Oben Abright Finds Inspiration in the Everyday

The Oakland artist infuses his glass sculptures with social meaning.


Oakland's Oben Abright grew up in a family where art was a given.

Photo by Chris Duffey

Not too many artists can claim the unusual merit of having had a solo show at age 9—in the front window of a comic book store, no less. Adding to the coolness factor was that the show consisted of portraits of sports stars.

Oakland resident Oben Abright, 35, has lived a life completely immersed in art. In elementary school in San Anselmo, he connected with other kids by drawing their portraits. “I knew I was good at it and got a lot of encouragement as an artist,” he said.

His parents made an artist’s life seem like a given. His father taught ceramics at the College of Marin, and his mother ran an art restoration business that had a parade of great sculpture coming through the house. “It was kind of like growing up in an art studio,” said Abright.

Abright went straight to a painting program at California College of the Arts after he graduated from high school. There he worked with Northern Irish glass sculptor Clifford Rainey, whose talent made Abright want to pursue a career in glass. “The amount of innovation in that medium was attractive,” Abright said. And looking at Rainey’s corecast—molten glass cast around a core that is later discarded—bottles proved inspirational. “It’s like a person floating inside a bottle. The exposure of the inside of the sculpture seemed like the next level of art to me,” Abright said. He was also moved by seeing the Dorothy & George Saxe Collection of Contemporary Craft at the de Young Museum, saying, “It never occurred to me that you could make sculpture out of glass.”

He rented an off-campus gallery space for his BFA show and sold most of the pieces. Abright is currently represented by two galleries, the ECHT Gallery in Chicago and the Austin Art Projects in Palm Desert.

Fast forward to today. Abright’s piece Nate is included in Glass for the New Millennium, an exhibition at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento. The exhibition runs through Oct. 2. Abright’s 4-foot sculpture depicts a goateed man in a hoodie and is rendered in mold-blown glass—a technique that creates a hollow object by inserting air into molten glass while shaping it in a mold—and oil paint on a cement base.

“Abright’s approach to glass includes sculpture and a social message, which is a new development in creative glass since 2000,” said Crocker curator Diana Daniels, citing Abright’s use of a homeless man as a model and his practice of finding subjects in the environment around his Oakland studio. “He looks at work not as aesthetically pleasing, but emotionally challenging.”

Abright’s mentor Rainey also has a piece, Fragmented Shadow of Time, in the show, and his father, Bill Abright, has a ceramic vessel in the Crocker’s permanent collection.

Like many artists, Abright is always looking ahead to how art will evolve. He expressed dismay that “so many institutions with a long history of teaching craft-based skills have shifted to digital media. Seeing the hand of the artist in an object is less and less valued these days in an art world that has become more automated.” But the timelessness of the human effort behind the work endures, he said. “The value of the artist’s fingerprints in the medium will always remain valid.”

Published online on Sept. 8, 2016 at 7 a.m.

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