From Venice with Love

San Francisco glass artist David Patchen practices ‘old country’ technique with modern flair
From Venice with Love
David Patchen gets a piece fired up in the furnace during the blowing process in his San Francisco studio.

Could anything be more professionally daring and romantic than traveling to a tiny Italian island to learn an obscure, 16th century tecnica artistica, then returning home profoundly inspired and jumping headlong into a career in glass art.

That's David Patchen's story and, lucky for us, he's sticking to it.

The San Francisco artist practices the ancient and complex art of murrine, which originated 4,000 years ago in the Middle East, and revived and perfected by glassblowers on the Venetian island of Murano since the early 1500s.

Patchen was a marketing and technology professional in 2001 when he started glassblowing after a five-week class at the Public Glass studio in San Francisco.

"I took this up as a hobby, and I just loved it," he recalls of the gradual transition to fulltime glass artist. "I wanted to sell enough just to pay for my hobby."

Patchen's customers and fans, which have included rock star Elton John and Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher, help pay for what has grown from a pastime to a career as one of the most celebrated glass artists in the U.S.

  From Venice with Love
 
  From Venice with Love
Five examples from Patchen's 'Ellipse' portfolio—a form the artist calls "elegant explorations of flattened forms evocative of river stones and the range of graceful elliptical shapes…"
 

Today, Patchen—54, a native of New Rochelle, New York, and married father of two small children—piles up commissions for single glass pieces that fetch high four-figures, and much more for a multi-piece series.

"You've really got to have a lot of skill to do what he does," marvels one frequent customer, art collector Chris Keck of Cary, North Carolina. "I mean, he doesn't just make these in one day…Just to make a single cup can take two to three years. Just to make a cup!"

Even if they don't comprehend the mind-bending physical and technical challenges of making murrine, art lovers easily appreciate the results.

"What I love about David's pieces is they are so detailed and yet they create a sense of calm," says Sonya Pfeiffer, owner of Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in Charlotte, North Carolina, who has hosted demonstrations by Patchen and sold several of his works.

"Our clients especially love his bold use of color and patterns, as well as the shapes," says Dani Montague of Montague Gallery in San Francisco. "I think David's work is beautiful and playful. He has developed a truly distinctive style."

From Venice with Love
In the blowing process, Patchen flattens a piece by quickly rubbing and squeezing it between two large cork paddles.

Of course, like Rome—and a piece of murine—the artist that is David Patchen was not built in a day. That aforementioned style is the product of authentic training plus an unusual mindset and other tools—but some observers saw the potential years ago.

Steve Roseman "had been blowing glass for a few years" when he met Patchen at Public Glass and the two resolved to assist each other's art.

"We flailed around a lot together, just learning things," Patchen says of his friend, who hasn't blown glass much in recent years.

"He certainly wasn't the Dave Patchen we know of today," Roseman recalls. The difference, he observes, is that most glassblowers "hit a wall and they can't overcome that wall…There are very, very, very few people who are able to push past the level of just basic skills."

Roseman says the partnership ended partly because he "didn't want to be holding him [Patchen] back," as Roseman could recognize the tools that would make his friend so successful, especially a unique personal aesthetic and phenomenal dexterity.