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Grad student turns POTUS into work of art

American Idols exhibition

The "American Idols" exhibition. (Nathan J Shaulis, Porter Loves Photography)

President Barack Obama takes the stage Thursday at the Democratic National Convention, making his case for four more years. If he can’t do it, Illinois State graduate student John Moran will have some work to do.

Moran is a third-year MFA art student who works with glass. His new exhibition, “American Idols,” is his take on each of the 43 American presidents, featuring freehand sculpted glass heads and custom clothing.

All 43 busts are now on display together for the first time at the Pittsburgh Glass Center’s Hodge Gallery through Nov. 12, an exhibit timed for the presidential election. Moran has been working on the busts since 2009, initially as a way to learn how to make faces with glass.

John Moran

John Moran is a third-year MFA art student who works with glass. (Nathan J Shaulis, Porter Loves Photography)

“It ended up turning into this giant installation,” he said. (The key to transporting glass busts cross-country, by the way: a rented truck and $800 in bubble wrap.)

He finished all the heads during a six-week residency in New Jersey, heating up the glass and then quickly sculpting the nooks and crannies of the face with a butter knife. But the heads don’t take that long to finish, Moran says. The hard part is studying up on the presidents, developing his own interpretation of each one, and spinning that off into the lower bust and clothing that each glass head sits upon.

George Washington, he found out, was a “horse fanatic” who took better care of his animals than himself. So he modeled his glass Washington as a modern guy from New Jersey more obsessed with his car than taking care of his house, or himself. Moran’s Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as a hipster, and his Rutherford B. Hayes looks like a lumberjack.

Moran’s work does get political, but it’s subtle. Former baseball executive and President George W. Bush, for example, wears a Texas Rangers jersey. One of the badges on the jersey reads “Mission Accomplished,” a low-key swipe at Bush’s premature victory declaration speech.

“And they all have stuff like that,” Moran said.

Moran came to Illinois State largely to work with John Miller, an assistant professor in the School of Art who specializes in glass. Miller was one of the first to work with glass as large pop objects, not just vessels, and both men like to play with pop culture, Moran said, noting his “American Idols” exhibition title.

Moran himself came to glass from the world of illustration and painting.

“It’s intuitively reactive,” Moran said of glass. “There’s something about the spontaneity that I really like.”

Obama glass bust

Moran’s take on President Obama. (Nathan J Shaulis, Porter Loves Photography)

Moran did his Obama bust right after the 2009 inauguration, meaning he couldn’t draw on his tenure as president like he could with the others. Drawing on what Moran perceived as how some Americans viewed Obama, the glass version of the 44th president wears a hoodie and a Public Enemy T-shirt.

So what happens if Republican Mitt Romney wins in November? Moran will go back to work, possibly doing part of the new bust at the Pittsburgh Glass Center. He doesn’t have any ideas to share quite yet, but he may be more patient and let Romney reveal himself as president before he finishes the piece.

“I may just want to do the head first and see how it plays out,” Moran said.

Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@ilstu.edu.

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