It was the allure of glowing, liquid glass that drew University of Hawaii architecture student Imipono Wichman to Rick Mills’ class.
"The idea of glass has always been fascinating to me," said Wichman a few days before the opening of "Glassified," an exhibit of works by Mills and 25 of his UH-Manoa students. "It’s been good to get hands-on experience of blowing glass."
Wichman was at Gallery Iolani on the Windward Community College campus to put finishing touches on his two pieces in the show, which runs through Oct. 8.
Though the artists come from another UH campus, gallery director Toni Martin said she welcomed the show because "glass itself is such a fascinating medium."
"The artists have done a variety of different approaches to the medium, and it makes for a very enticing show."
Mills, a longtime educator and respected Hawaii glass artist, picked the best work from last semester’s beginning glass students through first- and second-year graduate students.
"It’s a good opportunity for students to go to that next level — getting work ready to exhibit," he said.
The pieces in the show reflect numerous techniques taught in the program: glass blowing, molding, casting, carving, fusing, sand casting, enameling, engraving and more.
But unlike technique, Mills can’t teach students what to make. "They must come up with their own concepts and design, and explore their own personal stories in a nonliteral way," he says.
For Wichman, his art serves as markers for specific points in time. "E ‘Ai Kakou" ("Let’s come eat"), for instance, symbolizes the breaking of Hawaii’s kapu system.
"Think back to the period of Old Hawaii. It used to be kapu for men and women to eat together. I put the kapu sticks together, symbolizing men and women, and one of the sticks is broken. It’s about the transition from traditional culture to Western culture," he said.
Wichman’s foray into art isn’t simply an indulgence. Art broadens the possibilities of architectural design, he said.
"I’m looking toward landscape architecture. Architecture is being able to design things, in both the natural and built environment, that evoke emotions," he said. "(Exposure to) pieces of art allows you to think in a different perspective and of how to use those elements in design. Art helps stimulate new ideas."
In a student show like this one, Mills makes it a practice to exhibit his work alongside his students’ pieces.
"I usually try to become part of the whole experience," he said. "I’m not differentiating them from myself as an artist. We all behave like artists, with personal integrity. They’re co-exhibitors first, students second."
Yet when Mills discusses his students’ work, he can’t quite step away from his role as teacher. He says making glass art is about more than just the art.
"In glass, students must work as a team. At least one other person must always be there to assist them, so they need be able to articulate what kind of help they need or be able to demonstrate it," he said. "Students really learn to communicate. They learn to share the sandbox and cooperate to run the glass studio and organize teams to do the work.
"They think they’re working on art, but I think they’re really working on communication. It’s that family aspect in creating the artwork that’s special about working in glass."