Issue Archives
The New World
Italian glass artist Pino Cherchi learned his trade under Old World rules, where artisans labor for decades under the tutelage of more established artists, repairing works of antiquity using the same materials and methods first employed by the Old Masters. Centuries-old techniques are preserved and protected under the European system, but the flip side of being steeped in so much historical reference is that sometimes it becomes difficult for younger artists to break out on their own and experiment with newer forms of self-expression.

And that, at least in part, helps explain Pino Cherchi’s journey across the Atlantic from sunny Italy to soggy Northwest.

For 25 years, Cherchi practiced his craft, working in stained glass—an art form with a long history in Europe, though not necessarily a long Italian tradition. He studied the history of stained glass and stained glass restoration at college. He worked as an apprentice doing stained glass restorations. It was the Old World Way.

“Italy has many traditions in painting and sculpture, but stained glass came from northern Europe,” says Cherchi. “I got my master’s in France. In Europe, before you become an artist, you are an artisan. You work in what we call a bottega—that is a place where these old people work. They restore old frames, old paintings, old furniture, marble, and of course stained glass.”

If there is a drawback to the bottega system, according to Cherchi, it is that while the artisans develop a deep understanding of the history of their chosen art, and its historical techniques, “They don’t really have a lot of ideas in matters of contemporary art.”

“You kind of go through the whole [historical] process when you are restoring stained glass,” he says. “You have to understand the glass—what kind of glass it is, where it was made, who made it, how it was made.”

There is also a certain amount of social archeology involved in restorations, in the sense that doing the job properly requires more than just faithfully copying the style of the original artist (no small task on its own). The restorer also has to take into account the historical context of the piece (most likely the piece comes from a church) and the original intent of the person who sponsored its creation in the first place a couple centuries ago (usually a rich merchant or patron of the arts).

Eventually, after years of apprenticeship, the artisan learns enough history and gathers enough knowledge that “You reach a point in your life where you think you might be ready to do something on your own.”

This is, for the most part, the complete opposite of the way things work here in the United States. “In the U.S. you become an artist just because,” says Cherchi. “You learn as you go. Here is a more free way to work. You can find your own way. You can even develop your own tools.”

“That’s what I really love about the United States. People really try to do different things. In Europe, glass was always considered handblown glass. Nobody really tried to do casting, or Pate de Verre (paste of glass). Here they’ve come out with so many techniques that in 45 years of American history regarding glass, it really became a very strong process.”

Cherchi wanted to expand his creative horizons, and with people like Dale Chihuly, Benjamin Moore, and William Morris up here expanding the boundaries of glass art, he was drawn to the Pacific Northwest. He enrolled in the Pilchuck Glass School where he was introduced to techniques and people that would change his life. One of the people he met—and later did some projects with—was Bill Hillman of Mansion Glass Company.

Cherchi has expanded his artistic palette to include combining glass with various metals such as gold, sterling silver, and bronze. “Sometimes I drill a hole to attach the metal, sometimes I use a special kind of glue. I discovered you can fuse copper and glass, which I didn’t know. I am combining all different kinds of materials—especially in the pieces I am making right now.”

He likes to take a concept and explore it over dozens or up to a hundred different variations. One of his most recent collections featured circular glass disks, like shields, suspended on generally sparsely adorned stands.

“They kind of remind you of African art,” he says. “I spent quite a bit of my life going back and forth from Africa. I started going to Africa for vacation, then I started going back just because I found their art so interesting. It’s very rural. Everything is hard over there. Wood, ivory, stone—life is so hard there that everything there has a strong meaning for the people that live there.”

As Cherchi sees it, pretty much all of modern art—not just his own work—is based on, or influenced strongly by, the primitive energies found in African art.

“Not just impressionism, but like the sculptures of Giacometti—a free-form expression where everything was kind of related to nature. My pieces have all these things that kind of come together in some sort of minimalism. The circle, for example, is part of many cultures. That’s why I started doing the series. I found the circle in every culture and it pretty much means the same thing. The circle of life is the sun and the moon. When you go from Egyptian to African to Asian, the circle is like—you cannot describe the complexity of life. In the meanwhile, it’s kind of a simple meaning. You start your life and you kind of go around and you’re going to end it.”

Cherchi’s most recent installation is a large outdoor sculpture outside of Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. “It is like 8 feet tall by 58 inches wide,” he says. “It resembles some African anthropomorphic forms. For some reason my mind keeps going back there (to Africa). I think I’m more into that now. I still like to use metal and glass, but I’d like to make larger pieces and instead of having the main piece in glass, the main piece would be metal—like bronze—and the center part would be glass.”

As he continues his long road of development from artisan to artist, he says his primary goal is to “do nice objects and try to explore what is possible with the material. I’m pretty sure my pieces will not change anybody’s life. I do them first for me, and then after people usually appreciate what I do.”

Building on his strong historical foundation, Cherchi is able to incorporate the freedom of experimentation found in American art, along with the more naturalistic exoticness of Africa. “I’ve always thought that if you want to see some natural sculpture, you have to go to Africa and look with your own eyes. I didn’t really find everything I was looking for, but I found part and I don’t want to forget that.”
Cherchi’s work can be found at the D’Adamo/Woltz Gallery, Pioneer Square, 307 Occidental Ave S., Seattle 98104, 206-652-4414. In October the gallery focuses on glass and his new work will be available.