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Josh Simpson's blown-glass creations reflect his fascination with outer space.

World of Glass


It was 1972 and the Earth was becoming smaller indeed. Three years earlier, America had sent its first mission to the moon to study and photograph it, and to catalog our planet from space. We were suddenly made aware of how fragile, small and magical our great world is from outside its atmosphere. Meanwhile on Earth, two "super powers" were incrementally focusing on space development while vying for unnerving technical superiority in science and war. For all of the political and ethical shifts being reconsidered, scale and stability were just two items undergoing constant compromise and upheaval.

University liberal-arts programs, too, were overturning standard academic conventions, encouraging interdisciplinary studies for degree candidates. Josh Simpson was a senior in that particular year, studying psychology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. He chose to spend Hamilton's flexible January study break refurbishing an abandoned glassblowing furnace at Goddard College in Vermont and learning how to use it. It was his first introduction to glass blowing and it set him on an unexpected life trajectory.

After completing his psychology degree, Simpson set up a glass studio, first in New Haven, Conn., and finally in Shelburne Falls, Mass. He began by making unique crystal goblets to refine his glassblowing skills and to market commercially in high-end craft venues. But it was primarily Simpson's original fascination with the space program and the out-of-body perspective it offered that ultimately directed his work.

"Visionary Landscapes," the Lora Robins Gallery exhibition of Josh Simpson's imaginary glass creations, presents his galactic explorations amid the marvelous Robins collection of all of the other curiosities from the vast and mysterious realm of the natural world. Glance, for just a minute, from the beguiling enchantment of Simpson's cosmos, obediently suspended under acrylic vitrines, around the entire environment of the Robins Gallery. A delightful melange of the real and the contrived is arrayed, facilitating a faith in possibilities, and whipping scholarship and superstition into an intellectually nutritious confection.

Simpson's basketball- to baseball-sized "Inhabited" and "Uninhabited" globes are — in line with the spirit of the place — magical to behold and contemplate. He develops in the planets' layered surfaces a clear protective atmosphere, beneath which miniature dynamic, volcanic forces seem to continue their impact on the environment. The orbs often have a little spacecraft circling over the land masses and oceans below.

Some of Simpson's newer "Tektites" are also included in the installation. Like geodes, the craggy black exterior of these objects is sliced open to reveal an impenetrable crystalline composition or a metallic-gold inner chamber. This expands the artist's interest in using glasswork to interpret the phenomena of the universe and add to the inventory of wizardry.

Beginning in 1976, Simpson began to bury his planets in the ground. Thinking of the process as replicating the natural tendency of the heavens to stash a little of its meteoric self around here and there for inquisitive humanoids to toe up at some auspicious moment, he named this plan the "Infinity Project." He invites proposals of unusual sites where a work might be buried for future discovery, and rewards a good suggestion with a thank-you planet. However, if you are inclined to want to get your own world immediately in hand, one can actually be purchased right here in town at Cudahy's.

As one considers Simpson's intuitively composed astral inspirations, it is interesting to learn that his wife of five years is NASA astronaut Cady Coleman. It seems that while Simpson is creating imaginary glimpses of worlds from afar, he has it on good authority that they are not too removed from the extraterrestrial spectacles seen by the experienced space traveler.

"Visionary Landscapes: The Glassworks of Josh Simpson" is on display through Feb. 10 at Lora Robins Gallery of Design from Nature at the University of Richmond. 289-8000

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