Visual Arts » 3D

Layers of Meaning and Mystery

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"There's only so many different things you can do with a bubble."

Glass artist Melissa Kistler is explaining the glassblowing process, about going into a furnace with a steel rod, doing a gather (collecting glass), and using breath and tools to create a work of art. While working toward her B.F.A at the Tyler School of Art, Kistler had to learn diverse glass processes, including blown work. Some of this influence can be seen in her current exhibition at the Indianapolis Art Center (820 E. 67th Street), open now through Nov. 23.

Kistler shares studio space with Atsu Kpotufe, an artist who was profiled in Asa Gauen’s Studio Visits series. - WHITNEY WALKER

"Because I respond to materials intuitively, I like to work with all different kinds of things," Kistler explains, piecing different media together to see how they fit. "I'm drawn to glass because it can be transparent or opaque or a combination of the two. There's a mystery, a sense of depth, even if it's not really layered."

She likes to work with kiln-formed glass and frit, best described as smashed-up glass of different sizes. Her current work includes a technique she learned while studying at the Penland School of Crafts, which involves "drawing" with powdery, crushed-up glass and manipulating the densities to create art (somewhat similar to sand painting).

Kistler's process-oriented approach is directly influenced by glasswork, in that "a lot of the making came before the finished product." Deeply invested in working with her hands, she is grateful for the experience of growing up in a military family and the lessons she learned. "I'm really thankful to my parents; if it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be such a hard worker. I wouldn't be dedicated; I wouldn't be as invested in my artwork as I am."

She goes on to explain being woken up early -- "7 a.m. was sleeping in" -- and helping to manually mow a 26-acre farm, as well as cleaning copper coils ripped from salvaged air conditioners. "I made it into a game. I learned how to be efficient," she says.

Kistler’s primary medium is glass, but she also works in mixed media including photography, print making, wax, and plaster, as seen in these two pieces, “Untitled” (left) and “Collage in Pastel.” - NATHANIEL BOREK
  • Nathaniel Borek
  • Kistler’s primary medium is glass, but she also works in mixed media including photography, print making, wax, and plaster, as seen in these two pieces, “Untitled” (left) and “Collage in Pastel.”

When Kistler uses the term "military family," she means it. In every generation since the Revolutionary War, a family member entered the service, including her father, brother, two aunts, grandfather and great-grandfather. Her father, a recently retired master gunnery sergeant, encouraged her to enlist, but Kistler chose a different life -- that of the "black sheep artist," as she puts it.

"It's hard to come by parents who are supportive of their children becoming artists -- it's a hard life and you're not going to make a ton of money doing it," she explains. "They wanted me to become a lawyer. I had a full ride to a prestigious school in Pennsylvania and decided to go to art school instead. I have a lot of bills now."

Influenced by her upbringing, much of Kistler's work deals with aspects of the armed forces. She often makes flat pieces from upcycled mirrors, sandblasting them so the viewer can no longer see their reflection but retaining the ability to reflect light, giving them a glowing effect. Of the faceless people often found in her work, she says, "I explore the idea of identity and how it's simultaneously taken away and given to you when you join the military. You're given this uniform and everyone looks the same and you become a faceless fighting machine, but you also get another family by interacting with service members. You lose and gain family at same time."

Still sounding a bit surprised, Kistler explains that she didn't realize she was different until she went to art school. There, everything she encountered was either for or against the military -- "[and] nothing as nuanced as my experience. Nothing is as simple as people portray it to be. I feel like I have to do [this work]," she says.

Now that Kistler is gaining more recognition for her art, including being named a Beckman Jr. Emerging Artist Fellow, she feels she's getting more respect from her family for her foray into the world of glass. Still, there are hints about her growing out of this 'phase,' a well-intended sentiment that stings: "It hurts to hear 'But you're going to get a real job too.' You have no idea how hard I work."

Kistler's daily tasks outside the studio include searching for artistic opportunities that further her education (and ideally offer funding), as well as working in her studio at the Harrison Center for the Arts (1505 N. Delaware St.). She shares space with artist Atsu Kpotufe, with whom she has formed a friendship. "He forces me to relax when I'm freaking out. I don't know what I would do without him."

Kistler's work is displayed in the Indianapolis Art Center's fall exhibition series. - COURTESY OF INDIANAPOLIS ART CENTER
  • Courtesy of Indianapolis Art Center
  • Kistler's work is displayed in the Indianapolis Art Center's fall exhibition series.

Despite straying from the norm in her family, Kistler believes she has an advantage over many people her age, because she knows what hard work and discipline are. "I'm really proud of growing up in a military family," she says. "I don't think I'd be making the work I am if it wasn't for that [experience]. I'm forever indebted to my family."

She finishes by speaking about her craft: "Working with glass is like a dance. I can appreciate art that's just beautiful for the sake of being beautiful, but even if I tried to, I couldn't make art that didn't say something."

Learn more about Melissa Kistler on her website and on the Indianapolis Art Center's site.

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