When Duncan McClellan believes in something, he throws himself behind it. Not too long ago, the St. Petersburg glass artist and gallery owner started a website, www.glasscoast.com, with links to every spot in the county that’s dedicated to contemporary glass art.
“I’m always going around the country, giving talks, so that when collectors come to the area they can flip up that website,” he says proudly, “and they can link to every individual artist that does glass, every gallery, every permanent installation, every museum.”
St. Pete is on the cutting edge – no pun intended – of the glass art movement. Between the $6 million Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center, the new Imagine Museum, McClellan’s facility inside the Warehouse Arts District and several smaller galleries, the city is home to hundreds of imaginative works by many of the top artists working today.
McClellan bought, overhauled and redesigned a 7,800-foot former tomato-packing plant on 24th Avenue South nearly 10 years ago. Duncan McClellan Glass was one of the first tenants of the Warehouse Arts District, and it features works by McClellan himself and another 60-some artists from around the country. There’s a working studio (with the requisite super-heated furnace glassblowers call a “hotbox”), and a classroom where public and private school kids can learn the art of glass blowing. Parked out back is a “mobile glass lab” for taking the process directly to schools.
McClellan, 63, is at the center of it all, with his wife Irene, a dedicated staff of nine and a half-dozen well-behaved cats that enjoy the run of the place.
All the time, however, he’s got St. Pete and its success as an arts destination, on his mind. According to Visit St. Pete/Clearwater statistics, he says, more than 20 percent of visitors to the area come for the museums. And the galleries. And the theaters. “Art is an economic driver, we all know that.”
He doesn’t believe state and local tourism councils are doing enough promote the arts here. “I can open up the Wall Street Journal, there’s a half-page ad: Houston Does the Arts,” McClellan says. “And it’s all these artists standing there, doing their discipline – and that’s all they’re talking about, not aerospace, not beaches.
“Here, it’s beaches. They might advertise the arts by putting a postage stamp of a picture of the Dali.”
McClellan is rich in his praise for former St. Pete City Council members Leslie Curran and Jeff Danner, whose early work on the Warehouse Arts District project – alongside artists including Mark Aeling and Catherine Woods – helped corral city support. He is a big fan of the Grow Smarter initiative between the city and the Chamber of Commerce.
He believes John Collins, director of the Arts Alliance of St. Petersburg, is a hero.
Still, McClellan bought the glass coast domain name because it’s his view that things can get better. A lot better. “I will continue to be vocal about them spending money on advertising the arts,” he says, “because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to sustain this.”
Although he was born in Long Island, N.Y., Duncan McClellan grew up in Orlando. His father was in advertising and public relations, and McClellan remembers Walt Disney – who was in the process of buying up Central Florida scrubland in the early 1960s – coming to the house for Sunday dinner. Harlan Sanders was another client of Dad’s, but McClellan doesn’t remember if chicken was on the menu that Sunday the Colonel came for supper.
During a trip in the family station wagon to the New York World’s Fair in ‘64, Duncan was enthralled by what saw at the Blenko Glass Factory in Milton, West Virginia.
He would 30 years old before he tried glassblowing.
He threw himself into one thing after another: At 14, he created a line of leather belts for Winter Park and Orlando boutiques. He was an advance man for a traveling circus. He was a graphic designer. With big dreams of opening a restaurant, he enrolled in business classes at Hillsborough Community College, and as elective began working in clay. He was maitre’d at a restaurant in Busch Gardens. He was part owner of a cosmetics company.
In New York, on business, he discovered a working glass studio, and remembering his childhood enchantment with the medium and the process, impulsively signed up for classes. “I started seeing all this great stuff that people were doing, and I thought: ‘How did you conceive of it?’ ‘How did you manipulate the material to do that?’ I wasn’t intending showing work and selling it. It was a knowledge that I wanted, just because I wanted it. And it’s really fascinating.”
For several years, he commuted between Ybor City, where he studied glass-making, and the New York collective.
By mid-decade McClellan was out of the cosmetics business and supporting himself by selling his glass works at outdoor art festivals. “There would be first, second and third prizes in glass,” he recalls. “But there were only two of us glass artists, so somebody was going to win a prize!
“At the time, nobody knew how to blow glass. So if you could blow a little bubble – if you could keep it on the end of the pipe – you were a f—ing genius. There weren’t many talented newbies out there doing outdoor shows. I was really lucky I started when I started.”
After 20 years of outdoor shows – many of them profitable, particularly in South Florida – McClellan figured it was time to open a gallery, to feature his work and the increasingly-impressive work of other glass artists.
After a failed attempt to get one going in Ybor (the city politics, he says, made his crazy), he started looking into St. Pete, and the area that was about to become the Warehouse Arts District.
Glass-working can be traced back thousands of years, but up until the early 1960s it was considered more of a craft than art, with pieces generally mass-produced in factory furnaces.
It was sculptor Dale Chihuly, from Washington State, who took the fledgling art form into new, uncharted territory in the 1970s. Chihuly’s sense of form, light, color and texture – particularly on his large-form pieces – have inspired every glass artist who’s followed.
McClellan’s multi-layered, stylized vessels combine intricately-etched images with voluptuous, intriguing shapes. As with all glass art, his work takes on different attributes and meanings depending on the light source.
For all his talents, McClellan is a humble man who prefers to talk about the other artists whose work is displayed in his gallery. “I blow big bubbles and I carve out my mistakes,” he says. “That’s what I’m known for. That was a leftover from my design days.
“These people are just mind-blowing in what they can do. The gallery and the universe led me to do what I was really supposed to be doing.”
Glass, he adds, “can be used so many different ways; I think that’s why so many people gravitate to the medium.
“Look around here. People are fusing it, casting it, coldworking it, griding it, polishing it, sandblasting it, acid-etching it. Putting images inside. Putting images outside. Electrifying it, levitating it with magnets. It can be opaque, it can be translucent, it can be transparent. It can be very, very fragile, and it can be the strongest thing.”