Sculptor Tom Patti creates museum experience

Friday June 29, 2012

PITTSFIELD Visitors to the Berkshire Museum tonight will see it in a new light.

As the skies darken, patterns of color will glow through the front entrance, resolving into distinct abstract shapes the closer one gets. The luminous squares and squiggles seem to be stenciled on mirrors, but are actually embedded within a composite of glass and plastic layers - 206 of them - that reflect and transmit light. They change hue depending on the light.

The unique construction is the opening statement in a new work by glass sculptor Tom Patti commissioned by the museum three years ago and in the making for the past two. It will be unveiled in an opening reception this evening.

Another similar panel, near the lobby information desk, draws visitors further into the museum.

A major artist in his field with global commissions, including two fountains currently under construction at the new World Trade Center in New York, Patti is no traditional, glass-blowing, artobject- maker like Dale Chihuly or Josh Simpson.

His interest lies in biotechnology and astrophysics, in manipulating the properties of materials like glass and plastics that can exist in several states simultaneously - solid, viscous, liquid.

While that may sound more technological than artistic, the outcome, as the new commission, illustrates, is clearly art.

The piece, Patti says, is not just an " object" to be looked at, but actually a part of the museum building itself. It is one of a number of installations he has done in recent years that mesh art and architecture.

Each is unique, he said, because it is designed for its specific location.

At the Berkshire Museum, he said, "I was able to go back and forth and observe people - how they move through the space, how the building is used, how the opening [entrance] influences they way the museum is used."

He said the previous layout with clear glass walls and doors in the vestibule and clear glass doors and a donor panel near the information desk, was too ambiguous, leaving visitors uncertain which way to turn.

His panels are meant to catch the eye and lead visitors forward. He calls it " wayfinding."

Embedded with bright shapes that are both hardedged and biomorphic, they make an abstract statement, he said, about the museum's triple mission in art, science and history.

A Pittsfield native, to whom the museum was " always a place of mystery and curiosity" in boyhood, Patti said the institution helped ignite his interest in art. He studied industrial design and fine art at the Pratt Institute in New York, where he met his wife, Marilyn, also a design major, and also now his business partner.

His early, inventive interest in light, color and glass technology, stirred by the presence here of GE Plastics and GE's high voltage lab, brought him to the attention of GE officials, of Corning Glass and of other glass manufacturers and art institutions far beyond the Berkshires. They were interested in applications beyond those already developed within the industry and supported his experimentation, he said.

But though he has stayed closed to home - the Pattis live in Plainfield and own an industrial building on Federico Drive here - and he is known to many in the Berkshires, he has never had a major exhibition at the local museum.

Helen Febbo, a Richmond artist and museum trustee, proposed the commission three years ago and won support from then-director Stuart Chase and other board members, said Maria Mingalone, the museum's director of interpretation.

"It's a cool way to greet visitors and a very forward-looking art piece," she said.

"Considering our mission to make inspiring, educational connections among art, history and natural science, we are honored to have Tom Patti's work become an integral part of the Berkshire Museum," said its present director Van Shields.

A second- floor exhibition, " Echoes in Space," which Mingalone curated, looks at Patti's creative process through models, earlier works in glass and a video interview.

Patti got interested in the structural potentials of glass and ways to fuse and laminate it during the 1960s. He was part of a project co-founded by artist Robert Rauschenberg called EAT ( Experiments in Art and Technology) to promote collaborations between artists and engineers.

In 1982, he worked with Dan Fox, the inventor of Lexan plastic, on a site-specific installation for the former GE Plastics headquarters here. That piece is now at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts in Texas.

He has also taught art and developed models for solving global housing issues Patti was named a Massachusetts Living Treasure by the Foundation on the Arts in 1987.

To reach Charles Bonenti:, or (413) 496-6211.

On Twitter:@BE_Lifestyles


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