Lino Tagliapietra, the man who has been called "the world's greatest living glass blower," is, in person, simply charming and down to earth...

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Lino Tagliapietra, the man who has been called “the world’s greatest living glass blower,” is, in person, simply charming and down to earth. In his light-filled office/shipping warehouse in Belltown, Tagliapietra (whom everyone seems to call Lino, pronounced “Leen-o”)) talked about his life and career and his decidedly mixed feelings about the first major retrospective of his work, which opens tomorrow at The Museum of Glass in Tacoma.

While he thinks “it’s a very nice show,” he was originally uncomfortable with the idea of a retrospective because he was concerned his work might be perceived as too static or too fixed in the past.

So it’s gratifying that the show traces a path from one kind of work to another, following the artist as he moved through professional stages and geographical places.

As a boy in Italy, Tagliapietra’s schooling was disrupted by World War II, and he was drawn to the famous glassmaking factories of Murano. Glass was everywhere, and it looked so easy (though he was soon to learn otherwise). So he quit school to apprentice himself to eminent glassmakers, even though his mother “was against it.”

In 1979, Tagliapietra, who didn’t speak English, accepted an invitation to teach at the young Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, 50 miles north of Seattle. Aside from the language barrier — which Tagliapietra and his students got around by developing numbered codes for different processes — there were traditional limits to sharing technical information outside of Venice and Murano. While numerous artists over the centuries traveled as ambassadors of Venetian glass-blowing, they were expected to demonstrate their skills and then return without overly disseminating the tricks of the trade.

Lino half-jokingly tells of the “leggenda metropolitano” (urban legend) about Venetian glass artisans who were killed for divulging secrets abroad. More seriously, the traditions of glassmaking are important forces in the Venetian economy, and entire factories can be dependent on the talents of individual artists. And yet, knowing all this, Tagliapietra came to the United States, wanting to contribute to the rising international interest in studio glass.

But “more than anything else,” Lino just wanted to experience the United States. While Murano felt small and contained, and the glass workshops were sometimes dark and windowless, America seemed big and open.

While working outdoors at Pilchuck and traveling around the region, he was struck by the sight of sunsets and an occasional eagle or pod of whales. Lino was hooked on the Northwest. He returned many times to teach and work and eventually set up a permanent office in Seattle in 1994, from which his creations are shipped around the world.

His generosity in sharing expertise has been touted as instrumental in furthering the studio glass movement in the Seattle area, and in other glass centers like Amsterdam. Beginning in March, MOG will display work by 15 glass artists who have been influenced by “the Maestro” (an official designation, by the way, of the highest artistic expertise in Venice — Lino was made a Maestro when he was 21).

MOG curator Susanne Frantz says that today, “Lino is not only a great craftsman, but he is also an exceptional designer and colorist. It is one thing to be an accomplished artisan — and there are many in the glass world — but it is very unusual to witness his extraordinary degree of skill in combination with sophisticated artistry.”

Tagliapietra finds inspiration in the give-and-take of teaching, and also in museums and books. He’s an ardent reader — at times staying up all night to finish a novel. After reading Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” Lino wanted to make the necks of his vessels “as narrow as possible — to stay up and be lighter, lighter, lighter.” This extremely narrow neck renders these objects nonfunctional as containers, an idea that doesn’t bother Lino in the slightest.

He has little patience for boundaries or categories and has created a wide range of objects from functional lamps, bowls and vases to sensual, sculptural art installations. Aside from his earlier factory work — which was beautifully executed but, as he well knows, limited in terms of artistic freedom — his objects exude a sense of experimentation.

Currently, Tagliapietra is experimenting with shape and combinations of colors, but he is also going back to his well-known white and clear effects (many of which are currently on view at Seattle’s Traver Gallery). Above all, the Maestro says, “I like to change. I like to be free.”