BY GABE LICHT
CHASKA, MN When Donna Rice contacted Wendy Depaolis, curator of art and sculpture at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, she didn’t know what to expect.
Deapaolis said she wanted to meet the Delano-based crystal sculptor and see a few examples of her work.
What came next surprised Rice beyond belief.
“When I left, she said, ‘How would you feel about exhibiting at the 2020 flower show?’ I just about fell on the floor,” Rice said. “I wasn’t expecting that. I floated out of her office and couldn’t believe she was offering me the show.”
At first, Rice thought she might be featured along with two or three other artists.
“As the year went on and I started making more and bigger pieces of work specific to this show, she left it as a solo show,” Rice said.
She is exhibiting 30 pieces of art at the show, which began with a preview party Jan. 31 and runs through March 1. Of those 30 pieces, 10 have already sold, including the most complicated piece she has ever made.
“It is very positive encouragement to me that it is possible to sustain myself,” Rice said.
Her work featured at the Arboretum also encouraged others, she learned while there one day.
“A woman was looking at a butterfly piece,” Rice said. “I made it after my mom had a difficult winter. She and her husband clearly liked the piece. I said, ‘I’m so glad you’re touched by it.’ She said, ‘My heart just melts. We’ve had a difficult winter, too.’ . . . Just to have connected with her for a split minute is something I’ll never forget.”
She is also forever grateful to everyone at the Arboretum.
“I can only say nice things about the people at the Arboretum. I’ve enjoyed working with all of them,” Rice said.
Art has been a part of Rice’s life since she was a young girl, and nature has always inspired her art.
“Art was always present,” Rice said. “From the time I was little, I was getting pastels and paper pads. I didn’t have a dollhouse, so I made it out of cardboard.”
Art and nature came together while growing up in the Pittsburgh area.
She specifically remembers taking trips to a particularly scenic part of Pennsylvania.
“I looked forward to that day every year, just walking in the woods and finding leaves, frogs, toads under rocks,” Rice said.
She used that art as inspiration as she took art classes at Carnegie Museum of Art. Commuting to those classes might also have inspired her, she believes.
“From the time I was 10, I was riding the bus to the city by myself,” Rice said. “ . . . Even passing the steel mills at night and seeing the fires, I don’t know if that had an impact on me, but I knew I was going to work with glass.”
She started blowing glass as a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon University.
Glassblowing was not very common at the time.
Instead, she found herself working at Frabel Art Glass Studio and Gallery in Atlanta.
There, she found a niche carving glass, which turned into a freelance contract with Tiffany and Co.
Depaolis, especially, was impressed with Rice’s work with Tiffany’s.
“It was a big deal for people to know about, but it was production,” Rice said. “I love making one-of-a-kind pieces.”
That is what she does now, after teaching herself how to cast glass.
Initially, she was inspired by a sculpture of a torso that she saw at a conference in New York.
“There was something about the light emitting from that piece that I was captivated by,” Rice said. “I decided right then and there I needed to learn how to cast glass . . . I just slowly taught myself by reading a lot.”
She also met her mentor, Hugh McKay, through an online forum. She got hands-on training from him during an apprenticeship in 2015.
“I had gotten so advanced, and he said, ‘There’s no way I can tell you this over the phone,’” Rice said.
She invited him to the flower show.
“He said, ‘Couldn’t you make them do it in the spring, so it’s easier to travel?’ My 93-year-old mother said the same thing,” Rice said.
Unlike McKay, her mother was able to attend, which meant a lot to her.
“That was such a highlight to have her sitting there in front of me to experience that with me,” Rice said of her mother, who lives in Rochester, NY.
Her mother was one of 300 people to attend the preview party.
In total, the show is expected to draw 20,000 people. Having such a large platform to share her art means a lot to Rice.
“With every person that sees it, they hopefully know more about me, and it, and cast glass,” Rice said.