Murrine Life

Chris Juedemann puts his stamp on a glass technique developed thousands of years ago. Right: From the Roman Empress Aelia Galla Placidia, last in top row, to ‘60s icon Joan Baez, second from left in bottom row, Juedemann follows the murrine tradition of capturing famous figures in glass. (From the collection of Hermann Pedrotti, Switzerland)

Chris Juedemann puts his stamp on a glass technique developed thousands of years ago. Right: From the Roman Empress Aelia Galla Placidia, last in top row, to ‘60s icon Joan Baez, second from left in bottom row, Juedemann follows the murrine tradition of capturing famous figures in glass. (From the collection of Hermann Pedrotti, Switzerland)

Glass is among the most malleable of human discoveries. Able to be heated and stretched to a thin thread or hardened into a flat sheet, it both reflects and transforms the world around us. Hendersonville artist Chris Juedemann makes good use of those transformative properties with a centuries-old art form known as murrine.

Juedemann’s murrine work results in intricately detailed glass mosaics. His method is a remarkable conjunction of ancient art and modern technology. It demonstrates such unique color and detail that it’s attracted the attention of collectors from as far away as Japan and Switzerland, and is part of the permanent collection of the Corning Museum of Glass, the nation’s premier showcase for glass craft.

“We started out making simple glass beads,” says Juedemann of his early work. Back then, he was helped by his wife Lissa Juedemann, who is now a full-time acupuncturist. His rustic studio near downtown faces a line of apple trees and sits a few feet from the stone cottage the couple shares with their nine-year-old daughter.

Those were the starving-artist days, more than ten years ago. “We were miserably poor for years,” says Juedemann, a lanky man with a dark drawl and a mad-scientist restlessness about him, edged with dry humor. (When he’s not working on glass, he stays up late operating a ham radio, using Morse code when encountered with language barriers.)

At a friend’s house, he recounts, “we found a book about murrine and got totally fascinated. The next day, we were on the computer researching it, and pretty soon we started making our own pieces.” Those early learn-as-they-went efforts, using images from posters, art books, or online sources, were painstakingly exact in reproducing the colors of the originals, and, Juedemann admits, were mere copies.

“I really struggled to match the original colors, until one day I decided to make up my own colors, use my imagination more. And that’s when the work became art.”

The process begins with molten glass, which Juedemann blends to make a variety of colors and then stretches into thin threads as they cool. The threads harden and are cut into three-inch pieces called canes, which Juedemann painstakingly inserts into a round, kiln-tolerant paper form, with the original artwork at the bottom to serve as a guide. “Think of each cane as a pixel,” Juedemann explains, “which I build up into an image.” The completed form goes into the kiln to fuse the glass, which can then be stretched again while still molten and sliced into round pieces once it hardens, each piece bearing the full design.

“I polish each slice, and then you have a really tiny image of someone that meant something to someone, in glass,” Juedemann says. (The figures he enshrines have included political revolutionaries, pop stars, and obscure Renaissance queens.) The images can be inserted into glass globes, paperweights, even marbles, all of which make up his oeuvre.

From his computer, Juedemann prints an image of the ruffled 16th-century forebear of a European collector who purchases much of his work — the same collector for whom he created glass mosaic portraits of seven of the most recent popes. “I don’t really like to work on a commission basis. I like to just do my own thing,” Juedemann says. “But this particular collector just supplies an image and doesn’t get any more specific than that, so I can do what I want and take as long as I want.” The sources for most of Juedemann’s self-initiated work are decidedly more contemporary, from WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to James Dean. “Knowledge of the world, pop culture, and anti-establishment” is how Juedemann describes his inspirations. “It’s a tradition in murrine, starting from a few thousand years ago. You do the popular figures of the time, and I have no problem with that.”

He grew up in Western North Carolina, near Linville Falls and Grandfather Mountain, but lived with family relatives in Germany every summer for nine years, where he discovered his attraction for fine art. “I traveled to almost every European country, going to every museum there was, and I think that’s where I realized the difference between fine art and the stuff college students did, like dolls in corners and such,” Juedemann says. “I mean, when you get up close to those works by the Old Masters and study the brushwork, the attention to detail is just amazing.”

He may use modern technology to make and sell his work (photographs of each completed piece are e-mailed to the Japanese collector who represents and sells his work online), but the art Juedemann practices is very old indeed, a form developed thousands of years ago by Phoenician traders, who spread the technique to much of the ancient world, from Egypt to Greece to Rome. It was brought to its current form by the Venetian glass masters of Murano, still the epicenter of murrine.

“When [Lissa and I] first started with murrine, there were maybe four practitioners in the world, and we were two of them,” Juedemann says. “The other two were a father-and-son team in Italy. Now there are many more people doing murrine.”

That’s in no small part due to Juedemann’s online presence and willingness to share with others the intricacies of a technique that’s so visually challenging. “I can’t even describe it to people,” Juedemann said. “You have to kind of see it to get it.”

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