This post comes to us from Bethany Gugliemino, Curatorial Intern
Mundy Hepburn, of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, began his experiments with glassblowing in 1963 at the age of eight after accompanying his mother to the Guilford Town Fair, where he witnessed a glassblowing demonstration. Captivated by what he had seen, he attempted to replicate the effects himself at home by melting an old light bulb over the flames of a gas stove. His mother caught him, but Hepburn quickly explained that he had “fire polished” the glass, removing the sharp edges. His mother was impressed by his inventiveness, and from that point on his parents encouraged his experiments (and made sure that they were more properly supervised). He dropped out of school at fourteen but continued to explore new methods of working with glass as a way of dealing with personal problems he was experiencing at the time.
In the 1970s, Hepburn decided he wanted to learn how to work with neon. Neon lighting is made by filling a glass tube with the gas and closing it off with an electrode at each end. The tube is then electrically charged and the reaction of the gas produces the characteristic glowing light. In 1977, Hepburn opened a neon sign shop where he worked on repairing signs for businesses while continuing to experiment with glass techniques on his own. He was particularly fascinated by the effects created in plasma globes. Plasma globes work in a similar manner to neon signs, but instead of using two electrodes a plasma globe has just one, and the charge from this electrode produces moving waves of light and energy instead of the steady light of neon signs. Hepburn worked tirelessly to try and create this same effect himself, eventually finding success with the help of his neighbor and parts from an old television set. He was inspired to investigate the effects that could be achieved by including other gases in his sculptures besides neon, such as argon, xenon, krypton, and helium. When charged with a small electric current, the gases react to form shifting, multi-colored swirls of energy winding and coiling inside the glass sculpture. He continued to experiment with the different colors and forms that he could create, and in 1992 he built his own glassblowing furnace, allowing him to produce even more new forms and enlarge the scale of his work.
Using these techniques, Hepburn created his characteristic style of colorful, spontaneous glass forms that enclose an ever-changing play of energy and light. His work was featured in the NBMAA’s New/Now gallery in 2002. Soon after, he submitted a proposal for a set of his luminous glass sculptures to be permanently installed in the connecting hallway between the old NBMAA building and the new Chase Family Building. The installation, titled Joyous Windows, consists of twenty-one individual glass sculptures hung in groupings of three along the street-side window of the hallway. The imaginative, biomorphic shapes in a variety of colors recall the work of Surrealist artists such as Joan Miró and Yves Tanguy. During the day the sculptures are illuminated by natural light, providing a lively transition from the old building to the new. After dark the sculptures are illuminated from within by constantly changing swirls of light, and the playful colors of the day become vivid and electric at night.
Refusing to rely solely on the techniques for which he has become known, Hepburn continues to search for new formulas, new colors, and new effects to create. He sees himself as a sort of mad scientist in his laboratory, never satisfied with the discoveries that he has made and convinced that there is even more out there to find. What do you think of Hepburn’s work? Would you classify Hepburn as an artist, as a scientist, or both? How does his use of neon and glass to create artworks relate to the use of the same materials for commercial purposes? Does the use of these materials for commerce and advertising hinder their acceptance as an art medium?