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Alum Robert DuGrenier working on a series of glass handled hammers in the Vitro House with Glass II & III students.

Alum Robert DuGrenier blends art and science to create magic

For Robert DuGrenier glassblowing isn’t only art. It’s supernatural.

“Have you ever seen glass being made before? It’s pure magic,” DuGrenier, M.F.A. ’79, said. “You get to tell the material what you want it to do but it has a voice of its own.”

DuGrenier was inducted into the College of Fine Arts Hall of Fame on April 16. The acclaimed sculptor has worked with many materials throughout his career, but glassblowing was his first passion. DuGrenier attended Philadelphia College of Art to become a professional glassblower.

DuGrenier also studied at the Hornsey College of Art in London. During his thesis art show, he was approached by another artist who was impressed by his work. That artist turned out to be Illinois State Distinguished Professor of Art Joel Philip Myers. Myers offered DuGrenier a scholarship to study at Illinois State University.

“I knew if I stayed in England, that I would probably never come back to the States” he said. “I was getting really comfortable there, but I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the States.”

DuGrenier’s two years at Illinois State gave him the opportunity to concentrate strictly on his art.

“To have that much time dedicated to think about concepts and not have to worry about much of anything allowed me to focus on myself,” he said. “I got to wake up every day thinking about what I was going to create.”

After graduation, DuGrenier moved to New York City, where he lived for the better part of two decades. In 1984 he was commissioned to create and produce a one-twelfth scale model from which the flame for the 1986 Centennial Restoration Project of the State of Liberty was sculpted.

“I had been working with the head architect for the project on various jobs in New York City,” he said. “They needed to figure out how to overcome some challenges with the flame. He said, ‘You’re a glass expert,’ and I was on the job.”

DuGrenier describes himself as a “tinkerer,” which is a modest way of describing his prolific output. For more than 30 years, he has designed and created glass installations that can be found all over the world. His company, Robert DuGrenier Associates, is a major player in the design and development of innovative packaging and design for the cosmetics industry. His company also designs custom awards for Nickelodeon, MTV, the CMT Music Awards, and VH1 Music Awards.

Nickelodeon Kids Choice award. Photo used with artist’s permission.

“It has been a talent of mine to design something that becomes an icon,” he said. “I can create something that filters out the nonessential things and get to the essence of what a product or award is.”

He has done all of this while producing personal artwork. One of his more famous projects emerged from a conversation with a client.

“Doing the Wildlife Conservation Award, I had an apple tree that I had adorned with a glass shell-like form,” he said. “The curator for the Coney Island Aquarium told me that someone had brought in a hermit crab that had made the broken neck of a Coke bottle its home. She said I could make a better home, so that got me thinking about it a bit.”

The glass shells have also resulted in practical applications for researchers studying hermit crabs. DuGrenier has partnered with three scientists to produce a paper about the previously unknown depths of hermit crab communication. The crabs communicate through clicks that cannot be accurately recorded through their calcified shells. DuGrenier’s glass shells do not distort the sound, which allows scientists to decipher what the crabs are saying to other members of their species.

“The blending of art and science is really special to me,” he said.

Another personal work came after a traumatic accident at the Vermont farm he has been living on since the mid-90s. A fire destroyed a historic barn, killing livestock and ruining his favorite farm equipment. DuGrenier wasn’t quite ready to let go of what was lost. The result is a sculpture collection called Out of the Ashes.

“Suspended in Time”. Photo used with artist’s permission.

“I dug around in the ashes and found what was left of some of my favorite tools,” he said. “I brought pieces to my studio and started to play with them. The act of playing with them was therapeutic.”

For Redbirds wanting to study art, DuGrenier said it is important to follow your heart.

“I always followed my passion,” he said. “If you follow it and are honest with yourself, it will lead you in a direction where you will be fulfilled as a person.”

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