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John Moran: Paving the Way for a New Age in Glass Sculpture

There is something innately alluring about the delicate medium of glass. Forged in astoundingly high temperatures, it is blown, stretched and twisted in a race against time (and cold). It is fragile, temperamental yet beautiful. Undoubtedly, it is a material which keeps even the masters of glass blowing on their toes. Yet one such sculptor is further pushing this medium into realms of his own making. Enter stage, John Moran.

An American living in Belgium, John Moran has been using glass to build socially and politically engaging narratives for over two decades. Carefully looking inward as much as outwards, John Moran takes the time to understand and lift the veil behind many of society’s well-ingrained cultural habits and beliefs. It is art encouraging you to think again. And while glass is the primary medium, John Moran creates mixed media sculptures that only elevate his skills further. Often, he even surprises the viewer when they realise it is glass that they are looking at within his sculptures.

With so much thought and statement going into each piece, it is clear John Moran is a man on a mission. I interviewed John to understand better what drives his creations – and what the world thinks in return.

John Moran studio Mickey Mouse
John Moran in the studio

Interview with John Moran

There’s a lot we can talk about, John. To begin, I don’t know much about glass blowing other than the fact it can be a very temperamental medium, even when you are a pro! But you are in fact a mixed media artist, so you’re really taking this delicate substance to a new level. What is it about glass that interests you so much?

The first thing that drew me to glass was the teamwork needed to make a piece. I came to glass from a painting background, which (for me at least) was a solo activity. The first time I walked into a glass studio, there was a community energy of people working together, talking together, and hanging out together – in and out of the studio. There is a kind of cult following for the material and I tried to distance myself from that for years, but recently have come to realize that it has been the entire focus of my adult life.

The most exciting aspect of the process is the immediacy of the results. There is a lot of planning and thinking that goes into the preparation, but once you are in the process you must react to what is happening. All the planning can go perfectly or go right out the window. Besides, who can resist playing with fire all day.

How did you get into glass sculpting?

When I first started working with glass, most glass makers were focusing on traditional techniques or organic glass sculptures. Then I saw a video of Pino Signoretto sculpting with glass and it opened up a world of possibilities. At that point (the late 90’s), there were very few glass artists sculpting figures, let alone realistically, because the technologies and techniques were still developing. Since it was such a ‘new’ medium or at least a new approach to the medium, the sculptors who were working were very open about their techniques and sharing their skills and developments. The most exciting part was that some of the techniques that they (and I) were developing were really new to the world. Things that had not been done before.

From your works I can see that you are a very socially and politically engaged person. So as well as the physical challenges of using glass, you are designing sculptures to question people’s ethics, behaviours and beliefs about the modern world around them. This is no small feat. Was it the urge to open people’s eyes that led you to become an artist? Or did you later see art was a way to connect with people?

I definitely see it as a way to connect with people but also, as I get older, I see a lot of personal reflection in the work. Coming from a very Catholic family, who are patriotic and conservative, I see now that a lot of my work is in conversation with them or reacting to a similar viewpoint.

Most pieces begin with an event. Something that has caused a media stir that devolves into ideological discussions based on moral subjectivity.
So many of these discussions border on the absurd and stray far from the real issues or a conversation about real solutions.

I guess in the end, I am trying to come to terms with how we as a society – or a family for that matter – hold such oppositional viewpoints, that coming to a common ground may never be possible.

Bin Laden glass sculpture John Moran
Sale of the Deathman (2013)
Sale of the Deathman (2013). Freehand sculpted glass head, hands, arms, and foot. Epoxy resin, metal, polystyrene, latex, fabric, enamels urethane body and found object base. Dimensions: 100cm H x 100cm W x 130cm D. Photo: Karel De Bock.

Linking into that idea of oppositional viewpoints, on your website you state, “I attempt to illustrate how I see the barrage of consumerism, religion, and politics colliding with depictions of social injustice, secular beliefs, and popular culture. I myself am a product of all of these things; I am American and America was founded on dissent.”

That last line is a bold statement, can you share more on this?

Since living in Europe, my work has been called “very American”. I always found it kind of funny, because most of the things that I am commenting on do not exist in solely in America.

A strange experience I’ve had in Belgium is that many people openly comment and criticize the States (as do I). But the moment I criticize Belgium, or Europe for that matter, even after having lived here for 8 years, people are defensive.

This statement kind of refers to that idea. America is surely not the ideal and perfect country, because that does not exist. But it was a land of dissenters or at least built on that ideology… that is of course if you overlook the genocide and massacre of the societies that existed before the “discovery” of the country.

It is a bold statement, but like many things in my work philosophy, it is also somewhat subversive and tongue in cheek.

That’s an interesting cultural response. Are there any other regular reactions to you works?

