From Rocks to Glass
Geology major Henry Richardson ’83, now a self-taught artist and sculptor, manipulates enormous sheets of plate glass into ethereal sculptures in his purpose-built barn studio in the Berkshires.
As a child growing up on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., Henry Richardson ’83 often visited the home of a family friend, a documentary filmmaker with a penchant for American artists of the early 20th-century. The gentleman’s walls were adorned with prints and paintings by Thomas Hart Benton and George Bellows, Richardson recalls, images that captured his imagination and sparked his interest in art. When he was 12, Richardson persuaded his mother to allow him to explore the National Gallery of Art on his own. “She would drop me off at 10 in the morning and return to pick me up at around three,” he says. “Can you imagine such a thing in this day and age?” But the immersion was exactly what Richardson craved: “I was free to wander the galleries at my own pace, peruse the art and think about things.”
Richardson has been thinking about art ever since. Today he works full time as an artist, transforming enormous sheets of plate glass into ethereal sculptures that seem to defy the general properties of matter. Treating glass like “transparent stone,” Richardson chisels and welds, manipulating the materials into luminous spheres, columns and spirals that appear exquisitely fragile and at the same time remarkably solid. “Glass is an interesting material,” he observes. “It’s a barrier to airflow, but not to sight. It both absorbs the light and reflects it. It’s also a material that hasn’t been explored as a sculptural medium by many artists, so it gives the process of creation a pioneering aspect that I find incredibly satisfying.”
Indeed, Richardson has spent decades exploring the potential of his chosen materials. Manipulating the glass as other sculptors do stone or wood, he carves individual sections, then binds them together using acrylic polymers and ultraviolet light, in a process similar to that used by dentists bonding crowns to teeth or scientists fusing blown glass together for use in the lab. The only difference in his process, says Richardson, is volume. “I use liters and liters of polymer silicate,” he notes.
Richardson, who is self-taught as an artist, works his magic from a purpose-built barn in the Berkshires, far from the art establishment. “I was never in the art world formally. I’ve always charted my own path, which has allowed me to tackle not only my materials but also my subject matter in a fresh way.”
A Quaker who has found in the concept of “inner light” a continuing artistic theme, Richardson’s works have been featured in solo and group exhibitions around the country and may be found in private and corporate collections. He has also received a number of public commissions, including one to design the 9/11 Memorial in Danbury, Conn. “I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of generous patrons who really believe in my work,” says Richardson, who observes that people often have a primal reaction to the glass; they want to touch it, a response that drives him to try to continually break new ground while at the same time creating works that will endure.
“Bryn Mawr Geology Professor Maria Luisa Crawford was an important mentor to me as a student,” says Richardson, who majored in geology at Bryn Mawr (and lived in one of the dorms there from his sophomore year on). “She encouraged non-linear thinking and was always pushing me to look at all the components of a problem before trying to solve it, a non-conformist approach that resonated with me.” And Richardson says he isn’t the only one. “I look at my Haverford classmates and see many who are successful in an array of professions, yet they share a common bond: They’re outliers,” he concludes. “At Haverford, students are encouraged to be curious and to think outside the box, and that is a great gift.”