April Shelford Reads Agency and Identity in the Caribbean Enlightenment

April G Shelford with her glass work “Good Lord Bird” at Strathmore Mansion exhibit

April G. Shelford is an intellectual historian that has recently published a new book that seeks to reposition the colonial Atlantic in early modern intellectual history, tracing the advent of particular practices and ideas amongst white male colonists – planters, officials, doctors, merchants, and military men. As described in a review of April’s book by Ingrid Schreiber of the University of Oxford, these “Enlightened” colonists sought to assert their identity as legitimate thinkers and civilized, modern individuals. This was, on the one hand, an attempt to assume a shared culture and gentility with Europeans, and colonists eagerly emulated the fashions of metropolitan consumer culture, including in the amassing of globes, telescopes, and musical instruments. Whether asserting a European or uniquely Caribbean identity, colonists relied on the figure of the enslaved as a symbolic Other to civilization, thus reinforcing a logic of racial superiority. How did these as models of colonial morality and with their sense of noblesse oblige reconcile the realities all the while maintaining a notoriety for cruelty toward the slaves on their own properties? April’s new book brings to life some all-too forgotten corners of Caribbean history.

April is also one of the Washington Glass School Faculty and Resident Artist, and she recently had a solo exhibit of her glass sculptures at the Brentwood Arts “Front Window Gallery”.

A Caribbean Enlightenment: Intellectual Life in the British and French Colonial Worlds, 1750–1792 Cambridge University Press, 2023, ISBN 9781009360807

We caught up with the multitalented artist and historian April a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.

What inspired you to delve into the intellectual life of the Caribbean during the 18th century?

As we historians like to say, it was all contingent. About 25 years ago, I’d been on the academic job market for a while & couldn’t get a position. (Since then, the situation for new phds has become just dire.) A colleague heard about a two-year position at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, & he & another colleague went to bat for me. So I was hired to teach European history, mostly early modern (roughly 1450-1789). I trained in 17th-century France–the “Great Century” of Louis XIV–& here I was in a former British colony built on the foundation of very profitable agricultural commodities (chiefly sugar) w/a labor force of thousands & thousands of enslaved Africans. I knew nothing about this history, & a colleague at UWI suggested I “look around” & see whether I could find topics to research. The rest, as they say, is history, if not in a straight line!

A Caribbean Enlightenment
Illustration from April Shelford’s book “A Caribbean Enlightenment”

How do you hope your book contributes to our understanding of intellectual history in colonial Caribbean worlds?

When I first began working on the eighteenth-century Caribbean, the dominant view in a sense was that there was no intellectual history to tell. Then & now, the image of White Caribbean societies was that they were utterly philistine. That view was increasingly changing among scholars as I was researching this book. And please note: the cliche of philistinism was like all cliches–there’s always a tough kernel of truth. But some early research convinced me that that wasn’t the whole story, & that this other part was worth telling.

When most people think of Enlightenment, they think of Voltaire, Adam Smith, in North America, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin. There are a couple of prominent Caribbean intellectuals, French & British. But I was doing something different. For a long time, scholars have been rethinking Enlightenment; the result is studying how Enlightenment ideas spread & most importantly how people used them to understand the world they lived in, developed & extended them to change their situations. And that was the point: acquiring “useful” knowledge to “improve” some aspects of personal and social life.

Some examples: When a lot of Americans think about Enlightenment, they think about politics, rights & their foundation. And you certainly see that in the Caribbean. When the editor of a newspaper in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) published many articles on the Stamp Act crisis in North America, he was giving to French colonial readers more ideas about defining their rights vs the French government–& believe me, they were no happier with their colonial governors than colonists in Virginia or Massachusetts. But the Enlightenment was also–maybe even more on both sides of the Atlantic–about agricultural improvement. So you had French colonists writing into the newspaper about improving the cultivation & processing of existing crops, consulting books on botany & chemistry, sending information to metropolitan scientific societies. Publications were most important in spreading Enlightenment ideas, so I spend a lot of time in two chapters giving a sense of how many books were coming into Jamaica, what kind, how people shared them & what they might have made of them.

