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“What If…?”

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The artists who participate in the special residency sponsored by Corning Incorporated and the Corning Museum of Glass have access to highly trained scientists, specialized equipment, and unique glass compositions. But the scientists get just as much out of the program… including some unexpected lessons.

Last month, we welcomed our latest artist-in-residence to Sullivan Park, the hub of Corning’s global science and technology network. Sculptor Mark Peiser met with several of our scientists, toured different labs, and observed some of the capabilities that we think he might want to incorporate into his work during his residency. The two-day site visit is part of a year-long process that began in January when representatives from Corning Incorporated and the Corning Museum of Glass visited Mark’s studio in North Carolina to learn more about his artwork and areas of interest.

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Now in its sixth year, the artist-in-residence program is a joint initiative that grew out of the close relationship and interaction between Corning’s scientists and the Museum’s technical curators of glass art. The program, which is by invitation only, allows artists to experiment with and adapt specialty glass materials to create new work. Corning provides the artist with access to highly engineered glass compositions and technical expertise in areas such as glass formulation, melting, and forming. The Museum provides access to its glassmaking facilities, collection, and curators. Past participants have included Albert Paley, Tom Patti, Toots Zynsky, Anna Mlasowsky, and Karen LaMonte.?

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Artist Demand and the Drive to Innovate

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People often ask me why we launched the program. There are actually two reasons. First, there is a demand from glass artists for our technical glasses so they can expand the possibilities within their work. For example, after learning about Corning? Gorilla? Glass, several artists contacted us to ask how they get their hands on it. As a business-to-business company we are not set up to sell small quantities or provide the related technical support. The program provides a way to respond to artists’ interest in a controlled way that avoids business interruptions, while also increasing the likelihood of a positive experience for the artist. The second reason is more personal. The program is a way to share our love of this remarkable and endlessly versatile material, and another opportunity to honor our commitment to innovation. In this case, the artists are the innovators, but we are always thrilled to play a role in bringing new glass creations to life. In a way, we’re carrying on a tradition that began more than a century ago, when Dr. Eugene Sullivan, the founder of Corning’s first research laboratory, shared materials with the renowned glass artist Frederick Carder, enabling his revolutionary explorations of form and color.

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Recently, however, someone asked a more intriguing question. The program’s newest alumna, Karen LaMonte, had just finished giving a presentation at the Museum about the projects from her residency. During the question and answer session, there was extensive discussion about her experience, including several examples of how our expertise and resources benefited her work, which were very gratifying to hear. But the examples also prompted an audience member to ask, “Do the scientists learn anything from working with the artists?”

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It wasn’t my place to jump in to respond – and, truth be told, I probably wouldn’t have done the answer justice at that time if I tried. But as my colleagues and I prepared to welcome Mark, the question popped back into my head.

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Scientist as Student?

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When we launched the program in 2014, I knew that it would be valuable to scientists as well as artists– I just didn’t realize how many ways.

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One benefit that didn’t surprise me was the interest and excitement the program generated among our staff. I’m a firm believer in giving creative people opportunities outside of their scope because they energize and inspire them, stimulate their curiosity, and broaden their experiences, which is the best way to spark further innovation.

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I also knew we would learn a lot about the artistic process and the aesthetic properties of glass. As scientists, we tend to be very deliberate in our work and usually have an end goal in mind for the technical capabilities we desire. ?The artists, on the other hand, are trying to create something beautiful or thought provoking. Working with the artists inspires our scientists to think in a more creative and artistic ways. For example, we had some glass melts that we considered “failures” because of defects in the composition. Yet the artists viewed the same glasses as beautiful because of the complexity and personality that the imperfections added. I also heard stories about Tom Patti and Toots Zynsky rifling through glass and ceramic materials that had been discarded and were headed for recycling, because they saw opportunities to incorporate the rejected materials into their pieces.

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As my colleague Jeff Evenson noted in a piece published last year, aesthetic properties are becoming an increasingly important focus of Corning’s work as glass itself becomes a vital enabling technology for more and more industries. So, learning to see through the artists’ eyes has expanded our understanding of what kinds of attributes might be desirable.

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But we have also learned in unexpended ways. The biggest surprise for me is how the program has helped us deepen our fundamental knowledge of our materials and processes.

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Expanding Our Fundamental Knowledge

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At Corning, we pride ourselves in our unparalleled capabilities in glass science, ceramic science, and optical physics, as well as several proprietary manufacturing and engineering processes.

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During their residency, the artists not only work with Corning’s custom glass compositions, they are often working directly with the inventors of a particular glass. It’s hard to imagine having access to a deeper level of expertise than that. And yet, our scientists learn along with the artists.? How? By taking materials we know extremely well and putting them into unconventional applications that push them beyond what we would typically do.

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For example, Anna Mlasowsky chose to work with a glass-ceramic material that was developed in part by Corning scientist Michelle Wallen, who also served as her technical advisor. Corning generally casts this particular composition in thick blocks, but Anna wanted to use it in very thin sheets that she could form into a wearable cocoon, as part of her “Chrysalis” project – not exactly a standard item in Corning’s repertoire. We had no idea how the glass would behave in that form. We didn’t know if you could even blow it on a blow pipe until we tried it, and it worked. But maintaining the shape was a challenge, and there were multiple failures before identifying a method that would prevent the form from collapsing. (You can learn more about the project here.)

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We had a similar experience with Karen. She was excited by potential of bioactive glasses to extend her exploration of the human form and the tension between the desire for physical perfection and the realities of aging and death. Karen wanted to cast the bioactive glass, which is intentionally unstable and impermanent, in her own custom molds. We didn’t know how our glasses would react or what kind of issues would emerge. But after experimenting with several compositions, the team arrived at a formula that was elegant and stable enough for Karen to create her figurative sculptures.

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Even if we never use our glasses for similar applications, these experiences generate new data that deepens our understanding of our materials and processes. And that’s a fundamental part of Corning’s strategy. We have focused our portfolio on a core set of materials, scientific expertise, and manufacturing capabilities where we are leaders. We are constantly re-applying and re-purposing our core skill set in multiple markets and multiple applications. And with each new application, we add to our fundamental knowledge. That makes us better at tapping into the remarkable potential of the material at the heart of what we do, and faster at turning our knowledge and experience into life-changing inventions.

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Avoiding Premature Conclusions

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For me, this program has not only reinforced the value of asking “what if?”, but also the risks of trying to answer the question too quickly.

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Most of our participating artists come to the program with a good knowledge of the characteristics and behavior of glass, but appreciate our scientists’ deeper understanding of the chemistry, physics, optical properties, and more. They also benefit from Corning’s modeling and simulation tools, which reduce the amount of trial and error. Often when an artist asks, “What if?” our scientists can respond right away with a technical explanation of why something won’t work, saving the artist precious time and steering them in a more fruitful direction. Yet there is value in asking impractical questions and proposing unrealistic approaches, because they often prompt us to consider new possibilities. And the fact that something won’t work doesn’t always mean it’s not worth trying. Because knowing how something doesn’t work can be more valuable than knowing why something doesn’t work – and sometimes even as valuable as knowing how something will work.

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Ultimately, I believe that anything that adds to one’s knowledge is good. And better knowledge increases the speed of innovation by reducing the amount of experimentation necessary to generate results. But if you always drive in the fast lane, you can forget how rewarding the detours can be. Innovators don’t always have the luxury to explore these paths, so it’s worth seizing the opportunities when we do. And sometimes, we help make the world more beautiful in the process.


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