Don’t Break the Glass

Rome, Italy  1974–2015


As a child, I wanted to break the glass every time I saw a sign saying “Break glass” on a fire extinguisher. In this piece, I drove a nail through glass and hammered it to the wall. I redid this work in 2015 as a fundraiser for Community against Violence.

Dead End

Providence Park Department, Providence RI 1999

Customs and habits

I noticed that people cover up death and dying in American even when actually burying their dead. In Austria, where I grew up, we spend lots of time in the grave yards, at Christmas the town will turn out for mid-night mass and a walk among the graves to honor their dead and to greet living friends, it’s very festive.

In the States the graves are often completely covered in cloth or AstroTurf and no one actual sees the coffin being lowered into the ground. It’s so antiseptic. I wanted to dig a real grave—exactly six feet down--and dug by a real grave digger. At the edge of the woods I put up a real road sign saying ‘Dead End’. I thought people might notice the absurdity of that sign, as there are no dead end in the woods. Then along the path they would see an actual 6 foot down deep grave.

After the exhibition was over my children and I went to fill in the grave. We were having lots of fun shoveling in the dirt and climbing and sliding all around. A very old man walked by alone and ask us what we were doing. I suddenly felt very bad thinking he had just lost his life’s partner. My children happily answered ‘Oh this is a grave my Mom dug and we’re filling it up now’. The girls were giggling and laughing and the old man who at first looked stricken started laughing with them.

Containment Field

Providence, Rhode Island 1996

Denying Youth

In Rhode Island, I noticed that correction houses for young offenders had a very specific type of fence you could not climb. That fence was only for those locations. Our penal system is so detrimental to young people—not enough programs or education for them, no respect or honor shown them. In Norway adult offenders actually live in houses doing their own cooking, using knives, having their own rooms, with just two guards.

I wanted to show that the living spirit of young people will not be contained. I bought the same fence and made a little house with the curved part slanted inwards and a small space above so the vegetation and trees I planted inside could come pouring out. No matter how hard someone tries to kill the human spirit, it will fight to be free.

Ode to Fiddler

University of Maryland, College Park
MFA thesis exhibition, Washington DC 1987

Family Violence

A prominent government official in Washington who was considered so proper and upright was beating his wife and children. It was a big scandal; no one had found out for a long time because there was no noise, no screaming or crying or shouting. Family violence is often very quiet and secret.

I stood several 12-foot steel pipes upright; they were about 12 inches wide. In the top section of each, I cut openings. There was light within the columns and jutting out from the openings or “mouths” were ½-inch-thick glass wedges. There were sharp points at the ends, about four or five feet long, with the wider part of the triangle pushed into the “mouth.” I put glass shards on the ground.

My daughter Saarin and I made the soundtrack. I wanted the sound of someone being hit, a thud sound, as well as the sound that person would make when trying to be quiet--an involuntary expulsion of forced breath. My daughter, who loves baseball, took her bat and hit a pillow hard, and as she hit, I would exhale heavily. The pillow broke and feathers started flying around. We giggled and started laughing so hard that it took a while to make the sound loop.

The university said the piece was too dangerous-- it looked dangerous-- so they cordoned it off. I wanted people to be able to walk among the columns, hear the soundtrack, feel the fear, the dread, and the attempt to hide the abuse through the quite groans.

Point of View

MAD Museum, New York, NY 1993

Walking into a living drawing

Critic and MAD museum curator John Perrault invited me to be in the Glass Installations show. There were four men and me. John said, “I know you want the biggest space, Mary.” True, I did.

We all arrived to install. The men brought big crates, workers, and machinery. I arrived with an old-style folding luggage cart holding a small box. The ceiling was a dropped wooden lattice in a grid pattern. I ran fiber optics along the square grids and scraped the edges of the fiber optics so the lines would emit light. In the center of the, gallery, I placed clear glass tubes in a circular pattern; within that circle, I placed a smaller circle, not touching the ground, so a person could imagine fitting under it. Below the tubes were “puddles” of glass as if the center structure were melting. Along the walls, I drew lines mimicking the flowing lines of the hanging fiberoptics.

I wanted viewers to experience two things. The first was to feel as though they were walking into a living drawing. The second was to imagine themselves in the center circle. Just as children find little secret hiding places in the woods, under furniture, in bushes, I wanted viewers to imagine themselves in the center circle and to look at the magic of the room pulsating with light as the fiberoptic lines appeared and then disappeared in random order. It was all white light. The room felt magical and spacious.

