John's Ishikawa Tani Series

“John Leighton’s works at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery are more than an homage to Japanese aesthetics…in their uniqueness, mystery, and allure, Leighton’s sculptures embody the legacy of the tradition that inspired him. His sculptural works are the innovative result of his study of Japanese culture and the care he took in their making.”
Writer/Critique, Annie Buckley from the feature article “Gazing East” in Glass Quarterly Magazine: No. 121, Winter 2010/2011 issue.

These new pieces celebrate the spiritual connections that Japanese craftsmen and women make with the mundane, and their ability to infuse useful, commonplace objects with functional beauty and abstract representations of nature.

Last summer, I was invited to live and teach in Western Japan. Osaka University of Arts is located in a beautiful valley. Some refer to it as the "Valley of the Kings" of Japan. Each day I rode my bike along the banks of the Ishikawa (Stone River), the birthplace of Japanese culture. I studied museum artifacts such as the mysterious ancient copper bells, called Dotaku, and I photographed 500-year-old wooden shoji grids in downtown Tondabayashi. My students and I made a mold from a manhole cover with an art deco image in front of my apartment. I visited Ise Jingu, one of the largest and oldest Shinto Shrines in Japan that has been torn down and rebuilt using thousands of cedar trees, and no nails, every twenty years since 700 AD! These and many more experiences contributed ideas for this work.

I have chosen to use glass in this work in order to create distance. Viewers have the opportunity to disconnect these objects from their utilitarian purpose. Cast glass allows me to present (not represent) these patterns and forms as new objects. The translucency of these castings simultaneously denotes their original use and connotes a more transcendent purpose. They don't exist merely as copied objects; they reference the past like a kind of visual quotation. The glass functions as the quotation marks and thereby provides the distance.


Overture Series

Joe Cariati was my student in mid '80's and he had the perfect combination of great hands and a great attitude. At first he assisted my clumsy efforts at gaffing my own work. After a couple of years, he politely asked me to give him the pipe shortly after the color work was done and he began finishing the pieces. Now, on those rare days that I have the privilege of blowing with Joe, he lets me help a little, out of respect for those old days.

Joe and I had been blowing glass together for about a dozen years, making abstractions of plant or sea life. Many of these forms were large and required a great deal of skill and a three-person team to make. If the shape took an unexpected twist or the size we were aiming for was slightly larger or smaller, the work was still successful in my opinion. In other words the work was not made by accident, but there was room for small amounts of "process intervention".

One day Joe was only half kidding when he said, "these pieces are fun to a point, but with the skill this team now has, we could make much tighter work. In fact, we could make almost anything you can design."

I know a challenge when I hear one and I began thinking about, and drawing some completely new pieces. The Overture series is inspired by my life long love of futurist architecture, a secret desire I have always had to design for industry, and my daughter's collection of fingernail polish bottles.

The most incredible thing about these large lidded vessels, some are almost three feet tall, is that we have never made the same piece twice and almost every piece in the series was made the first time we tried it!


Czech Harvest, Equinox, and Makai Series

My first trip to the International Glass Symposium (IGS) in 1994 gave me an opportunity to work with a skilled team and a gaffer. Artists from many countries were teamed with factory workers for a three-day glass blowing free-for-all. I was assigned to work with Frankie Nowak, the legendary Czech master blower and his team. Most of what we made emerged from the 90 minute belt lehr in the giant Crystalex Factory as cullet, but I came home all fired up and put together a team of my best students at San Francisco State and the Czech Harvest Series was born. The series didn't start to imitate any particular fruit or vegetable, we started pushing one bubble into another, and most of what we ended up with was plant or seedpod like. The work evolved into big, colorful celebrations of the fertility and fecundity in nature and they were fun to make. I was seduced by these forms and by working with a team. The Czech Harvest, Equinox, and Makai Series continued thru the 1990's. Joe Cariati and I made this work with the help of several of my students and it sold quite well.