As these were slave societies, as this was a period during which ideas of equality AND race were developing, & as anti-slavery feeling was emerging later in the century–well, it all bubbles up in the sources. French colonists wrote planters manuals, some of which get into questions of managing the enslaved. Assumptions about the “nature” of the enslaved, their capacities, some explicit, some implicit undergird the authors’ discussions. An overseer in British Jamaica read through a lot of material on slavery & the enslaved, practical advice &  “scientific” assertions that we now completely reject. What did he make of all this? Tough to determine from his notes, but his reading exposed him to a lot of ideas, not all of them in agreement.

One of the things I think is most valuable about my study is showing how Enlightenment could contribute to the making of a White colonial identity, a “politics of culture,” as an American colonial historian once put it. Becoming “enlightened,” if you will, was a way for colonists to push back against metropolitan characterizations of them as degenerate Philistines. It was also a way to assert that their authority over the enslaved was not just a matter of brute strength & violence– the Caribbean was a place of terrifying violence– but that it was also legitimated by cultural superiority.

April Shelford working on her glass sculptures at the Washington Glass School.

As a glass artist and author, do you find any parallels or connections between your artistic process and the historical narratives you explore in your book?

During a lot of the period of researching & writing this book, I was getting into glass, & I thought that these were just different. But there are similarities. As a historian, I’m really source driven. I read an eighteenth-century book, & I wonder, why did this person think this way? Who were they? Who were they talking to? What did their readers make of it? So when I start, I’m not at all clear how it’s going to come out, what story I’m telling, what else I need to know, what my work might contribute to historical debates. Eventually, I get there. Glass is THE source, & more often than not I don’t know what I might be getting at with it. Most of my work is based on slicing up bigger pieces into smaller, then assembling them in a way that makes sense. Writing history, I’m always assembling bits and pieces into something that (I hope!) means something, that I feel I’ve responsibly interpreted. Then you open the kiln door & get something you didn’t expect, so you have to rethink, sometimes dump it. Believe me, when I write, a lot ends up on the cutting room floor (sorry for the mixed metaphors!). Writing & glass-making are both processes, & you have to trust the process.

April Shelford, “Gravity’s Loom” 2023, fused glass

You are quickly rising in the glass art world – do you see any parallels in the academic world and the art world?

First, please, I don’t see myself as rising in the glass art world, though I’m flattered you think so. But I can say something about parallels. I see history as a humanities subject first & foremost. These are called disciplines because it takes a lot to learn your craft. The humanities are about human beings, & human beings are terrifyingly complicated, so we’ll be wrangling about what it means to be human forever. That doesn’t make the question less important–if anything it makes it more central to what we think we should do as individuals, as a society, even as a world. And with AI coming on strong, we might want to get to work on it yesterday. What more basic question than the meaning of being human is there in art? And you have to learn your craft, your discipline–you have to work at it. But there’s joy in the work, historical, artistic. Unfortunately both endeavors are horribly undervalued, & it seems to get worse & worse. We all know about art programs & humanities departments being cut back, even closed. This diminishes all of us, every one of us, as human beings.

Washington Glass School Resident Artists at “A Caribbean Enlightenment” book launch. L-R Nancy Kronstadt, April Shelford, Patricia Kent and Kate Barfield.

Tell us about your next project. Is there a new book in the works? Perhaps a glass mystery?!

No idea. I have some much more modest historical writing projects in mind. I’m currently involved in an editorial project with an academic journal, & I’m loving it. With glass, I want to push myself to go bigger & learn some new techniques. I’d like to explore photo transfer: In my mind, I see a big book–now there’s crossover! I also feel I can say more. Making something that’s aesthetically pleasing–that’s enough. But I love it when someone feels a piece speaks to them.

Follow April on Instagram: April Shelford (@aprilglassshelford)

Indian Creek School Alumni Workshop at Washington Glass School

Indian Creek School Alumni enjoy the company, the artwork and the creative venue of the Glass School.

Maryland’s Indian Creek School held a fun alumni get-together event at the Washington Glass School.

The gathering allowed conversation to flow freely!

