Though the premiere of Rene Culler’s installation at the Mobile Museum of Art is a good nine months away, she already feels time growing short. This summer is her best opportunity.
One reason is the University of South Alabama’s art instructor’s class load. She has none for the time being but two in the fall and three the following semester.
The other is because of her subject matter. Summer is the best time for her to study the Mobile-Tensaw Delta.
“I’ve been on a boat ride in the delta and will do some more, walking through there and drawing. It’s really nice to go out to Five Rivers [Delta Resource Center] and Meaher State Park across the street, where you can actually walk onto the boardwalk,” Culler said.
The annual flow of delta life is at its apex now. Diversity of flora and fauna is abundant.
The glass artist is undertaking perhaps her most extensive work yet. The plan is to fill a museum gallery with a glass representation of the region’s precious natural area just north of Mobile Bay.
“Quite some time ago [museum director] Deborah Velders asked me about doing a glass installation. Initially I was thinking of making a freestanding, almost serpentine wall because one of my favorite things whenever I fly in or out is the way you can see the pattern of all the waterways from above, with all these fantastic linear shapes,” Culler said.
One wall of her gallery space is composed of windows, 40 feet long and 16 feet high. Since glasswork is an alchemic process that turns silica into captured and bent light, those windows are vital.
“Since then they’ve put a special UV coating on the windows. Now they glow white, which is really wonderful because it might look bizarre if you had all kinds of distraction, like somebody’s red sports car in the parking lot behind it,” Culler said.
The plan is for a general landscape motif with stylized representations of delta components embedded. She wants to employ older techniques such as scratching and silver stain.
Culler made sketches in the spring and brought a sample window for museum personnel to see. After approval of her plans came the expensive part.
“I wrote an application for a grant and my colleagues in the college of arts and sciences awarded me $3,000 to help. These pieces are going to pretty much hang by airplane wire, so the museum is pitching in some of the hanging devices as well as other things. The materials are pricey,” Culler said.
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Culler attended Cleveland Institute of Art and earned an MFA from Kent State University in 1994. She filled in as interim director of the glass program at the latter, then stopped teaching for a while to stick with her private studio.
“I had a friend at Corning who was a consultant for the construction of the glass shop at South Alabama. He told me about their new program and it was like a lightning bolt out of the blue about the time I realized I missed teaching. It piqued my interest and I applied for the position,” Culler said.
Her husband, Russ, retired from his position with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and they moved to Mobile in 2010. She also made a noteworthy side trip to Asia in 2012.
“I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for research in South Korea. That was a highlight of my life and I was at a school called Namseoul University. It translates to ‘South of Seoul’ and I used to joke that I was from Namalabama,” Culler said.
Back in Mobile, Culler has become a visible part of the arts scene. She was in MMoA’s 2012 “Southern Abstraction” show with a pair of glass mosaic pieces inspired by her journey to Istanbul.
“[South Alabama] President Moulton had me make pieces for the trustees and a piece for the presidential suite. I also made gifts for commencement speakers for the last few years. I was really excited when they awarded John Lewis an honorary doctorate and they gave him a vase that I’d made,” Culler said.
She also crafted the physical awards handed out at Mobile Arts Council’s 2015 Arty Awards. That chilly December night was also a sign Culler is finally acclimating to her new town.
“I was so cold, but Mardi Gras night a couple months later was the first time I’ve broken out my winter coat since I’ve been down here,” Culler laughed.
That’s a far cry from her first days, when opening her front door reminded her of being in front of the glass furnace. She said the heat here is one of the reasons glass facilities are relatively rare, unless air conditioning is up to snuff.
Her growing fondness comes through in this latest project. The forays into the watery backcountry have left a mark.
“You can do research at a library but there’s nothing like drawing from life and getting the gestalt of the place. I feel there’s a kind of atmospheric quality to the delta that’s really different. That’s what I’m trying to capture,” Culler said.
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