A Glass Act

Artist April Wagner has designs for Cobo Center partnership


Glass artist April Wagner draws on her love of landscaping and gardening. Her installation at Cobo Center is a water scene inspired by the Detroit River.

The walls of Epiphany Studios, April Wagner’s Pontiac art studio, are covered with her creations, such as decanters, ornaments, and bits and pieces of sculptures she’s in the process of creating. 

All of her pieces are sculpted from glass, bursting with color and intricately detailed, despite their fragility. Wagner says when glass is held in a crucible (at a searing 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit), it’s the same consistency as honey, so artists have to continuously turn it in its liquid state to prevent it from dripping. “Then, you can form it into any shape you want,” she says. “It has all of these inherent characteristics, which are so ripe for artistic interpretation. It’s hard; it’s soft. It’s fragile; it’s strong. It’s clear; it’s colored. You’re only limited by your imagination.”

But despite one’s best efforts, Wagner says it’s almost impossible to shape or blow glass according to a definitive game plan. “If I’m prototyping something, I sort of have an idea of what I want it to look like,” she says. However, the artist is not the only one calling the shots. 

“It definitely has a mind of its own,” she says. “It’s more like a conversation. I say something, and the glass says something back, and then we build a dialogue together.” 

For her latest project, Wagner partnered with the Detroit Regional Convention Facility Authority’s Art Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit created for art at Cobo Center, to develop and donate a piece. The piece was set to be installed last month on a freestanding wall in a stairway from the third floor to the second floor on the waterfront side of the convention center. 

Wagner says she finds inspiration from the natural world, including her own love of landscaping and gardening. For her Cobo piece, Wagner has created an installation inspired by the Detroit River. The piece will flow across two walls, wrapping around the flights of stairs. Wagner says the first wall will represent the sky, with a sun, moon, and birds constructed out of glass. As it turns to the next wall, it will transform into a water scene.

The installation will be located outside the Ambassador Ballroom, so a great deal of local and international visitors will be exposed to it — a privilege that is not lost on Wagner. “Sometimes as an artist, I feel like it’s important that your art has a really great place to live,” Wagner says. “Nobody wants to make a beautiful piece of art and have it sit in someone’s house in a dark corner where no one gets to see it.” 

Wagner’s work is just one part of a broader initiative to bring more art into the convention center. In September, Detroit-based muralist Hubert Massey started work on a 30-foot-by-30-foot ode to Detroit’s history on the second floor. And according to the DRCFA, the convention center will also soon host work by noted Detroit sculptor Sergio De Giusti (whose work can also be found in nearby Hart Plaza).

Though she does not typically donate large-scale pieces like this, Wagner has a bigger cause in mind: bringing beautiful art to the city of Detroit. She is tired of people from outside the area looking at “ruin porn” — photos of wrecked buildings and half-burnt structures and associating that with the city. 

Originally from the west side of the state, Wagner headed to New York City shortly after graduating from high school. Upon discovering that NYC was not a good fit, she returned to the Detroit area. “There’s so many great things about being here,” she says. “It’s beautiful, the people are friendly, they understand the idea of something handmade … there’s an appreciation of building something from nothing, which is basically what you’re doing with the glass.” 

She says public art has a way of helping to define a city’s personality, pointing to one of the Detroit’s most iconic works. “I think a lot of times the art in a city really becomes an icon for what that city embodies,” she says. “Right now we have the Joe Louis fist, and people think of Detroit as a city that’s strong, a city that’s fought really hard to come back.” 

For more on art at the Cobo Center, visit drcfa.org
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