The alumni held a creative gathering, having all the participants enjoying their company and making beautiful fused glass bowls.

The creative event brought back many memories!
The workshop showcased the artistic talents of all the participants.
The process of making artwork as the setting for the informal gathering made the night a lot of fun for all!

Janis & Tate @ Toronto’s Sandra Ainsley Gallery

Michael Janis & Tim Tate at Toronto’s Sandra Ainsley Gallery June 4 – July 30, 2022

Toronto, Canada’s famed Sandra Ainsley Gallery present the narrative glass artworks by WGS Co-Directors Tim Tate and Michael Janis. The show, titled “One Story is Not Enough” featured works by each artist as a solo, and a number of their collaborative wall murals.

Michael Janis’ imagery in frit powder is reflected in the gallery’s piano surface.

When Michael Janis and Tim Tate met, almost 20 years ago, they discovered a shared fascination of narrative sculpture- one that seeks to arrive at an image that is both unflinchingly candid in physical representation and psychologically evasive. Working together, they are interested in the simultaneous read of an immediately recognizable image that asks the viewer to linger over history and meanings that unfurl more slowly. Mark, line and material become an extension of touch in the act of representation. The relationship of hand to subject, negotiated through the material, can elicit a response of both visual and tactile.

“The Poetry of Everyday Objects” by Michael Janis & Tim Tate, 2021; Size:6H x 6W’; Cast Glass

With these confines they create work in many techniques, but if you stand slightly back and see their history a huge thread of interconnected stories weave through their work from day one. The beauty comes into focus and the viewer sees the edges of a world not dissimilar to this one, but so much more thoughtful.

Detail – “The Poetry of Everyday Objects”, Michael Janis & Tim Tate

They present this glimpse into that alternative world, seemingly unstuck in time somewhere between past and future.

Tim Tate, Lenticular series, 2022, each panel 41″H x 41″W, lenticular prints

Sandra Ainsley Gallery
The Warehouse
100 Sunrise Avenue, Unit 150
Toronto, Ontario Canada M4A 1B3

Glass 48 Opens May 8!

Glass 48 opens Friday May 8 @ 1:00 pm ( Eastern time).

Glass 48 opens Friday May 8 @ 1:00 pm ( Eastern time).

The pandemic has changed many planned arts events across the world. Habatat Galleries has adapted their planned Glass48 International event to an online presentation so the exhibition can be viewed from anywhere. This monumental experience will allow all visitors to view presentation from anywhere in the world. This experience includes personalized videos of each artists work and will also feature studio tours.

WGS Artists Tim Tate and Michael Janis are featured in the International exhibit – and they each have video presentations of their individual work and of their collaborative work.

Syl Mathis @ Workhouse Fine Arts Festival


The Workhouse Arts Center in Lornton, VA, announces their 2nd annual Fine Arts Festival with more than 150 of the nation’s best artists. The fair is for 2 days only, at the Workhouse Arts Center in the heart of Northern Virginia – 20 minutes south of Washington D.C.


Syl Mathis, mixed media & cast glass sculpture, 2016

Look for exciting new cast glass/mixed media artworks by WGS artist Syl Mathis to be featured at the art fair!


On Saturday from 12-3p explore the annual education open house with a variety of demos, performances, and hands on activities. The festival will be held rain or shine.


Syl Mathis, cast glass and mixed media sculpture, 2016


September 10/11

11:00 am – 7:30 pm
9518 Workhouse Way
Lorton, VA, 22079


Witness Tim Tate’s Infinite Mirror Sculpture

Artist Tim Tate has been pulling traditional craft into new realms and depths. Tim shared his newest series “Witnesses of Wonders” and the work is incredible. In this series,Tim has been using elements that were 3-D printed at Catholic University’s modeling department combined with infinity mirrors to expand the sensation of unlimited space in the artwork. 

From Tim’s artist statement about his series:

Tim Tate, "21st Century Guernica"; Glass, Cast Images, LED; 36" x 36 x 4". In this piece a ring of translucent refugee boats float in the center, all with no where to turn to. The center ring is shared with red poppies, the symbol for war remembrance in England. The outer edge is made up of individual images from the powerful Picasso painting entitled Guernica.

