The art of Charlotte Potter.
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Photos by Mark Edward Atkinson
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Armor (2014): Potter's body was mapped photographically and printed onto thin glass microscope slides.
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Charlotte's Web (2010-2012): employing images collected from Facebook friends' profile pictures to create a web of handmade glass cameos, mimicking the World Wide Web of connection.
Charlotte Potter was browsing for inspiration, looking for the first steps in another dance with her passion, deep in the stacks of medical oddities at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. Eyeglasses. Ancient cupping devices. All sorts of glass medical tools. But what caught her eye and her imagination was the massive collection of slides—boxes and boxes of slides documenting skin diseases.
“Gross stuff,” she says, that got her thinking about her own skin as the threshold to the world and how moles are like weird astrological patterns over our bodies. What if she mapped her body—her naked body—using glass microscope slides?
Fast forward four years (there were intervening projects) and Potter, one of the country’s most innovative and unconventional glass artists and the manager of the Chrysler Museum’s Perry Glass Studio, is standing at a show opening in her home state of Vermont, unexpectedly grappling with her vulnerability as friends, family members and patrons literally explore every inch of her skin.
She and her assistant painstakingly created 6,000 slides by applying photographic decals to glass slides and then connecting them with silver wire, giving birth to a three-dimensional suit of skin armor.
When she conceived the project, she thought about exploring the idea of wearing someone else’s skin. But, as usual for the 35-year-old artist, the creation had a mind of its own, yielding layers of metaphor about vanity, identity and the skin as barrier and entryway.
“I didn’t think about the fact that I was quite literally exposing myself,” says Potter, sitting in her small office at the Chrysler. “I didn’t realize this thing that’s shrouding you is actually exposing you.”
Potter’s dances with glass often yield surprising insights, even to her. Her projects mirror the medium. They’re fragile and strong, transparent and opaque, layered stories promising revelations if you’re willing to peer deeper.
“It’s about starting a conversation, a real conversation,” she says. “A lot of my work is asking questions. I don’t want it to be a one-liner. I want it to reward you if you sit there a little bit longer.”
Her work takes years from conception to completion, often involving meticulous detail. Her Charlotte’s Web, an exhibition about social media featuring hand-engraved cameos of her 864 Facebook friends (Facebook, to her, is the modern version of the ancient Roman cameo). She hung them on a wall based on the map of the U.S., each in the location where she met the person, all connected to her own cameo in Norfolk.
For another exhibit, Message Received, she produced a sequence of pendants and lockets containing text messages charting the arc of one of her relationships. For an ongoing project, she creates reliquaries of ashes, including one for her dog, Joba. That reliquary was finished, she says, when she reached his weight—84 pounds, plus the 21 grams that one theory (and a movie) claims is the weight of the soul.
Part of Potter’s willingness to put herself on display no doubt evolves from her life as a performer. She studied dance—ballet, African and improvisational—during college as well as glass art. Before she arrived as the first manager of the Chrysler’s Glass Studio in 2011, she spent four years in Cirque de Verre, a glass performance troupe she co-founded that performed at glass museums and hot shops across the country. The troupe was born out of the requests glass artists get to do a demonstration, known as the monkey dance, in Potter’s words. “Who would ask Picasso to do a live painting?” she asks pointedly. “We decided if you want the monkey to dance, ok, we’re going to create a circus [Cirque de Verre].”
At the Chrysler, the monthly circuses she curates—Third Thursdays at the Glass Studio—routinely sell out with their mix of glass blowing and music. True to Potter’s vision that the dance of creation is more interesting than the end product, the glass made during the performance is often shattered in the final act.
The Glass Studio’s growing international reputation is a reason Norfolk was chosen to host the 2017 Glass Art Society Conference, following previous host cities like Chicago, Portland and Seattle. “If you told me six years ago this was going to be internationally recognized, I would not have believed it,” she says.
Potter came to Norfolk to manage the studio in 2011, one of the first in the country connected to a museum. It was a risk, says Erik Neil, the Chrysler’s director, but one that has paid huge dividends. “It’s been incredibly successful and a large part of that is due to Charlotte’s dynamism and what she delivers as an artist and an engaging and charismatic person,” he adds. “We’ve really become an important stop on the glass tour.”
Potter’s journey to Norfolk runs through New York’s Alfred University, where she wandered into the glass studio one day. “It was the most difficult thing I’d ever tried,” she says. “Also, it was totally magical. There was no logic to it. It was viscous and moving and molten one second and a second later it could be sculpted and shaped and suddenly it was a formal object. That metamorphosis was truly magical.” (She earned her BFA at Alfred, then later an MFA at Rhode Island School of Design.)
She grew up in Vermont in a “fantastical and beautiful and strange” house inspired by Tolkien’s hobbits with a tower and the home’s back embedded into a hillside. Her father was a custom sign maker. Her mother turned bowls, the same bowl time after time. Her brother is an accomplished poet, and her younger sister Grace is a chart-topping rocker who has grown from soulful, flannel-shirted roots music to pyrotechnic arena rock.
Over the years, Potter’s work has evolved. Most of her recent creations have been cold glass, a methodical and slow process she describes as a meditation, not the fast dance that is the hot shop. She’s thinking, though, of getting back into the hot shop, blowing glass while en pointe, literally dancing with her art.
What does she want people to take away from her evolving body of work?
“In a perfect world, I want them to see all the beautiful relationships and the ways people connect to one another in an extremely difficult and lonely journey called life,” she says. “We are ultimately alone, single entities that are bouncing around this Earth. I think the real magic is in the ways that people collide. That’s what I hope my art shows.” Chrysler.org, CharlottePotter.com