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Visions of Heaven
Cameo Glass Artist Kelsey Murphy

By Donna Meredith
Photograph by Tyler Evert.

Bob Bomkamp, Christina Carpenter, and Kelsey Murphy surrounded by cameo glass at Studios of Heaven in Wayne County.

Not so long ago, women were excluded from traditional glassmaking, the secrets of artisans being passed only from fathers to sons. Today women have reasserted themselves in this field, and none more so than Kelsey Murphy.

In a small studio in rural Wayne County, Kelsey is carving a substantial niche for herself in the history of American art glass. Her accomplishments have mounted over the years, pushing both the technical and aesthetic elements of cameo glass to levels unimaginable just a few decades ago.

Any one of her accomplishments would be the stuff of fairy tales:

  • Until Kelsey developed her methods, only five layers of cameo glass had ever been successfully cased and carved. She and Pilgrim Glass Union glass blowers pushed that number to 12.
  • Her 1994 “Run for the Roses” creation was among the largest cameo vases ever carved. It stands 6’2” tall. A team of Pilgrim Glass master craftsmen executed Kelsey’s design.
  • In 1995, the New Orleans Museum of Art offered a retrospective of Kelsey’s work, a crowning achievement for any artist.
  • A three-dimensional carved eagle blown by Pilgrim master craftsman Keith Adkins and carved by Kelsey was presented to Bill and Hillary Clinton when the president visited Huntington in 1996. The life-size eagle was crafted from five colors and blown without the benefit of a mold. The piece now resides at the front door to the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
  • Kelsey’s “Gardens of Heaven” cameo vase sold for $100,000 in 2011, a new milestone. The piece boasts nine layers of glass, each a brilliant contrasting color. Kelsey carved through the layers to reveal large magnolia blossoms and leaves that frame swans gliding across a blue lake.

Dean Six, executive director of the West Virginia Museum of American Glass in Weston, believes Kelsey’s cameo glass will stand the test of time.

“It will prove to be some of the most respected and dominant art glass of the 20th century,” Dean says. “She has the amazing ability to look at a piece of glass and see art within it. She’ll take a brown blob and see a hillside in autumn. Besides the technical skill, besides the graphic design, that vision is what sets her apart. Way apart.”

Dean should know. The Ritchie County native is the author of some of the most respected books on glass collecting, including West Virginia Glass Towns, West Virginia Glass between the World Wars, Viking Glass 1944-1970, and Lotus: Depression Glass and Far Beyond.

In the spring of 1980, Kelsey was restoring a run-down gothic revival building in Lebanon, Ohio. Andy Rainey, an employee helping with the project, knew she had recently bought an air compressor and suggested she might hook it up to his sandblaster to remove old paint from an antique medicine cabinet destined for a sitting room in the building. Kelsey didn’t protect the mirrored door of the cabinet when she turned on the blaster. Just then, one of her daughters wanted something, and while Kelsey was distracted, sand splatted onto the mirror and etched it.

That’s the moment many of us might have cursed ourselves for the mistake. Instead, Kelsey screamed and ran in the house to get a sheet of thick masking material known as frisket.

So giddy she could hardly hold her hands steady, Kelsey covered the entire front of the mirror and the frame with frisket, pressing it snugly into the corners. Sandblasting would cut through anything hard, like glass, but she thought the softer texture of the masking material would resist abrasive action. With an X-acto knife, she cut out an impromptu design of vines and stylized leaves.

She pulled the sandblaster’s trigger again and in a few minutes returned to the house screaming again. “I was so excited I couldn’t stand it,” she says. Soon she had her assistant, Kathy Link, squealing too. Over five days, they developed a catalog of 400 different window designs with a pricing schedule.

Kelsey, one quickly learns, never does anything by half-measures.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.