Tim Tate, “21st Century Guernica”; Glass, Cast Images, LED; 36″ x 36 x 4″. In this piece a ring of translucent refugee boats float in the center, all with no where to turn to. The center ring is shared with red poppies, the symbol for war remembrance in England. The outer edge is made up of individual images from the powerful Picasso painting entitled Guernica.

“I try to entice the viewer to look deeply into and completely experience my windows into alternative dimensions. My works create an optical and bodily illusion of infinity through apparently limitless space. There is an intimacy created by viewing deeply into a circular opening, as if peering through a portal to witness another endlessly repeating reality.

Tim Tate, 21st Century Guernica - detail .  Said Tim about the imagery of the refugee boats, " Refugees right now are trying to escape unspeakable atrocities and protect their families who are turned away at country after country. This is the shame of our decade. "

Tim Tate, 21st Century Guernica – detail . Said Tim about the imagery of the refugee boats, ” Refugees right now are trying to escape unspeakable atrocities and protect their families who are turned away at country after country. This is the shame of our decade. “


The constant repetition of imagery also speaks to us of timelines: ones that go endlessly into the future or extend endlessly into the past. These repetitions reference society mired into static social patterns, some good, some bad.

Tim Tate. "21st Century Guernica" detail.    "Picasso made his painting in mostly tones of black white and gray "to drain the life out of them". I drenched them in red and returned color to them because this horror is happening right now in this world....in fact this very second." said Tim Tate.

Tim Tate. “21st Century Guernica” detail. “Picasso made his painting in mostly tones of black white and gray “to drain the life out of them”. I drenched them in red and returned color to them because this horror is happening right now in this world….in fact this very second.” said Tim Tate.

We look inside these portals as if seeing into a dream, fully realizing that this is but an illusion. But even though we know it is a illusion that should not stop us from freely examining it, and hopefully seeing another world at the same time.

Tim Tate, "The Endless Cycle"; 36 x 36 x 4"; Glass, Aluminum, Poly-Vitro, electronics

Tim Tate, “The Endless Cycle”; 36 x 36 x 4″; Glass, Aluminum, Poly-Vitro, electronics

Uncomfortable with any single defining time, I prefer sliding through the centuries; from 19th century Victorian techno-fetishism, to mid and late 20th century references to endless mirrors and studio glass to 21st century electronics and political focus. Perhaps all my work can be defined by how uncomfortable I am with definitions.” Tim Tate.

For more images of Tim Tate’s newest works – click HERE to have a look at his website

Tim Tate, "The Endless Cycle". Said Tim about this work: "For every man shown here, 1000 people died last year because of gun violence. For every gun shown here, a child dies every day. A hard lesson we have to learn from Orlando.....only by joining together can we hope to curtail gun violence."

Tim Tate, “The Endless Cycle”. Said Tim about this work: “For every man shown here, 1000 people died last year because of gun violence. For every gun shown here, a child dies every day. A hard lesson we have to learn from Orlando…..only by joining together can we hope to curtail gun violence.”

Sloppy Craft… but is it Art?

>Nicolas Bell, Curator of the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery talked about the rise of “Sloppy Craft Movement” during his talk on influences of the 40 under 40 exhibit (currently on exhibit thru Feb 3rd 2013).  This concept has been talked about in the Glass School for a while, as many of the artists here come from diverse backgrounds – often from outside the glass craft world… and it is a great subject that deserves more attention in the art blogdom world.

Sloppy Craft” – is this an oxymoron? I thought that many may not understand the concept of sloppy craft, and a cynically-minded person, could view much of the work – often designed to maximize the shock value – as a transparent bid for attention in the contemporary art world, which has long made a point of embracing my-kid-could-do-that aesthetics.

Mixed Media/Glass sculpture by the De La Torre Brothers 
Einar and Jamex De La Torre derive their gutsy imagery from such diverse influences as Jose Posada, television, the Vatican and the darling of modern comics, the huge eyed Anime characters.

In 2009, Glen Adamson, the Deputy Director of Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum coined the phrase “Sloppy Craft” which he defined it as “the unkempt product of a post-disciplinary craft education.”

