An American Original Shows Them What They Forgot
No. 5 in the LHS Pop Mini-Bio Series
OKAY, This one is Tough. In our ‘Pop Mini-Bios’ thus far we were able to gain the trust of the artists who then shared inside information with us, which we of course immediately presented to you all.
Sure we were able to tease Gordon Smith in his Arizona studio about rattlesnakes and nightly coyote raids (which turned out to be true!) – and we exposed Damon MacNaught as wasting time baking bread for his family when he should have had glass in that kiln (almost true! – he does bake for them daily, but we realize now, in the kitchen). We brought you a heart-pounding description of the destruction to Alison Ruzsa’s glass works which involved the huge metal protective building doors being flung like toys off their hinges in the episode called “Hurricane Sandy Makes a Studio Visit.” Sad and true. And recently we tugged at your heartstrings when we were the first to report about how Delmo and Debbie Tarsitano battled frostbite with bathroom hand dryers while selling paperweights at the outdoor winter fairs and flea markets. Sensational information? Yes. Click Bait? Darn near!
But THE (pronounced thee) Charles Kaziun Jr. presents a real challenge! First of all, we never had the pleasure to meet him and he’s no longer with us. Second of all, when it comes to this imposing icon, it’s all been said already—culminating with the Paperweight Press publication of Magic in the Glass: The Paperweight Artistry of Charles Kaziun, Jr. by Ben Drabeck, a delightful colleague and a true pillar of this community who will be seriously missed. So think of this relatively as the TMZ treatment (ask your kids).
Charlie (he liked to be called that) was an extremely talented and determined individual. This is the kind of guy you want with you in a submarine that’s sitting wedged in the Pacific Mariana Trench with the forward torpedo room flooding. When he saw a technical challenge he seemed to come alive with determination. Here was a rebel artist. Alone in his quest, functioning almost as the TV character MacGyver, with improvised instruments – a Chase & Sanborn coffee can as a shop burner – and flying blind as he strove to reopen the vault doors to the secrets of the ancients (okay, we’re only talking about a century and a half – just go with it). But just try and tell him something couldn’t be done and watch the sparks fly as he proved you wrong. Seriously, the young artist’s insatiable imagination and energy allowed him to first re-engineer the content and quality of classic era paperweights before creating his own indelible mixture of designs and executions that today stand out for their beauty and are immediately identifiable. (Try leaving your name lying around engraved in gold and see if people don’t remember you!)
But the real reason Charlie Kaziun has retained his stature as an artist and pioneer is the quality and dedication that marked his career of almost six decades—beginning in 1934 when he was a freshman in high school. Over his career in glass and especially early on, Charlie created vases, ashtrays, pitchers, buttons, salt dishes, pens, candelabra, and more, in addition to paperweights. It would take several more pages to describe how he bribed, cajoled and caressed the glass into the beautiful works he created so just look at the pictures this time around!
Charlie gained momentum when he began closely observing the public demonstrations by the renowned Howell family of glassblowers who decided it was easier to hire the kid than to have him arrested for stalking and industrial espionage. Later Charlie studied at and worked (making glass instruments) for the University of Pennsylvania (1942-1967 off and on) and thrived under the mentorship of James Graham, whom Charlie called the “best scientific glassblower of his time.” At times Charlie stayed at the University until 1 am, working on his own designs and would flat out run from his second floor workshop with his molten punty load to the annealing oven in the school’s basement before it cooled too much. Dedication.
By the late 1940s-early 1950s, a network of dealers had placed Kaziuns alongside their antique French and American pieces in their shops and galleries. In 1945 on a summer (working) sojourn to Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory—and guys being guys—Charlie wound up annoying his future wife, Louise, before he even met her. Actually her mom rented Charlie her daughter’s bedroom while she was at her summer job, and the eighteen year old came home to find herself demoted to the nursery! She was Fuming! (Remember – in life, you only have one chance to make a first impression!) They married a quick nine years later.
There’s no way to cover in this space all of Charlie’s achievements over the decades and besides, we’d be sued for copyright infringement by Ben Drabeck’s heirs (kidding) but suffice it to say that Charles Kaziun mastered every known technique of glass making there was and his tireless efforts were rewarded with sales and recognition long before there was much of an organized paperweight community. His was a lonely path in many respects. Those sales and the recognition also helped him with his live-in mother, Nana, who softened her criticism of her son’s artistic efforts (she wanted him always making scientific glass) as she witnessed collector after collector coming to the house and buying everything right off the kitchen table.
One day Charlie received the biggest compliment a paperweight maker could ever wish for. In the 1940s he had been pretty much alone in the paperweight field, but by 1952-53, Baccarat and Saint Louis had both resumed the production of paperweights. Charlie had once said: “With all due respect to the French, I don’t think they have the patent on brains and if they had succeeded in reviving an art form of this sort over there, possibly it could be done over here.” In 1953, Charlie and Louise attended an antique show in New York City where Paul Jokelson was displaying Kaziun weights next to mostly antiques. Representatives from both Baccarat and Saint Louis were present and after examining Charlie’s efforts, they begged him on the spot to fly home with them to show the French where they were making all their mistakes! (YES, we’re talking about being PAID to come to PARIS!) But our hero declined their offers and continued full speed with his own work and that’s lucky for all our personal collections. In his later decades, after so many years filled with experimentation, hard work, exhibitions, success, and recognition— various health issues began to physically impair Charlie, and he really focused his future efforts on training his son Charles in the art of glass. It must have been a proud day when he told his son that the younger Kaziun’s miniature Christmas ornaments far surpassed any that he had ever made. It was only after Charlie’s passing in 1992, however that his son Charles began making paperweights.
There’s no better way to take our leave of this woefully inadequate description of a truly talented and groundbreaking artist whose work is in every serious collection, than to quote a fragment from the writings of Louise, who, seems at some point to have forgiven Charlie for her unseemly eviction from her own bedroom…
“When I hold one of his pieces and study it, what’s inside seems to glow with life. That’s what is so fascinating to me about paperweights. The forms and the flowers in the glass are the closest thing to eternal life we can know.”