There is a saying among glass artists: If you want to learn glassblowing, the first thing you’ll have to learn is teamwork.
From the hot shop to the coldworking studio, the process of creating intricate glass sculpture tends to draw on the contributions of a whole team of assistants and technicians to bring an artist’s ideas to fruition. For internationally renowned artist Preston Singletary, who translates traditional objects and figures derived from his Tlingit heritage into contemporary glass works, one of the key collaborators behind the scenes in his studio since its inception has been Joe BenVenuto.
“I first met Joe 20 years ago when we both worked for Benjamin Moore at the Pilchuck Glass School,” Singletary tells me. “When I founded my own studio, Joe helped me build it. He builds equipment and designs glass studios.”
BenVenuto doesn’t just build studio equipment. He’s also a glassblower and expert coldworker—the processes that don’t require heat, such as grinding, cutting, and polishing—whose skills have put him in the service of basically everyone in the Northwest glass community at some time or another. He’s also a beekeeper, a gardener, and an avid mushroom hunter who once drove his motorcycle to the Arctic Circle just to say that he’d been there.
Oh, and he’s an accomplished artist in his own right, although he might be too humble to tell you about it. Using his skill with surface textures and his eye for natural detail, BenVenuto creates stunning glass pieces that look as though they are made of other substances, like earth, wood, and clay.
“Joe takes being a glass blower seriously and that love for the material, his craft, and lifelong learning shines through in everything he does,” says friend and fellow artist Dawn McCord. “The attention he has put into his glass work inspires you to be a better maker, and the kindness he shows his community inspires you to be a better person.”
Born in Pittsburgh, BenVenuto started working with glass nearly 30 years ago in Cincinnati. For the past two decades, he’s been an integral part of the Northwest’s highly collaborative, community-driven glass scene.
Last fall, BenVenuto was diagnosed with a rare, malignant brain tumor called an anaplastic astrocytoma. While there are treatments that can slow the growth of the cancer, there is no cure. As a result, the glass community is rallying around BenVenuto to help him cover the costs associated with his treatment—only a fraction of which is covered by his health insurance.
“I think many would agree ‘unselfish’ and ‘generous’ are two words that quickly come to mind when describing Joe B.,” says Sean Albert, a glass artist who has spent years working alongside BenVenuto in Preston Singletary’s studio. Albert is one of a growing list of artists who are donating work to a pop-up silent auction to benefit BenVenuto on Friday, July 28, at Traver Gallery. The impressive roster also includes Kiki Smith, Preston Singletary, Lino Tagliapietra, Dale Chihuly, Joe David, April Surgent, Ethan Stern, Jane Rosen, Ross Richmond, Dave Walters, John Kiley, CUD (Robbie Miller and John Drury), Kait Rhodes, Nancy Callan, Martin Blank, Dante Marioni, Jen Elek and Jeremy Bert, Richard Royal, Boyd Sugiki and Lisa Zerkowitz, Ben Moore, Dick Weiss and Cappy Thompson, and Chris Nowicki. The event is free, but due to limited space, Traver has requested that attendees contact the gallery to RSVP.
In addition to the silent auction, a GoFundMe has been spearheaded by Preston Singletary, outlining in detail the scope of BenVenuto’s treatment plan. Singletary is hoping to raise $26,000 to assist in recovery from an intensive round of radiation and chemotherapy completed in January, as well as additional out-of-pocket therapies and living expenses to help BenVenuto take time off work to focus his energy on healing.
“The tumor will come back,” Singletary tells me. “We don’t know if it will be two months, two years, or longer, but I’m holding out hope for longer.” According to BenVenuto’s neurologist, tumors like his typically begin regrowth within two years, but recent MRI scans have been encouraging. Now his medical advice is for the artist to live his life and keep doing what he loves: working with his friends in the studio.
“Our community is very tight and supportive, and Joe is one of these guys who always goes out of his way to be there for everybody else,” says Singletary. “He's been a terrific friend to me and a lot of people. So now we get to return that favor.”