This story is about an amazing man who made his dream come true. Paul J. Stankard is an internationally acclaimed master in the art of botanical crystal paperweights. He is renowned for his artistry and craftsmanship. His journey from working with lab glass to creating one-of-a-kind works that grace museums and private collections around the world is an inspiration to all those who have a dream and decide to follow it.
Although his individual creations now sell for many thousands of dollars, at home in his studio in southern New Jersey, Paul is just a nice, regular guy to those who know him. He lives just a few miles away from me. When I called to interview him, he was gracious and grateful for the essay below. He invited my husband Chris and me to his studio for a personal tour. It remains one of my fondest memories.
(A version of this story appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2000)
Dare to have a dream and work to see it come true
By Judy Harch
It is often said that if you can dream it, you can do it. I used to think that was wishful thinking. But then I recently attended “An Evening With Paul Stankard,” presented by our county Cultural and Heritage Commission. Stankard, of Mantua, is living proof of that maxim. Imagine his life.
Imagine that it’s 1963. After struggling academically, you’ve just graduated from the Salem Vocational-Technical Institute, which is now Salem Community College. In your spare time, you love experimenting with glass, making decorative paperweights that you feel lucky to sell for $20 each.
Now imagine that it’s 37 years later. You teach glass art at Salem Community College, and in 1999 you were named distinguished alumnus of the year. Imagine that the college has named the gallery in its new Glass Center in your honor. Imagine that you’ve recently been chosen to serve on a board of the Smithsonian Institution and named a fellow of the American Craft Council.
Oh, and while you’re imagining, try dreaming that you have become a world-renowned paperweight artist who commands $20,000 or more for some of your work. Imagine that your delicate, nature-themed paperweights and botanical glass sculptures are on permanent exhibit at the Museum of American Glass at Wheaton Village in Millville, New Jersey. Imagine them on exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and 32 other prestigious museums around the world.
Imagine that your paperweights and botanical sculptures have found their way into the collections of Britain’s Queen Mother, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Gates, Elton John, and other serious collectors.
Imagine that you and your artistry have been the subject of a PBS documentary. Imagine that you have a book of your work, Flora in Glass, and that you are the subject of a beautifully photographed retrospective book, Paul J. Stankard: Homage to Nature, written by Ulysses Grant Dietz.
If this sounds like a fairy tale, it is not. Stankard toiled hard in the South Jersey glass industry, making laboratory apparatus after graduating from school. At night, he perfected his art. He had a family to support, but never lost sight of his dream.
Once his work began receiving attention and accolades from paperweight collectors, Stankard decided to take the risk of becoming a full-time artist. His wife, Patricia, gave her blessing to take that leap of faith, even though they were expecting their fourth child. They remortgaged their house to buy the equipment that helped Stankard become a world-class paperweight artist.
Stankard creates incredibly realistic glass floral arrangements that look as though he has frozen nature in time. Floating honeybees buzzing around black-eyed Susans, wild blueberries, and mountain laurel blossoms are a few of his subjects.
His meticulous attention to detail results in glass leaves intricately marked with veins and tiny glass hairs on the backs of bees. Many people mistakenly think these exquisite creations are real flowers and insects.
Now a seasoned world traveler, Stankard says his favorite place is still his studio in Mantua, and his nearby six-acre woodland. Walks through the Pine Barrens have become an endless source of inspiration for his art.
Walt Whitman, the good, gray poet of Camden, also inspires Stankard. “From the beginning, I was drawn to Whitman’s response to nature, his view of life as a creative spiritual journey, his references to native flowers, insects and birds,” Stankard said. “What Whitman did with words, I seek to do with glass on a visual level.”
Stankard has remained a “regular guy” to his many friends who have known him before and since his celebrity. He will joyfully tell you of his love of nature, poetry, and his art, and how he looks forward to continuing to invent illusions that deal with the mysteries of nature.
If you dream it, you really can do it, but no one promises that it will be easy.
Update: At age 72, Paul J. Stankard continues to master his craft and to teach future artists his flamework skills. His beautiful botanical works are treasured by those lucky enough to own part of his collection.
Paul’s story was recently featured on CBS Sunday Morning. To watch Paul’s techniques, view the video: http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/the-beautiful-world-of-paperweights/
Visit Paul’s website to see his incredible work for yourself: paulstankard.com
(World Nature image courtesy of Danilo Rizzuti at freedigitalphotos.com)