Light Wall

Lannan Museum, Palm Beach, FL 1994

Walking into a living painting

Entering “Light-Wall,” an installation at the Lannan Museum, is like walking into a painting. Painter Maiya Keck painted Day-Glo flowers on the wall. On these flowers, I stapled fiber optics that would glow and change color rapidly. The brilliant reflective color at the entrance of this long narrow room fades into pure white light in the adjacent second room.

Walking into what appears to be a flat surface transforms your sense of space. Light pulsates in a frenetic way through wild veins in the ceiling and then is carried down through meandering glass tubes. In a recessed area, fine flickering points of light transport you further into deep space, where you feel that you are floating, and you lose your earthbound orientation and sense of time.

Artist’s glass has life of its own

By Mark Jenkins, Washington Post

Yellow Hook
Yellow Hook

Mary Shaffer’s sculpture relies on oppositions: soft vs. hard, light vs. dark, clean vs. corroded. But the appearances of her principal materials — glass and metal — are more different than their actual natures. The glass that appears to flow is actually just as solid as the frames, hooks and tongs to which it’s attached. And the processes of making the clear or colored material — hot glass or slumped glass — are as industrial as manufacturing steel.

Reflections and Contradictions: Five Decades, Shaffer’s retrospective at the American University Museum, savors these incongruities. The selection, which dates to 1972, includes pieces in which glass poses as water, fabric or an icicle dripping from a rusted metal wheel. Although the patina emphasizes the bulk and strength of the metal pieces, the glass catches the light, making it appear weightless, mutable and alive.

Shaffer, who works in Texas and New Mexico, started as a painter, and two of her 1970s drawings are included here. There also are In the galleries: Artist’s glass has life of its own four pieces from a series in which undulating clear-glass diamonds bracket simple silver-metal shapes, rare examples of the artist’s work in which glass plays a supporting role. More often, though, it dominates, even when a small dab of the seemingly fluid material is attached to a large metal object. The found industrial pieces suggest the world as it stubbornly is; the glass evokes change, possibility and, well, art.

Mary Shaffer: Reflections and Contradictions: Five Decades American University Museum, Washington DC
September 12 through October 18, 2015

Mary’s Tools @ OK Harris NYC

Mary Shaffer’s sixth exhibition with the prestigious New York gallery after a 25-year hiatus.


Returning to her “Tool Series” for the show titled Mary’s Tools, Shaffer combines metal tools, often hand-forged, with slumped glass–plate glass bent in a kiln, or hot glass molded through a process she calls “dippy-do,” in which the object is dipped into a crucible of molten glass. The results are often whimsical, even lyrical.

“I love making this work,” says Mary. “Each found tool, discarded and no longer useful to our present society, talks about a time when families were living on the land and many were self-sufficient; to a time when our connection to the earth was strong and vital.” She says this work reminds her that we’ve lost that connection to nature and the awareness that our stewardship of the earth is paramount to our continued survival as a species.

Mary lives in Marfa, TX, and Taos, NM, both small towns with a strong artistic culture and an environmentally sensitive community that influence her work. Her storefront studio in Marfa has become a popular stop for visitors exploring the galleries and museums of this creative town.

OK Harris was founded by the legendary Ivan Karp, the cigar-smoking, witty art dealer who discovered Andy Warhol and established the Photorealist movement, launching painters like Richard Estes and figurative sculptor Duane Hanson. Shaffer started exhibiting with Ivan in the early 1970’s. Mary says, “When Ivan sold a piece of mine, he would give me all the money, saying, you need this. He was right!”

USA Simon Fellow 2009

Mary Shaffer is recognized as one of the founding artists of the American Studio Glass Movement. She studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1960s. In the 1970s, she developed a unique technique adapted from the auto industry, which she calls “mid-air slumping.” It allows her to use gravity to soften plate glass into a form, which she often combines with metal tools. Her sculptures range in scale from small objects to room-size installations and public works.

– United States Artists web site

With Susan and Leonard Nimoy at the ceremony.
With Susan and Leonard Nimoy at the United States Artist award ceremony
with Leonard Nimoy
with Leonard Nimoy
Rahim AlHai, Mary Shaffer, and Richard T. Notkin
Musician & USA Ford Fellow, Rahim AlHai, Mary Shaffer, and Artist &
USA Hoi Fellow Richard T. Notkin

These two images by Brant Brogan