Glass Line
June/July, 1996. Vol.10 No.1


A Conversation with
Elsie Burton

by Robert A. Mickelsen

On Friday night, April 12, I had the good fortune of having a brief conversation with Elsie Burton, widow of the late John Burton. John Burton is generally regarded as the father of modern artistic lampworking and was the author of one the first and finest definitive books on artistic lampworking, "Glass - Hand-Blown, Sculptured, Colored - Philosophy and Method". Elsie provided me with some insights into her life and times with John which I would l like to share with you here.


Photo of... Elsie in her livingroom after Hurricane Iniki, 1994.
Elsie in her livingroom
after Hurricane Iniki, 1994.
RM: Elsie, could you tell us something about your time with John? How long were you two married?
EB: Well, I would be happy to talk to you, but a lot of the stuff is in the book, as a matter of fact the book is dedicated to me.
RM: Yes I noticed that.
EB: Well, I have a lot of memories. I did spend 30 years with John. He was eighteen years older than I. You know if he was alive today, he would have actually been 102! He died when he was 91 eleven years ago. He'd never been sick in his life. He was a very extraordinary person.
RM: Well, I have a copy of his book here and I...
EB: Oh! Kathy said that you didn't have a copy...
RM: Well, I managed to get one...
EB: You know it's not in print anymore. It was published twice you know, by Crown and Chilton. I only have two copies and I told her that I couldn't give any of them away. We lost an awful lot of stuff and a lot of John's glass in hurricane Iniki.
RM: On the introduction page of the book, John says, "To Elsie, my wife, who shares all of my adventures in glass"
EB: Yes, well I did, and I miss it very much. I really do. I miss him and the adventures and the purpose in life, that was a great purpose. We had a wonderful time. He started out with a little bunson burner if you know what that is, and a treadmill. When I first met him and we were going to get married, I got him the biggest torch that I could find. And that's how he started making all this beautiful glass. Then he had a lot of exhibitions and we had a lot of fun. He won a Guggenheim fellowship you know, and we took a trip to Europe for almost six months. That's how this book came to be written.
RM: Tell me about the trip to Europe. That was clearly something that really inspired him.
EB: Oh yes. We took off and we went to all the different countries where there was glass. We went to Ireland and had a marvelous time there. He went into one of the factories and actually blew glass with that lead glass, that very bright glass that they use in Ireland. You know Irish glass is very famous. And we went to Sweden and we went to Orrefors, also a very famous glass place. We went to Italy and we enjoyed Italy very much. We went to Murano and we went to Barovier and Toso glass factory and met Ercole and Angelo Barovier. You can get most of this stuff out of the book.
RM: Yes, but it's more interesting to talk to you. You know John did much the same thing that Harvey Littleton did when they started the American studio glass movement. They took a look at all those glass factories in Europe and said "why can't a craftsman do this alone at home?", just like John did.
EB: Well, John really started all this, before Littleton. He was the instigator of the whole thing. Littleton came right after John. You know we have a grant, or rather a scholarship at Pilchuck school. And of course John's glass is in many museums in this country and seven museums in Europe. I did that after John passed away and I am very happy I did because that glass was all saved. It was the best that I sent away. Corning has 23 pieces.
RM: I have seen those pieces at Corning.
EB: Somebody went there and took pictures and brought them back and showed me. Some of his very, very best is at Corning because John was very excited about Corning. He'd been there many times. He loved that place.
RM: Before you met John, you were married to...
EB: Victor Borge. How did you know...
RM: Oh I've done my homework.
EB: (laughing) I guess you have.
RM: So tell me a little about your history.
EB: Well, I tried to write a book here a couple of years ago. I called it "My Two Husbands". I wanted very much to publish it. I talked to a lot of publishers, but they said you can't go straight to a publisher, you have to go through agents. The agents all said the same thing to me. They wanted me to write half the book about Victor and delete John. Well, I wanted Victor's name to sell the book, but I wanted John's philosophy in it because John was an extraordinary person and he had lived a fabulous life. And they also wanted something about why I divorced Victor. Victor is still performing even now and he's 86 years old! But I wouldn't do that. So I still have it. If I could find an extra copy I could sent it to you and you could get a lot out of that.
RM: I would be very honored to read it.
EB: I don't know if I have an extra copy, I'd have to see first. You know, I was working with a computer because it was so much easier to do because I didn't have to do the pages over. But the computer was ruined in Iniki and I didn't feel like getting a computer again. But writing is fun. I had an awful lot of fun doing it. I remember I would wake up in the middle of the night and have an idea, and I've talked to other writers who say they have the same experience, you think of something that happened years and years ago and once you get into that it's like putting on a recorder because everything around that is all there in the brain and it all comes rushing out. I remember that when I used to wake up the night like that and just write and write and write. Maybe you've had that experience.
