A pill bottle with Ambien sprawled across a glass surface and a rusted razor titled “American Dream.” Not what you might expect from a glass artist, but then again, Morgan Peterson isn’t your typical glass artist. Growing up, Peterson admired people like Andres Serrano — the photographer who created the controversial “Piss Christ” — a photograph of a crucifix immersed in Serrano’s urine. “I remember so vividly watching TV, eating cheerios, being a little kid and being like, ‘That’s amazing’ and my dad being so upset at how this person had received this government grant to make this work [of art], and [that] it was sacrilegious. Right then and there I was like, ‘That’s good.’”
Like those who have inspired her, Peterson intends to create works of art that open people’s eyes, not necessarily things that are simply pleasing to the eye, and her “American Dream”piece does just that. “There [have] been a lot of people chastised, put in jail for pretty ridiculous things like weed, but the things that are legalized are very addictive and kill people,” Peterson asserts. “I listened to a lot of George Carlin growing up. He has this thing that he says that talks about the one percent, and how it’s a big club, and we’re just not in it. It’s called ‘The American Dream’ because you have to be asleep to believe in it.”
Peterson grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, and moved to Seattle, Washington, after college. “I had a friend that I went to school with … she was like, ‘You really need to go to Seattle. If you really want to do this, you need to go to Seattle and work there. That’s where all the work is.” So she did. She didn’t know anyone in Seattle. She had no jobs lined up, but she knew what she wanted to do and knocked on doors until she was given an opportunity.
“The first studio I was hired at was a big production in Fremont called Glass Eye [Studio]. I started working there as a cold worker,” Peterson recalls. From there she got a job at a larger factory and then became involved with Pratt Fine Arts. There she met Chuck Lopez, who later brought her on as his assistant and helped create other opportunities for her. She apprenticed at the Ben Moore Studio, one of Seattle’s historical glass houses. “I got to work with all sorts of wonderful people like Preston Singletary and Ethan Stern — all these people I had admired so much,” she beams.
Through the Ben Moore Studio she met Martin Blank who, she says, changed her life. “He gave me so many opportunities to do everything. All this work was pretty much made at his studio. He helped me [in] every possible way. Giving me opportunities to use his hot shop when I couldn’t afford to use another hot shop … Pratt [Fine Arts] did the same thing. They were very supportive. Martin got me in my first gallery. He was always there backing me up and rooting me on, and is still doing it, even after his shop closed.” This has been a common occurrence during our conversation about her work; Peterson made it clear that, without her community and team of four other talented artists — Courtney Branam, Deborah Adler, Alix Cannon and Benjamin Ostrom— she wouldn’t be able to do what she does.
Not everyone has had as welcoming an experience in the glass world, specifically women and people of color, and Peterson acknowledges these hard truths: “I was so lucky to have the people around me. A lot of the people I work with, a lot of the women, are so incredibly talented, but they don’t really get highlighted a lot.” Not only do they not get highlighted, but Peterson points out that men are represented in galleries more often than women. “It was really powerful women that have stayed within this community — Gina [Karaba] — they paved the way for young women like me and were always incredibly supportive. I know there are a lot of people who would give more people an opportunity, specifically women. I’ve seen a lot more [women] in the past year [in the glass community].”
But equality in the glass making world is a tricky thing. Peterson points out that “the way people get paid is by what job they’re doing. A lot of times when people are turning [the glass], it’s on big work. You usually have to be a burly person. Normally men are doing that job. Not always, but a lot of times people are getting paid for what they’re doing, how much they’re lifting or what their part is on the team. There is no base rate. Everyone pretty much makes their own deal with the company.” With no standard in pay in a predominantly white male art form, asking for a competitive wage as a woman or person of color could be intimidating. “Glass is a very white-dominated art form, which isn’t great because we need a lot of diversity to get really great ideas and beautiful work out there. There are a lot of young ladies making some excellent work, and I hope that the galleries and museums are able to do their job and help support them, give them a voice and opportunity to show their works.”
Although Peterson’s work is being showcased in galleries, she points out that, “In [the gallery] world, it doesn’t always go over well.” The people that go to these galleries and can afford the art are often part of that “one percent” club. “I donated a set of Chanel designer drug razor blade pieces to the Museum of Glass auction to help raise funds for the museum. The woman that bought it was really excited, but at the same time, when she spoke to me, she goes, ‘Oh, I’m so glad none of my friends saw me do that.’ She was a really cool lady, but it’s a stiff crowd,” Peterson recalls. “I love beautiful things, but usually the things that I’m interested in are pretty fucked up. I’m an instigator — I know I am.”
Peterson describes her work as “politics, death and pop culture. It’s morbid in a lot of ways, but it’s supposed to be satirical in some respects.” But she doesn’t give herself enough credit. Her art has depth, substance and evokes an emotional response. Whether that’s one of reverence or disdain probably lies in where you sit along the economical food chain. “I think it’s good to question people’s morality,” Peterson told us, an indicator of the quality and purpose behind everything that she creates.