At Corning, Art That Imitates Life — Astonishingly 19th-century Harvard students needed botanical models. They turned to a pair of glass artists who specialized in invertebrate zoology. The results, on display at the Corning Museum of Glass this summer, are so lifelike that they've inspired poets and novelists.
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At Corning, Art That Imitates Life — Astonishingly

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At Corning, Art That Imitates Life — Astonishingly

At Corning, Art That Imitates Life — Astonishingly

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The old adage about life imitating art gets an interesting twist this summer in Corning, New York. As Harriet Baskas reports, an exhibition of glass flowers at the Corning Museum of Glass has some visitors rubbing their eyes.

HARRIET BASKAS: In 1886, George Lincoln Goodale, professor of botany at Harvard, was given an empty building and told to make a teaching museum.

Dr. DAVID WHITEHOUSE, (Executive Director, Corning Museum of Glass): He was baffled. He didn't know what to do.

BASKAS: David Whitehouse is the director of the Corning Museum of Glass.

Dr. WHITEHOUSE: Harvard had already got a museum of zoology, and they had got some glass models made by Leopold Blaschka and his son Rudolph of invertebrate animals - jellyfish, sea anemones, octopuses, the like.

BASKAS: Back then, botanical teaching models were made of wax or papier mache, or they were actual plants that have been dried and pressed. The replicas were inexact, the pressed specimens faded and flat. So professor Goodale asked the Blaschkas to make glass plants. Fifty years later, after Leopold died and Rudolph retired, they'd finished 4,000 models. The flowers' petals and pistils are so accurate that when novelist and essayist Jamaica Kincaid first saw them, her own garden seemed flat.

Ms. JAMAICA KINCAID (Novelist and Essayist): I began immediately to think that real flowers were the imitation.

BASKAS: The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould compared them to the greatest musical performance he'd ever heard. And best-selling memoirist and poet Mark Doty marveled at how Leopold Blaschka and his son captured impermanence.

Mr. MARK DOTY (Contemporary American Poet and Memoirist): He's built a perfection out of hunger, fused layer upon layer, swirled, until what can't be tasted won't yield almost satisfies. An art mouthed to the shape of how soft things are, how good, before they disappear.

BASKAS: Over time, some the glass flowers and fruits have broken or cracked. So Harvard has partnered with the Corning Museum of Glass to restore the models. This summer, 17 specimens, ranging from an orchid and a bunch of bluets to panic grass and a sprig of blue sage, have been plucked from Harvard and sent to Corning. Corning is also displaying some of the Blaschkas' pre-plant work, including, says museum registrar Warren Bunn, a leather case filled with eyeballs.

Mr. WARREN BUNN (Registrar, Corning Museum of Glass): They really are incredible in their detail in the ability to craft the human eye. But they do have a, kind of, creepy, surreal feel when you open up the case and see how many there are.

BASKAS: Bunn says this summer, the museum has also pulled other curious glass objects from storage, pieces not made by the Blaschkas. There are glass bullets and a clear glass slipper made for a film version of Cinderella that was never completed. The museum's 500-pound glass coffin had to be left in the warehouse. But curator Tina Oldknow called in a forklift to show it off. Oh, that's kind of heavy.

Ms. TINA OLDKNOW (Curator of Modern Glass, Corning Museum of Glass): You know, I think a lot of people saw the movie "Bram Stoker's Dracula," and they saw that scene of Lucy, who's buried in her Victorian wedding dress, and she's inside this engraved glass box. And so I even had that idea that that's what a glass coffin looked like, but it doesn't look like that at all.

BASKAS: In fact, you wouldn't even know it's glass because it's covered in doeskin embossed with leaves and flowers. Caskets like this were marketed in the late 1800s as being pretty and practical. Once underground, nothing could get in or out. The Blaschkas also dealt with death. They created 65 replicas of diseased fruits for Harvard, including an apple afflicted with blight and a strawberry covered with that familiar cotton-like fuzzy mold.

Ms. KINCAID: I love that because they make decay so beautiful.

BASKAS: In a real garden, says writer Jamaica Kincaid, rotten strawberries would inspire panic and despair. But she says master glassmakers Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka made mold downright desirable.

Ms. KINCAID: You know, I think you should not only eat it, you should wear it, you should cover yourself in it. Quite beautiful.

BASKAS: Officially, there are 17 flowers in the Botanical Wonders exhibition at the Corning Museum of Glass. There are 18 if you count the tall, flowering orchid by the exit. Museum director David Whitehouse says it's there as a reality check.

Dr. WHITEHOUSE: You've seen the miracles the Blaschkas could do with glass, you've seen an orchid at the beginning. Here's an orchid at the end of the show, okay, is it real or is it glass? You tell me.

BASKAS: I couldn't, but then again, I could definitely smell those moldy glass strawberries from across the room.

For NPR News, I'm Harriet Baskas.

SIEGEL: And you can see images of the Blaschka's glass flowers and read Mark Doty's poem about them at our Web site,

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