RM: Ummm... well I am probably not really that kind of a writer but I have had that experience in other regards.
EB: It's all there in the head you know, it's all there in the brain, you just have to tap into it. I guess that's what I did. Things just came rushing by, things that people said that I haven't thought about in years. Yes, my life with Victor was exciting but not very happy. We're still very good friends.
RM: Do you remember Maggie Youd?
EB: Yes! Maggie was here some years ago and taught a friend of mine glass in John's studio. Yes, Maggie Youd, I love her. She was our teacher at the school. I have a whole bunch of videos of John's and one of her teaching down there and all of the people she taught are all talking on this video. There's a girl who lives in San Francisco, a very good pupil of John's and she lives on glass. She actually makes her living at it.
RM: Do you mean Suellen Fowler?
EB: Yes!
RM: Suellen is a friend you know.
EB: You know all these people!
RM: Oh yeah, I am a lampworker too you know.
EB: Oh, I didn't know that. I thought you were a writer.
RM: No, I am a lampworker by profession. I write on the side for these two newsletters a column for lampworkers. I guess I should have introduced myself to you a bit more thoroughly. I apologize.
EB: Oh that's ok. But you know, you don't really need to interview me because everything I could ever tell you is in that book. It's a wonderful book.
RM: Yes I know, the book is wonderful.
EB: You know, people said it was rare what we did. They give you the money and you don't have to say what you're using it for. But that's what we did. John took notes and wrote that book on this trip that we took for the Guggenheim. And the Guggenheim people said that they don't always get such a reward but they were very happy with the book.
RM: The book is marvelous. I love the philosophical aspect of it.
EB: You know, in its field it was sort of a best seller!
RM: I just wish there were more copies around. I'm still searching.
EB: A lot of libraries have copies.
RM: I have seen them in libraries and it seems like all my friends have a copy, I just have never been able to find a copy for myself. Suellen just gave me one of hers but this particular copy was inscribed to her from John. I don't think that she meant for me to have this, so I am still looking. But at least this gave me a chance to read through he book before calling you.
EB: Do you have John's poetry book?
RM: No I don't.
EB: It's a beautiful book. I'll send that to you.
RM: I would love to see it.
EB: He was a wonderful poet. He was many, many things.
RM: Did you ever do any lampworking yourself?
EB: Well, I was good enough to teach beginners, but I never did it that much because he was so good there was no point in even trying. I've done a lot with my music and I've done watercolors. But I can work with glass and I know something about it.
RM: John's methods were things that just he devised weren't they? He just invented them didn't he? Nobody taught John.
EB: He taught himself. He taught as he went along. He taught by his mistakes. He did things that Corning could hardly believe that they were done by this method. There were some very large pieces.
RM: So much of what he invented, of what he did, has become modern lampworking. He was like the father of it all. Including the coloration of glass.
EB: Yes, using the different oxides. He made a beautiful red which is very hard to get you know, and a yellow. Yellow and red are hard to do.
RM: Well there is a whole commercial colored borosilicate glass industry now that is based on the formulas that John discovered. Other people have taken what he learned and expanded on it and now you can buy the stuff commercially, but it all came originally from John.
EB: He started a lot of things. I don't think a lot of people recognize that. I'm happy to hear that you do.
RM: Well, this is part of the reason I wanted to interview you. Because there's a great many people who are doing lampworking today that if you say the name John Burton, they'll say "who?", and that's not right.
EB: Well, he's been gone eleven years you know, that's a long time.
RM: It's still not right. That's like saying "who's George Washington?". People should know who he was.
EB: Yes, that's true. By the way, we have a glass shop in Kapaa that is unbelievable. It should be on 5th Avenue! They've got glass from all over the world. from Italy, from Spain, some of it is magnificent. And they're doing real well. The name is Kela's. I don't know their address.. Kathy does have her work there. She does jewelry.
RM: She also does these beautiful fused glass bowls. I will ask Kathy for the address. Do you mind if I ask a couple of more questions?
EB: Go ahead.
RM: Was there anybody in particular that John considered inspirational? Any philosophers that John really drew upon?
EB: Well, he was a great friend of Krishnamurti's.
RM: He was a personal friend?
EB: They were actually sort of brought up together in a way. They had the same guardian. Krishnamurti came to Ojai, California where John lived for many years and did a lot of talking there. He was a terrific person. That was long, long ago. There are a lot of connections in India because John lived there for quite a while.
RM: When did he live in India? I didn't see that in the book.
EB: When he was a young man. I don't think it is in there. There were so many influences...
