As a 14-year-old in the mid-1950s, I crafted a duck boat to paddle on the pond and glide on shallow water in the swamp near my home in rural Massachusetts, attuning myself to the subtle hum of nature.
My father, an introverted and detail-oriented chemist with an analytical mind, was impressed with my hand skills, and I was proud.
I had never been able to impress my father with academic accomplishments, but I loved working with my hands and came to value his appreciation for my hand skills. I had done poorly in school because of dyslexia, a reading disorder that most people had never heard of at the time.
My family moved to southern New Jersey, where I attended Pitman High School, still struggling with my studies. One day I was visiting the guidance counselor and picked up a brochure about Salem County Vocational Technical Institute.
My father assured me that industrial glassblowers were in high demand, and he drove me to the then-modest facility for a visit. I was mesmerized when I saw young men working at bench torches, melting and reshaping glass.
Starting the journey
I enrolled the following September and proudly graduated in the class of 1963.
I didn’t fully understand it at the time, but I was entering a continuum of glass making going back centuries; South Jersey was one of the world hubs of development in scientific glass, a key factor in the scientific and commercial development that boomed after World War II.
During my early career, I was committed to learning the scientific glass-blowing craft, but I was also equally interested in the South Jersey decorative art glass tradition – particularly, the beauty of the highly prized Millville Rose paperweight. The Millville Rose was a conceptual interpretation of a glass rose suspended in clear glass, often crafted by master furnace workers expressing their creative side at the end of the day.
I prospered in scientific glassblowing, but after 10 years I refocused my career to sculpt detailed floral designs based on the native flowers that had been my childhood fascination.
Now, looking back, I appreciate how the hand skills and technical foundation acquired at Salem Technical Institute, coupled with the South Jersey glass-art tradition, gave me a distinctive advantage in my art career.
A unique place
Both my career and Salem’s program have evolved since those early days. The institute, renamed Salem Community College in 1972, has educated hundreds of enthusiastic students into professional glassmakers who have experienced a wide range of glass working processes, both in scientific glass and glass art.
Both the college and I were fortunate to be at the center of a vibrant tradition, a collective knowledge and enthusiasm that creates pulsating synergy, much the same way as Silicon Valley developed a collective culture of innovation and creativity in technology.
The glass program is a remarkable study in advancing and building on a collective vision. One very visible indicator of the program’s success is the fact that from its humble beginnings on the second floor of an old hospital, it moved to a 13,000-square-foot space in Alloway, N.J., twelve miles from the college campus in Carneys Point – and has now outgrown that venue.
President Michael Gorman is relocating the Glass Education Center to the campus. The 20,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility will honor long-time benefactors Samuel and Jean Jones, and will house the Paul J. Stankard Glass Studio/Lab, scheduled to open in September 2019.
Salem’s legacy served me well. My floral glass art has attracted interest among collectors and museums around the world, and I would eventually receive two honorary doctorates, one from Rowan University, and an honorary associate degree in glass art from Salem Community College.
I enjoy lecturing and demonstrating at glass-centric cultural centers and museums with collections of contemporary glass art. My glass floral designs are represented in more than 75 museums worldwide.
But an equally important part of my legacy has been teaching young students in the Salem glass program and eventually assuming the role of artist in residence.
Now that I am 76, I’m receiving “old-man” awards (my term for lifetime achievement recognitions). The 2018 Distinguished Alumnus Award from the New Jersey Council of County Colleges represents my commitment to excellence and self-directed learning.
These are achievements facilitated by Salem and the fact that my father – who passed away in 1976 but lived long enough to share his pride in my budding success – had the foresight to encourage me to enroll.