“My mother gave me coloring books when I was a child,” says Neil Duman (B.F.A.’77/A). “Instead of giving the little people solid-colored shirts, I made them all have plaid shirts. That’s how it started.”
Being artistically inclined from a young age, Duman excelled in art classes at school, and his skills led him to display his pieces at local art shows. As a result of his early success, he was accepted into the art program at I.C. Norcom in Portsmouth, Virginia, during its first year as a magnet high school, and he was also offered space in the summer ceramics program at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.
Despite his talent, Duman never pictured himself as a professional artist. Instead, he wanted to become an art therapist, helping people cope with their problems through creative expression.
He enrolled at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he planned to complete an undergraduate degree in art and then enter graduate school to further study art therapy. Duman had dabbled in nearly every artistic medium before attending VCU, so he met with his assigned adviser, Kent Ipsen, a professor of craft and material studies in the School of the Arts, to discuss what he should do next.
“We went through the list of options, and he looks at me and says, ‘Have you ever blown glass?’ I told him I haven’t tried that one yet, and he told me to meet him in class at 8 a.m. Monday morning,” Duman says.
He recalls walking down the driveway behind the President’s House on West Franklin Street, which at the time was where the glass and metal workshops were located. He remembers hearing the sound of the exhaust fans and the roar of the furnace, feeling its heat in the air, and saying to himself, “This will be fun.”
“When I was close to graduating, there was a sociology professor, Bernie Scotch, taking a few glassblowing classes as well, and one day I was talking with him and he told me his wife, Charlotte, was an art therapist,” Duman says. “So I had dinner with them one night, and she told me it’s not the best place to be, it wasn’t really catching on.”
After that conversation, Duman again met with Ipsen, also a glassblower, who persuaded him to continue studying glass at the graduate level. After completing his bachelor’s degree, focusing on both metal and glasswork, Duman was working as a graduate teaching assistant at VCU when Harvey Littleton, one of the pioneers of the contemporary glass movement, visited his class to critique student work. He asked Duman if he planned to become a teacher.
“I looked at him like he was crazy,” Duman says. “Dealing with the students and the parents just as a TA was hard enough. I wanted to learn.”
Littleton told Duman that unless he wanted to teach, he’d learn more at home opening up a glass shop in his backyard, and that’s exactly what he did.
Since then, he’s been blowing glass out of his studio in Waynesboro, Virginia, and teaching whenever he gets the chance. Duman has created numerous pieces throughout the years including the piece that impresses him the most, a commission for a church in Maryland. The piece features three glass birds with 41-inch wingspans mounted on blue steel rods standing nearly 12 feet high. The sculpture is strategically situated in the church’s main lobby so that when the sanctuary doors open, it’s visible from the center aisle.
“When I finished that one, I just looked back and said, ‘Woah, I made that,’” Duman says.
He also designed this year’s VCU Alumni Stars award. Ipsen designed and created the original Alumni Stars award that was presented to honorees in previous years. Duman wanted to honor Ipsen’s original design with the techniques he learned from his former adviser while staying true to his own style.
“If it wasn’t for VCU and Kent, I would never have blown glass to begin with. Everything in my life would have been different,” he says. “I can’t really say whether it would be better or worse, but I know I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I have.”
– Article by Anthony Langley, video by William Gilbert