Honestly, most people have come to the work with an open mind. I have certainly heard disapproval from people, but I have seen a lot of discussion come from the work. Strangely enough, I have been accused of fat shaming on the piece New Times Roman because it depicts Ronald McDonald holding an overweight ‘child’… that child happens to be wearing my clothes and looks a lot like me… but since misguided anger is at the base of a lot of my work, I guess it makes sense.

As I said, mostly in Europe, my work has been referred to as “very American…”. I did receive a death threat in Poland, but I guess it wasn’t serious.

Is it cathartic to use your art to share your thoughts and experiences on the modern world?

Yes. Definitely. I think the world needs a place for criticism and critical thought that is not shrouded in the dogma of questioning everything simply to question everything. I think artists have some of the responsibility to bring these criticisms to light.

Are there any pieces you have created which have triggered a particularly strong response from viewers?

New Times Roman as I mentioned before. Funny, because I never would have thought that. Even the first time I showed it I was criticised for portraying McDonalds in a poor light because of the good they do with the Ronald McDonald House… for me it even kind of solidified the idea.

It’s like ignoring the fact that the Catholic church has slaughtered millions of people in its history and priests have molested tens of thousands of children, because they help the poor. Many things can exist like this and are not just ultimately good or evil.

John Moran Ronald McDonald sculpture
New Times Roman (2013). Freehand sculpted glass heads, hands, arms, legs, and belly. 
Epoxy resin, wood, metal, polystyrene, latex, fabric, enamels urethane bodies and base.
Dimensions: 185cm H x 120cm W x 110cm D. Photo: Alex Hogan

And what about for you personally? Is there any sculpture that marks a defining moment for you, or in your career as an artist?

I think that would have to be the American Idols series. It was really the first time I attempted realistic figurative sculpting in glass and when I started to develop the other mixed-media techniques I use in. What started as a quaint little idea of , “Oh I will sculpt the presidents!”[laughs] turned into a three-year project that offered a ton of opportunities, exhibitions, and really pushed my work forward. And on top of that, it is still an ongoing series… I can finally look forward to the future knowing that Big Orange is out of office.

I can agree with you on that! And these days, you are an American living in Belgium. Has this change of country and culture affected the stories you wish to tell through your sculptures?

Absolutely. Aside from the visual stimulation of the architecture and history, much of what we lack in the US, there is also the reality of living as an immigrant and dealing with some of the issues of day to day life. I can certainly say that dealing with these struggles has made me more empathetic towards groups of immigrants to the US and the nonsense they must deal with in our political system and xenophobic populace.

For the most part, my situation has been easy compared to most – I mean I came here voluntarily, not because I was fleeing my country or seeking asylum.

Yet it is still difficult. At times, I miss the states and many things about it, and this starts to show more in my work. The newer pieces touch on more personal experiences, shrouded in their political and societal counterparts.

Mickey Mori glass Disney sculpture
Mickey Mori – Happy (2018). Freehand sculpted glass. Dimensions: 25cm H x 25cm W x 25cm D. Photo: Laure Fradin.

I see that you are also the co-founder and operator of Gent Glas. This is a public glass studio where you create glass pieces for sale as well as sharing the space for artistic events. This sounds like an amazing creative space! Can you tell me more about it?

Gent Glas is a public studio I co-founded when I moved to Belgium. For the most part, I initiated the studio. As a professional glass maker, I needed a place to work and I wanted to share my love for the international glass community with the people here in Belgium. Strangely, this type of studio does not really exist in Europe, so when we began it was quite a different place.

Over the past six years, we have offered weekly live events, workshops, and exhibitions and hosted over 30 artists from all over Europe and the US. Corona has certainly impacted that, but we are looking forward to reopening. You can find some videos of our glass blowing events on our YouTube page.

Thank you so much for your time, John. To finish, is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

If you are interested in seeing some more of my work or getting one of our killer Mickey Mori shirts or sculptures, give me a follow or check my site. I also have an online exhibition on my website beginning in April! Be sure to check it out!

John Moran boy sculpture illusion
Endless Night (2016). Freehand sculpted glass figure, two-way mirrors, wood, light. Dimensions: 120cm H x 120cm W x 60cm D. Photo: Evert Van Laere.

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About Author

Based in the UK, Natalia Joruk lives amongst a mass of art, nature, curious trinkets and green tea. As Deputy Editor, Natalia works closely with the Editor-in-Chief, supporting with the design, curation and overall growth of Beautiful Bizarre and the annual Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize. She also oversees distribution of the magazine, so drop her a line if you know someone who would like to stock! Utilising her experience as a freelance writer, Natalia also engages with editorial writing and proofreading for both the Beautiful Bizarre Magazine website and print publication. One of her favourite perks is getting to know artists, gallery owners and their teams personally, so feel free to email her if there is anything she can help you with – or just to connect!

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