Sometimes in our freeform Pop Mini-Bio series, we just let go of the reins and stand aside. Here, Debbie Tarsitano leapt into producing her narrative for us, maybe because she read our expose on Damon MacNaught and rightfully knows we can’t be trusted… okay, partially kidding. Debbie lives with her husband Martin in Westford Massachusetts. Two grown sons and Kathryn, her 96-year old mother, round out the immediate family. And while compulsively experimenting with glass and its relationships with other art forms and materials for many years, Debbie says she wants to make one thing perfectly clear, “I’m a paperweight lover!” This from an artist who also says, “I can’t find anything that’s as hard to make as a paperweight.” We guess that’s why it’s called a “Labor of Love.”
In my life I would like to be known as honest, straightforward and sensible. In my artwork I would like to be the wild child, having as the Tao says, “the beginner’s mind,” – inventive, unafraid and bold. The world is my canvas and having artwork that is considered relevant to the time we live in is important. I love paperweights. I started making them in the 1970s, after years of being an accomplished painter.
Born in 1955, I was about 13 when my dad and I bought a small group of American paperweights (with a few Muranos) at a country auction. We were intrigued by what we had and my father particularly wanted to find out how these might have been made. He was technically adept and endlessly curious—fascination grew into experimentation and our Tarsitano Studio was born. Dad and I shared interests in gardening, collecting and now making art. My mom Kathryn was our biggest fan and invaluable bookkeeper. We made quite a team.
I was about 19. I would soon graduate early from Hofstra University with degrees in fine art and journalism. (I told the dean I was already immersed in my business and had to finish quickly. For some reason he listened!) During this time we had also become active dealers in paperweights with my father and I developing relationships with Paul Jokelson and Larry Selman. My father bought from Larry and Larry sold our work. (I still have the Selman poster from the mid-80s of my paperweights on a background of drawings I did of inspirational flowers.)
I represented our business buying weights at Sotheby’s auctions by 1975. Friendships came quickly with members of the paperweight community in the mid-1970s. I remember being asked to donate a weight I had made to the 1976 PCA Boston Convention auction and it was bought by a very well known collector! Paul Jokelson made me come up on stage and I was overwhelmed as he introduced me to the crowd of about 400 people. Dad and I had been selling at flea markets where the venues ranged from rural high school cafeterias to Madison Square Garden, but this was my first serious public sale and recognition! (Oh, how I recall some of those outdoor winter markets where we had to take turns warming up in the public bathrooms!) I think that Boston was also where I met Max Erlacher, the gifted glass engraver with whom I would later collaborate.
I originally fell in love with antique paperweights, the mystery of them and the fascinating era they were created in. In time I grew away from antique works and pursued an interest in contemporary art, studying the works of Picasso, Warhol and others. Their bold initiatives inspired me to reach beyond the classic paperweight form. In their worlds, shape, form, design, color, imagination and the manipulation of material—all seem endless. It was so natural for me to join in with that spirit. I was a fish in that stream, constantly developing new work. I never left paperweights—but I demanded progress; I was a protestor, hoping doors would open and create greater challenges and possibilities for the art of encasement. Paperweights became canvases to me, inside and out, without limitations to shape or embellishment. Their interiors could tell stories and their exteriors could reinforce the ideas and concepts.
I have been an instructor at The Studio of the Corning Museum of Glass since 2005. I have studied and worked there with many of the great glass innovators: Jiri Harcuba and Martin Rosol for engraving and glass-cutting; Kimiake and Shinichi Higuchi for pâte de verre; Cappy Thompson for painting on glass and Denise Stillwaggon Leone for photo transfer to glass. I also worked with Dino Rosin of Venice making a large-scale paperweight and other sculptures. I painted the base of one collaboration, “Lens Fantasia,” with the narrative of my life’s work.
In perspective, the work I created with my Father was a perfect jumping point to new horizons. That time had been spent learning techniques and building a foundation for the future. We were Father, Daughter, friends, and collaborators—we taught each other but we also stayed clear of each other’s ideas and set no limits upon the art. How perfect can that be? Work in continuous development over long periods of an artist’s life builds a major portfolio. Sadly, Dad passed in 1991 just as he claimed the right to explore so many new areas of art. I went on to realize our dreams alone, pushing my work beyond its traditional limits and busting out towards a new future for the art of paperweight as sculpture.
For many years I routinely worked 7 days a week, with periods where I rarely enjoyed time outside other than to check on mom, who lives close by. The moment my husband and two boys were off to school and work, I would throw myself into the studio. My sons are now grown and my husband and I share the two-car garage—my studio and his office. Martin is a well known Management Consultant and author who also taught for a decade at the University of Pennsylvania. He just happens to be Paul Stankard’s brother. At least he knew what to expect when he met me!
I use glass from Bullseye and I still have some Schott as well. Years ago, when there was a “lock” on the Schott glass formula most favored for making paperweights, we worked with a chemist at Schott to produce “S5” and later “S8” (with Chris Buzzini) which worked extremely well and which we did not patent. It was available to all. I recently took the plunge and had a custom HUB Consolidated kiln built for my studio to handle larger works.
Experimentation is not fun; talented people suffer and it is lonely. But it is a necessity in creating new and profound works of original art. I can’t describe the thrill of dropping molten glass on the most delicate of flame works, opening the kiln, seeing the perfection and mystery of glass in its completion as a work of art. But I can share with you that the result brings something better to this world.
Collectors give the art works temporary homes. They are custodians of the art, safeguarding treasure until the next generation is ready to discover it. Ultimately collectors and historians will make of my work what they each see in it. (I do have concepts and stories about my work, but those are personal, written for myself.) It is left to the viewers of my art to discover my intentions and decide for themselves what of them to make their own. My own mission in life is to continue creating art with the greatest, most honest intention possible and to leave something behind that is good.
It has been quite a life of artistic creation (experiment, sacrifice and occasional triumph), collaboration, sales, and exhibitions—not to mention a full family life. What? You’re asking me what I do on vacation, now that I take some time off occasionally?
I go beachcombing for sea glass.
You must avail yourselves of the splendid interview that Ben Drabeck conducted with Debbie; read “Transitions: A Journey in Glass,” published in the Annual Bulletin of the Paperweight Collectors Association, Inc. 2014. It’s invaluable. We thank Ben for this insightful contribution (among so much else) to the glass community; he will be sorely missed.