Consciousness as Material

In his Paris studio, Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert crafts glass lighting that connects the universal and personal

Above Video: Excerpt from “Heart of Glass,” a documentary film chronicling Wintrebert’s life and art. Directed by Jérôme de Gerlache @jeromedegerlache

By Linda O’Keeffe

“It’s not how a finished piece looks,” says Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert, referring to one of his freehand, blown-glass sculptures, “It’s how it feels, how it moves and glows and evokes emotion.” It’s an intriguing comment coming from an artist whose creations have arduous, technical births. In Wintrebert’s Paris studio, where the furnace averages 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit, glassblowers are in a race to defy gravity. Once an air bubble is breathed into a gather through a long blowpipe, the white-hot material is rotated and cajoled into shape. When it’s fully formed and hardened, too much manipulation or a sudden temperature change can cause it to shatter into a million pieces. “And when that happens,” Wintrebert says, “you pick up the pieces and smile. What else can you do?”

Man in glasses perched on a glass modern stool while he looks at camera.

Jeremy Maxwell Wintrebert. Photo by Lionel Beylot.

Born in Paris, Wintrebert grew up in West Africa. His drive, in his late teens, to become a master glassblower led him to apprenticeships in Europe and the United States, so it’s hardly surprising that the concept of borders is alien to him. “I’m a one-world person,” he says. His early glass pieces were figurative and colorful commemorations of his African days, while his current work is abstract: A series of translucent-white, orb-shaped pendants, as organic and animated as clouds, hover weightlessly above a dining table. A circular sconce brings to mind the whorls of a seashell.

Large collection of glass disks in an overlapping display.

Wintrebert has a fine art practice as well, and his gallery work tends to be large-scale. A monumental installation, The Beginning: Dark Matter, features black, overlapping discs covering an entire wall, and resembles a thunderous cumulus. An all-white version is atmospherically cleansing; in blood red it’s an ecstatic vibration. In 2019, the work was awarded the prestigious Prix Liliane Bettencourt Pour L’intelligence de la Main (Liliane Bettencourt Prize for the Intelligence of the Hand) by the Fondation Bettencourt Schueller.

A new Wintrebert installation, Chapter 2: Terminal, will run from September 2021 until January 2022 at MusVerre, a new museum dedicated to the art of glass, in Sars-Poteries, France. “It’s an abstract representation of the cosmos materializing,” he says. “It will confront the viewer with his or her own origins by traveling back in time to when matter first appeared.” And Wintrebert’s latest in a series of permanent installations in Cartier stores around the world is about to go up in Singapore. Moonlight, Inspired by the city’s proximity to the Indian Ocean and the China Sea, features a bed of rippled brass leaves bathed in light cast by several suspended spherical lamps. Says Wintrebert, “It’s a simple piece of poetry.”

We spoke with Wintrebert about his philosophy and practice.

Closeup of two people as they shape molten glass.

Wintrebert at work in his Paris studio. Photo by Adrien Daste.

I was about to refer to glassblowing as your métier, but you seem to think of it more as a calling. Why are you drawn to this artform?
Where to start? Molten glass is simply a mystical material. I think of it as cosmic juice. It emanates light without any apparent source. Like glowing honey, it moves in a seriously sensual way and tempts you to play with it, and yet, when you try, it’s totally hostile and threatens to lash out at you, so it commands your respect. People often ask me if I still get burned, and I tell them that after 22 years of working with glass, it shows me no mercy. I could spend a lifetime trying to become its master, but that would be arrogant and delusional. Instead, I stay humble and in awe of this primordial substance that’s been around for a million years and will endure for a million more. 

It sounds as if you have an athlete’s mindset when you prepare to spend time in the studio.  
On the surface, the process of blowing glass resembles a rhythmic dance, with lots of repetitive turns, but in reality it demands a tremendous amount of physical rigor, so I like to build a reserve of strength and flexibility. When I work, I have three well-trained assistants who anticipate my next move and keep me safe. We operate in silence, and I find that meditation and floating in sensory-deprivation tanks, which are also part of my prep routine, ready me for that phase and enable me to stay mindful from one moment to the next.

Collection of two toned, multi-shaped and colored blown glass pendulum lights.

Pilule pendants, available through Kneedler Fauchère. Photo by Jeremy Josselin.

How much planning goes into the pieces you make?
Before I had my own studio I sketched a lot, because I couldn’t possibly realize all of my ideas. I still have drawings from 15 years ago that I haven’t had the time to produce. Nowadays the shapes I create come directly from nature, or they celebrate the power of the cosmos. A lot of my inspiration comes from knowing how untamable glass is. When I’m making a piece, there’s a point where I let the molten glass express itself and go where it wants to go. In those ten or twenty seconds, I’m not actually making anything—a transition is happening.

What or who are your main influences?
There’s no greater master or teacher than nature, although the way Van Gogh depicted and captured light entirely reformatted my brain. I’m greatly moved by James Turrell, Richard Serra, Wassily Kandinsky, and Christian Boltanski’s work, but I’m also an avid reader of science books. Understanding mass and space is awe-inspiring. The cosmos was forged in heat; planets react to gravity and centrifugal force as they rotate around a central axis. Here I’m describing astronomy, but it’s applicable to glassblowing.

Four pendulum lights, one a white sphere, the other three are different metallic toned organic shapes like balloons over a laughing woman seated on a couch with a dog.

Wintrebert’s Moonlight Clouds series. Photo courtesy of JMW Studio.

You work in both sculpture and functional lighting. What do you feel your purely sculptural work conveys?
I guess it reveals my desire to connect with people. I’m constantly looking for common denominators, for traits and experiences we all share. Energetically, we all come from the same source, and one of my theories is that consciousness is a material. It’s a shared entity, and part of me wants to affirm that physical interdependence. Another word for consciousness is light, which, as I’ve already said, is one of the chief characteristics of molten glass. 

Your Paris studio is at street level, with floor-to-ceiling windows, so you are intentionally on display.
Yes, because I have this commitment to promote and revive the art of glassblowing. We regularly take on students as interns, and it’s heartwarming to see the younger children, on their way to school, with their faces glued to the windows.

You’ve had a couple of serious accidents in your life, one involving a car, in which you came close to dying. Was that experience philosophically or psychologically pivotal?
Yes. In those few minutes I thought I had left to live, I was full of regret. Since then I’m fierce about pursuing my passions so that I never again have to face any regrets. Life is not only short, it’s a one-shot deal.

JMW Studio is available through Kneedler Fauchère

Two Henry Adams Street, Suite 2M-33
San Francisco, CA 94103