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Left: Harriet's in Her Elf Cups Again. Right: Polypores Win the War. Artwork and photos by Charlynne Lafontaine.

The weird and beautiful Glass Art of Charlynne Lafontaine

By Apartment613 on June 15, 2016

Post by Peter Gould.

Warped yellow-green discoids leer on tendrils and inexplicably sprout from a copper corset. It conjures both a Frederick’s of Hollywood catalogue and images of extraterrestrial flora from a Stanislaw Lem novel.  “Polypores Win the War”, hanging on a wall at the December 2013 Group of Steven show of local artists at Irene’s in the Glebe, was my first exposure to the eerie and beautiful work of Ottawa glass artist Charlynne Lafontaine.

Choice Edible, photo by Earl Havlin.

Choice Edible, photo by Earl Havlin.

Since it first appeared at the March 2016 Artspace613 show held in a warren of self-storage spaces at City Centre,  Charlynne’s newest work, “Choice Edible” has been attracting strong interest from the public and local media.

A dress constructed of cascading glass pendants attached to a copper-screen lining, “Choice Edible” suggests  New York 1980s fashion excess.  Charlynne worked on the piece for almost a year. Each of the 8,000 pendants was hand-blown and flamed, and their tapered shapes vaguely resemble forms found in the plant kingdom.

Charlynne deconstructed her grandmother’s fur coat to produce the underlying form of the piece. Currently displayed at the Loretto Studio and Gallery at 131 Loretta Avenue, “Choice Edible” takes on an eerie purple glow from the warm summer sun. Charlynne described “Choice Edible” as “an interesting social experiment”, noting the strong response to a work that she created as a commentary on society’s obsession with beauty.

“What good energy might be released for other things such as saving the environment,” Charlynne wondered, “if we were to modify our standard of beauty to something more realistic?”.

Growing up in Ottawa, Charlynne was introduced to the glass arts early in life by an aunt who had learned to work with stained glass during the heady days of the hippie era in San Francisco.  Fascinated, Charlynne secretly attended glass arts classes while taking a degree in biochemistry.  In 1990, Charlynne finally chose the world of art over science and enrolled in glassblowing at Sheridan College in Toronto.

Charlynne Lafontaine, photo courtesy of the author.

Charlynne Lafontaine, photo courtesy of the author.

In 2003, she was introduced to flamework, the process of sculpting glass over a gas-oxygen burner. Using coloured and textured flame-worked glass, Charlynne  began creating jewelry as well as sculptures, some enclosed in boxes, that form tiny dioramas. Charlynne currently produces both small wearable glass pieces, often incorporating eclectic items such as 1960s costume jewelry, as well as larger more conceptual pieces such as “Edible Choice”. She finds glass a seductive medium, with light an important part of any piece, whether it is reflected or transmitted.

In 2012, Charlynne teamed up with multimedia artist Ryan Lotecki to create her first outdoor glass art installation, Morphology / Silk Road Flower Rain, a public art project commissioned by Ottawa for Somerset Street West from Chinatown to Hintonburg.  Exquisitely dimpled coloured glass seed pods wildly shoot out from lamp posts, evoking a windswept garden of bamboo, pomegranate and chrysanthemum blossoms. Silk Road Flower Rain, the installations along Somerset Street, has its origins in a story of a Chinese romance with a foreigner travelling along the Silk Road.  Morphology is the installations on the bridge to Hintonburg, a reference to the ever-mutating neighbourhood where Charlynne has lived and worked for over twenty years.

Charlynne has a formidable knowledge of the chemistry of glass.  Morphology / Silk Flower Rain was made with flamed tubes of borosilicate glass, which has a very low coefficient of expansion, making it the strongest type of glass, resistant to thermal shock and so able to withstand the extremes of the Ottawa climate. The lower the coefficient of expansion, the harder the glass. Pyrex, invented in 1908 and marketed by the Corning company for many years, is a familiar application of borosilicate glass to kitchenware.

Charlynne’s lifelong interest in science, and biology in particular, continues to inform her work.  “Choice Edible” is based on the Bearded Tooth, a unusual mushroom known for its mane of white tassels. She is particularly fascinated by the unusual biochemistry of mushrooms, noting that oyster mushrooms are used to metabolize plastics and even nuclear waste.

Katie Leaves Portugal Cove, photo by Earl Havlin.

Katie Leaves Portugal Cove, photo by Earl Havlin.

The design of an alluring and yet somewhat threatening headpiece, “Harriet’s in Her Elf Cups Again”, is partly inspired by the Elf Cup fungus, whose bright red cups were used as table decorations in Victorian England but also had important medicinal use by the Oneida First Nation. The polypores referenced in Charlynne’s corset piece from the Irene’s show normally grow along the sides of trees, and are a major pathogen resulting in losses to the timber industry—but have also been used in traditional medicine. In “Katie Leaves Portugal Cove”, neat rows of bright glass fungal forms sprout from a vintage silver vanity set that once belonged to the grandmother of a friend from Newfoundland.

“Choice Edible” was just displayed at the Corning Museum of Glass, which is dedicated to the history, art and science of glass, in Corning, New York, during the annual conference of the Glass Arts Society Conference held in Corning June 9-11, 2016.  The glass arts community in Ottawa is tight but small, and Charlynne was looking forward to mixing with the 2,000 glass artists expected to attend the conference.

Charlynne’s partner Kurt Walther modelled “Choice Edible” and its massive swirling headpiece at an event at the conference.  Asked if Kurt was chosen to model the coat because of its weight, Charlynne laughed and said “I made it to fit him from the outset, because Kurt is the perfect model as he pays no attention to fashion whatsoever”.