resources here both in terms of people who know how to do it, and in terms of a source of available glass material. We were able to talk Penland School into providing the facility for it, and a team of us got together for several weeks over the course of a year and worked on making these pieces. As we started working on the project, we realized that they could be blown. They’re not thin. They’re not like Christmas balls, but they’re more air than glass. It was a great experience.
What did a day at Penland with the group look like?
We’d go in in the morning and, except for the first day of the week, we’d look at what we had done the day before, and we’d get a list from Jack as to what colors he would want us to do, and we’d pick up blowpipes and get to work. We were buying chips of colored glass from the Spruce Pine batch plant. The furnaces at Penland were just full of clear glass, so we would gather clear glass and roll it in these colored chips, heat them up, and start blowing our shapes. We’d do that for about three hours and take a lunch break and do it for four more hours and then limp home and start over the next day.
It’s almost inconceivable to me that you can make a durable piece of public art using blown glass. Can you tell me how it’s possible?
We thought about it from several angles. One was in terms of the weather. We knew we had to enclose each piece. We couldn’t have pieces that would be open on one end because water could get in and could freeze in the winter and perhaps crack the glass. In terms of durability aside from the elements, I think we’re just hoping that people like the piece and don’t want to do anything to break things apart.
You’ve made a life here and a career here…what does it mean to you to be a part of a project like this?
It’s a really great feeling because it’s become a community project. It’s not just bringing in an artist from outside who whatever committee liked the best and then that person does their thing. It’s become a true collaborative effort, and I think that’s been one of the real positives for me. Jack and the rest of the group envision these beacons that will welcome people to Burnsville and to Yancey County. It could be a wonderful thing symbolically as a kind of welcoming device but also a completely unique work of art that will put Burnsville and Yancey County on the map a little more.
Has being a part of this project taught you anything about Burnsville?
I’d say the answer is yes [through] hearing how Jack distilled the essence of the county and [by] taking different ideas from his observations of things that we hadn’t really focused on…like the statue in the middle of the square in Burnsville with the spyglass and transferring that into the idea of a telescope and seeing into the future and combining that with the dark skies initiative that’s going on with the observatory…and the use of materials here in the area. You could say glass [generally], but even on a more fundamental level there is silica mining [here] that [extracts] the main ingredient in glass. Then the human resources of the glass artists, and people in the town that are willing and interested to have a vision for what might happen in the town. Those are all things that I’ve learned or been able to refocus on a bit.
If you were making the case for why public funding for the arts matters, as you’ve seen it manifested in your own community, what would you tell people it does and makes possible?
One thing I hope people understand when they know that state arts council funding has gone to a community for a project like this is that I’ve seen a spin-off effect. It’s not only helping the artists. If a place is a destination like our area is becoming, people come, and they eat in the restaurants. They buy gas at the gas stations. They shop in the local stores. They stay in the motels, bed and breakfasts, and stuff like that. There’s a great spin-off effect. I see that most directly when we have our studio tours here because people do come from long distances to travel around to the studios on the studio tour. They’re all staying somewhere and eating somewhere. I think it’s good for the whole community, so I hope people realize that supporting the arts is not just supporting a few artists. It’s really a way for communities to have a more sustainable economy. Hopefully, there’s the aesthetic spin-off too. The more art you have around, the nicer your area becomes.
In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.