This article was published in the May/June 2015 edition of Omaha Magazine.
Halfway through our interview, Therman Statom apologizes. He didn’t anticipate our conversation
lasting so long, and he has an appointment at Children’s Hospital he doesn’t want to break.
The internationally renowned glass artist has been working on large-scale cloud pieces for a new
pediatric wing, and although he’s technically completed them, an 8-year-old girl is contributing the finishing touches. “She has cancer, and her father says she used to hate going to the hospital,” he explains, “but now she can’t wait to come” because of this project.
That’s why we take an hour-and-a-half break. The young girl is meeting Statom to talk about the project, and he doesn’t want to cancel or keep her waiting. That commitment to children defines much of the artist’s career. He may be acclaimed for his airy glass houses, chairs, and ladders, but it’s his passion for making a difference in young people’s lives for which he’d prefer to be known.
That passion goes back to his own formative years growing up in Washington, D.C. Although the son of physician, he was a typical “problem child,” going through high school after high school. Unlike most troubled kids who had run-ins with the law, however, Statom did something different: he hung out at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art. “The Smithsonian was like a home to me. It was like an extra room in my house. It’s where I found myself,” he recounts. “I was there so much, I got befriended by a curator, and he got me a job mixing clay.”
That job triggered an interest that eventually led to his attending the Rhode Island School of Design in the early 1970s, where he pursued clay as an artistic medium. “In clay I made a bunch of ugly pots. They were all brown,” he laughs. “Then I started blowing glass, and I went from very traditional to really exploring. Glass was immediate. You didn’t have to fire it two or three times. You could go into the studio and have something the next day.”
He soon discovered a particular talent for working in his new material. Statom created an arced sculpture out of clear glass cones, which earned him advanced standing at the school and enabled him to graduate early. From there, he went on to earn his MFA in 1978 from the Pratt Institute School of Art and Design, where he made the jump from blowing glass to working with sheets of it. “I didn’t want to be limited,” he explains. “It’s about exploring and questioning creatively and the actual act of making. It’s about challenging yourself and learning as an individual. I have a real interest in that.”
That interest prompted him to push the boundaries of glass as art, often using the material in unexpected ways. “I like to paint on translucent surfaces,” he says. “I consider myself a painter, and I think of glass as a canvas. If I had it my way, I’d paint on air.”
For years, museums have been taking notice of Statom’s unorthodox approach, and today his work is in the permanent collections of, among others, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and the place where it all began: the Smithsonian, which features one of his signature painted pieces in the Renwick Gallery at the American Art Museum.
For as important as his own creative success is, however, Statom isn’t interested in his identity as an artist. “You don’t do anything unless you’re actively making a difference,” he emphasizes. “It’s not just narcissistic. It’s about making kids happy here and now. You have to engage. I’m more intrigued with helping people.”
To that end, he’s worked with children through a broad range of organizations, including a children’s hospital in Norfolk, VA, and the U.S. Department of State’s Art in Embassies program, through which he’s led workshops in such far-flung places as Mozambique and Turkey. Closer to home, he’s worked with the Omaha Public School’s Native American Indian Education Department, Kanesville Alternative School in Council Bluffs, Yates Alternative School in Gifford Park, and even local
Girl Scout troops.
No matter where he works with kids, the goal remains the same: to affect change in children through art. “I have kids who claim that activities in art save their lives,” Statom says. “That’s pretty big.”
Another hour into the interview, Statom glances at the clock. “It’s time to go,” he announces. There’s another girl he doesn’t want to keep waiting—his daughter. She’s about to get out of school, and just like the little girl at the hospital, he has no intention of keeping her waiting.