The origins of “Post Disciplinary Craft” begin in the early 2000’s when new ways of thinking about craft began to form and many saw a need for a more relevant understanding of current craft practice and objects. The earlier models of understanding craft, which relied on either the Arts and Crafts Movement or the Back to the Land counterculture movement that had influenced studio craft in the 1960s and 1970s, would have to be replaced.

The youngsters of craft no longer felt connected to the past – or rather, are not referencing the history of the mediums – that is not their focus.  They didn’t learn in apprenticeships with masters and a growing number had abandoned classrooms. They weren’t wed to techniques or materials. University art programs found that the students did not want to be categorized as “glass artists” or “clay artists” and, as the students just want the media skills as part of their repertoire, sought to merge curriculums under the term “Material Studies”. Young crafters also learned from other sources – such as their peers or the Internet. The digital age would be to craft what the sexual revolution was to feminism. This is an approach to craft that resonates with the times, linking craft to the wider concerns of today’s society (ie: think global,act local; feminism; gender politics; social justice and ecological concerns).  The don’t be precious DYI movementresponse of current craft students were a couple of other aspects of “sloppy craft.” One was the recycling of materials — found or “trash” art, one might call it. It’s everywhere these days, certainly if you looked at the works at DC’s semi-annual artfest Artomatic – and no one bats an eye at the exhibits. The other aspect of this kind of casual crafting is that it appears most often in assemblages and collage. Assemblages and collage have clear ancestors, dating back to Picasso through Rauschenberg and are seen and made by thousands of people who may not even think of themselves as artists. 

Textile art by Josh Faught.

Faught’s textiles appear to have accrued in a piecemeal fashion. To the surface he’s appended labels, nail polish and sequins, all materials culled from the realm of the amateur crafter.

Traditionally, a craftsperson would spend years polishing their craft, working at the highest level until one was so good that one could let it go – forgetting technique and working from the heart intuitively; the crafter/artist would have behind them all the knowledge needed to return to “fineness” if the artwork required it. 
To some extent Josh Faught fits that mold. He self-identified as a Fibers Major at the Art Institute of Chicago, while his fellow students in fibers always made clear they were “Fibers-and-…” “…and performance,” “…and installation,” “…and assemblage,” “…and collage.” But at some point Faught let go of the fine work of Fiber Craft and turned to rawer work.  

Einar and Jamex de la Torre

But making things, it turns out, is still quite difficult. Indeed, the one thing that seems to bind the majority of contemporary art together is the lack of skill required to create it. Glen Adamson also explored the popular notion of what defines “craft” and why some may think that craft always has to be finely made. He states,” On the one hand, skill commands respect. We value the integrity of the well-made object, the time and care it demands. Therefore, what we most want out of our craft is something like perfection. On the other hand, though, we value craft’s irregularity– it’s human, indeed humane, character. We want craft to stand in opposition to the slick and soulless products of systematized industrial production.” With this in mind many people would want to consider something very well made to be craft and not something considered to be sloppy craft.

What about the name of the movement – “sloppy craft”? “Sloppy” is really a sound bite kind of name, irresistible once spoken out loud. The reference was used extensively with textile and fabric art, but examples can be found in all the crafts. “Sloppy” indicates intentionality, which might not be the case with the art. “Sloppy Craft” is an unfortunate phrase — perhaps other names like “informal” “casual” or “raw” would be less jarring than “sloppy” to describe contemporary art that has some base in traditional crafts.

Artists need to examine these historical approaches and goals –whether it is humility, authenticity, expressiveness, shock value and impact – to see if they are useful in understanding and contextualizing sloppy and post-disciplinary craft.  At the very least, it will help demonstrate whether contemporary craft is an evolution (of its prior forms) or a revolution.

The term impressionist was first used by French art critic Louis Leroy in 1874 based on Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise. Leroy found the term fitting to describe the loose, “sloppy”, undefined and “unfinished” style that Monet and several other artists applied to their paintings. Numerous famous artists threw out fineness a long time ago and we are used to the aesthetic now.