Ever since Antiquity, visual artists have sought to recreate reality to the best of their ability in every possible medium. Even now, realistic media, like photography, may not be enough to appropriately capture a scene quite the way the human eye sees it, since it’s restricted to two-dimensional planes. Ever-improving technologies point to video in creating immersive virtual realities to fully capture vantage points, but what options exist outside the realm of moving images? Artist Chuck Whitlock believes he has found a solution to the age-old quandary by imbedding two-dimensional images in blocks of transparent glass. In doing this, he augments the sense of depth in his photography by letting it occupy physical space within a solid, tangible form.
Whitlock’s approach is a complex sequence of impregnating separate sheets of glass with still images—predominantly landscape photographs. He carefully dissects photographs digitally, by separating visual elements in the foreground from those at farther distances, in order to create several distinct layers. Each layer is then infused to a sheet of molten glass and allowed to harden. After each has tempered, they are merged in a kiln to form a single coherent image to evoke a natural semblance of depth-of-field.
In one example, tall fronds of sea oats are captured swaying, seemingly just beneath the glass surface, while waves crash against the beach deeper in the glass. Way in the background, clouds gather against a blue sky, frosted by light, dispersed through its crystalline surface.
In another, a sandy beach is set against dense clusters of storm clouds. Nestled within the squall, the shadow of a distant lighthouse looms. Landscapes, such as the numerous beaches of Cape Fear, are best suited to Whitlock’s process, as his treatment augments the extant qualities of the original photographs.
“That’s what intrigues me about photographs in fused-glass,” he elaborates. “It gives art lovers a different way to look at an otherwise beautiful photo. You can really see it just as the human eye would have seen it, had it been there at the time it was shot.”
Whitlock’s work didn’t emerge from lifetime training in becoming an artist. He began his artistic endeavors by happenstance: while seeking a relaxing diversion during his lengthy career as an investigative reporter. His investigations into the world of white-collar crime often placed him at the center of myriad high-stress settings, which ranged from infiltrating boiler rooms to going undercover as a scam artist to flush out fraudulent activities. His research took a toll on his well-being, and prompted his wife Candace to enroll him in a stained-glass course offered by Bullseye Glass in Portland, Oregon—one of the largest glass manufacturers in the country. The discipline necessary for performing glassmaking proved a valuable escape from the demands of Whitlock’s career.
“When you’re working with glass, you’re not thinking about anything else,” he explains. “There are so many things you have to take into consideration. Every ounce of energy and every brain cell has to be dedicated to it because if you mess it up—early in the game or in the middle or at the end—it doesn’t turn out. Every step of the way you have to be very cognizant of what you’re doing.”
This first taste of glasswork left an indelible impression upon Whitlock, as he and his wife took to the medium and ran with it. “I made glass for relatives,” he remarks. “Everybody in my universe got a piece of glass. Then we decided to take things to the next level. We took more and more classes until we became masters at glass.”
When he learned about the process of fusing images within glass, he saw a unique opportunity to examine the way eyes can perceive landscapes. Thus he devoted himself to mastering the temperamental medium. It’s a painstaking process to work with molten glass in and of itself, but the process of adhering images to multiple sheets further complicates an already intricate task.
“As a glass artist, I have to manipulate each segment of the Photoshopped image so the depth and perception of each layer is obvious,” he elaborates. “Once the image is laid down, it diminishes the previous image because [I’m] putting more glass on top of it and losing some contrast. It’s very complicated, very technical, and I take great pride in it.”
Another intimidating factor comes with the tremendous investment of time and resources. Whitlock is fortunate to work in a private studio with his own kilns, since each step of his process demands hours of attention, as well as careful arrangement during firing to ensure each piece of glass tempers perfectly.
“Some of my pieces take as long as 100 hours,” he asserts. “If I have a 10-layer image, and for each one I have to convert [a photograph] to a ceramic image so it can withstand higher temperatures, I have to work on those one at a time. That’s a three-hour process, so if I have 10 images, it’s 30 hours just putting in the layers. Then I need 30 to 50 hours to put all those layers together. There’s probably about seven hours of total work getting the edges right, smoothing and buffing them.”
The process is so specific and time-consuming, only two other artists in the country work consistently in the medium—both are on the West Coast. It makes Whitlock the only fused-glass artist currently operating on the East Coast. He embraces the scenario, and attributes his prior success in journalism to having occupied niches.
“I found a place where nobody else specialized, and I was very successful with my white-collar crime books,” he reminisces. “I used the same system in the world of glass. I found a place where I’m doing a thing that not everybody can or is willing to do. It’s a long, arduous process to figure out how to manipulate the glass to get the end result.”
Much is in the works for Whitlock. While his pieces are currently on display at Leland Cultural Arts Center, new work will be shown at Leland City Hall in October. Afterward, he plans to organize showings in Atlanta and Charlotte before embarking on a national tour.