By Sarah Burton
Photo: Tom Philabaum, Glass Artist & Founder, Philabaum Glass
Photo by: Steve Meckler
You may think you already know Tom Philabaum, Tucson’s master of glass. A longtime resident creative, he’s widely respected in the local arts community and his gallery and studio are a must-see stop for art-loving tourists. You may know about the carefully crafted glass art that made him (and keeps him) successful, but not so much about how he created his business the hard way, his view on role of art in our region’s tourism and changes in the downtown landscape. Read on.
After receiving a bachelor of arts in arts education from Southern Illinois University and a master’s degree in studio art in Wisconsin, Philabaum headed to Arizona in 1973 to visit his cousin, escape Chicago for a while and take a break from his teaching job.
“I never felt I belonged in Chicago,” he recalled. “I lived all over the state but didn’t feel comfortable.” Just one look at the dramatic stretch of Texas Canyon driving on his way to town was all it took. “I distinctly remember coming through the canyon there on I-10 and really flipping out over the saguaros and boulders.”
Two years later he quit his job in Chicago and officially made the Sonoran Desert his home, putting together his first studio next to the Tuller Trophy building on Sixth Avenue. Nights and weekends were dedicated to studio time, but he didn’t quit his day jobs quite yet. He did a bit of everything – from driving a truck, laying bricks and carpentry to teaching high school and even a stint as a roofer. “We used to carry over our rent payment to our landlord, having scraped together our pennies, dimes and quarters and just barely making it,” he said.
’80s Art Boom
The start of the 1980s kicked off an enormous swell in the public’s interest in and desire to buy and collect arts and crafts, Philabaum said, though not in the Old Pueblo quite yet. Around 1982 local artists began marketing their wares by attending American Craft Council shows where they were overwhelmed with orders from galleries and museums all over the country. The Craft Council, made up mostly of young artists without any background and art school graduates like himself, filled an increasing need from the public for arts in mediums like clay, metal, wood, glass and fiberglass.
“It was an exciting time,” Philabaum said. “Creativity was flying and we were actually making money with our craft.” After founding the Glass Arts Society in 1983, Philabaum overhauled an old Tastee Freeze and in 1985 moved his studio to that space where it remains today.
Local Arts Blossom
By the early 1990s Tucson’s growing art scene was finally generating excitement and the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau began to market the Old Pueblo as an arts hub.
“The MTCVB played an enormous role in creating this new model of Tucson as a cultural destination – bringing people here not just for a fat farm, to see a rodeo, or because of the military,” Philabaum said. In fact, he points out the little known fact that Tucson is consistently ranked in the Top 25 Art Destinations in American Style magazine.
“When I first moved here, the Tucson Museum of Art was in a small house on Franklin Street. Quite different from the museum that stands today.”
By 2002, interest in Philabaum’s work was so high – from locals and tourists alike – that he opened a second gallery at St. Philip’s Plaza for the next five years. Tourism has always played a role in this struggling, then successful business model. With the recent installation of glass magic carpets suspended overhead at the Tucson International Airport, he’s even had people get in their rental car there and drive straight to his gallery on Sixth Avenue to see more.
He’s seen many changes since moving downtown in the mid ’70s. “Downtown is changing in a great way. I’m all for new business and it’s really changing for the better,” he said. “Sure, we all miss the original Café Poca Cosa and the Santa Rita Ballroom, but the brand new Tucson Electric Power building now on that lot is great for all surrounding businesses.”
Passing the Torch – Literally
As studio visitors attest, the observation window is where the action is. Watching artists working with molten glass is magical.
“We’ve always had an open studio. Education has always been a big part of making art for me,” Philabaum said. “We closed the studio to the public for a short time, but quickly realized it was crazy not to let people in. After teaching workshops for 25 years, I have a responsibility to pass on what I’ve learned.”
That’s why he co-founded the Sonoran Glass Art Academy in 2000, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating and using glass as a medium. The academy offers classes for anyone interested – from glass blowing and casting to stained glass and mosaics.
In an effort to further push the glass arts culture here, Philabaum and other local visual arts heavyweights banded together to create Tucson’s first glass festival, aptly named Viva Vidrio – long live the glass.
“We were really just trying to make lemonade out of lemons,” he said. “Because of the tourism backlash due to the controversial SB1070, Tucson lost the annual Glass Arts Society conference. We wanted to draw people back here.”
And draw it did. In April of last year 1,200 people attended the three-day festival with demonstrations and exhibitions at 12 participating galleries across town.
Anyway you cut it, after more than 30 years, Philabaum remains a glass act.