RM: He sounds like such an interesting guy. I am sorry I never got to meet him.
EB: Whoever didn't missed a lot because he was always the center of attention when we went anywhere. By the way, did you know that he had a photographic memory? John could sit and recite poetry for you for hours. And he knew Shakespeare backwards and forwards. He used to tell me a story that he and his younger brother took walks in England. They used to start reciting Shakespeare, then one would stop and the other one had to pick up where the other one started. They got points. (laughter) It was a wonderful game. His whole family was that way. John could read a poem through three or four times and then he would recite it for you. It was a terrific talent, like somebody who starts playing music at five years old. He had also the most magnificent voice.
RM: I imagine that is how he commanded his audiences, just by speaking.
EB: Oh, he was a marvelous lecturer. I have been all over the place with him and wherever he went he lectured. He made glass sound so romantic.
RM: Tell me, how did you meet John?
EB: I met him at a neighbor's party. I lived in Chatsworth. I was just divorced from Victor and I still lived in the house in Chatsworth. A neighbor had a party and she said "I'm inviting a man that I think you're going to like. That's where I met him. I remember that in the middle of the party he said to me "I'm not terribly interested in all these conversations here." He took me by the hand and said "let's go in the room next door and I'll recite some poetry for you." (laughter) I had never been terribly interested in poetry but when he recited it, it was so beautiful. Then we started seeing each other. I actually proposed to him and he said to me, "I'm too old for you. You need a younger man and children." I said "I've had a younger man and children. I want you!" (laughter)
RM: So did he say no a second time?
EB: No, he said "well, we'll see." We were married on May the 14th so my wedding anniversary is coming up.
RM: Congratulations! What year was that?
EB: I think it was '65... Let's see, we were married 30 years. We had our 25th wedding anniversary here in Hawaii.
RM: So it would have to have been '55, wouldn't it?
EB: Maybe it was '55.
RM: Suellen mentioned a beautiful ranch house that you and John lived in near Santa Barbara and she suggested I ask you about it and how you had it built.
EB: Well, we didn't build it, we had it built. It was a lovely place, all hand-built. John had a beautiful studio there. Beatrice Wood, the potter, made a beautiful plaque to put outside on the door. She made bottles that looked like John's. It was a very beautiful studio. I think he mentions it in the book and there are pictures in there.
RM: I understand it was built by a Danish sea captain.
EB: It was built by a man who was a ship's captain and it did sort of feel a little bit like a ship. It had three acres of beautiful ground around it. Suellen used to come up once a week for lessons. Her parents brought her up. She was very young when she started. She has been John's best pupil. There's another one, Jeff Spencer who is doing unbelievable things! He's doing sculptures of bodies... people. He's up in Oregon somewhere. When I write you I will give you his address. You ought to get together with him. I don't know how he's doing that on a torch. It's absolutely magnificent!
RM: That name rings bells. I think I have seen his work somewhere. (I remembered later that indeed I had. Jeff had sent me some slides and a video about a year ago.)
EB: You probably have. He's getting on with it now. Actually, he's a bicycle sprinter. He went to the Olympics as a bicycle sprinter. He's a great sportsman. When he first came to see John, I looked at his hands and I said, "I don't know if he's ever going to do glass". That was funny because he's become so marvelous. He adored John. He was very much influenced by John.
RM: A great many people were.
EB: I correspond with these people, I still do. As I said, Maggie was here. She stayed for two weeks because I had a friend who wanted to blow glass and she taught him. He was extremely good at it but he didn't want to go on with it. He has a lot of John's glass. He collected it. He lives down in Texas now.
RM: I think that John would be thrilled if he could see today the current status of lampworking. Lampworking has finally been accepted. For a long time it was treated like a poor cousin.
EB: Well, John was really the forerunner of all this.
RM: I agree. He was definitely the first. It's interesting that there are such different styles of lampworking. John pioneered one aspect of it, and then there are other methods that came from other directions. Now what's happening is that it is all mixing together. We live in an age of communication and so everywhere I go it seems I run into lampworkers that are essentially hybrids of the various styles. There will be a little of what John knew, a little scientific, a little bit of Italian, and they're all mixed together now. The work that is resulting from it is extremely exciting.
EB: Oh yes. I've seen some of it in this glass shop. They have it. It's incredible to have a shop like that in Kapaa. This young couple made some money in real estate and decided that this was where they wanted to live.
RM: I can't think of a prettier place to live than Kapaa! I really miss Hawaii.
EB: They say you always want to come back to Hawaii, you never really settle down. This friend of mine who lives in Texas now lived here 25 years and he misses it very, very much. But his houses were destroyed twice and he just had enough. He had family from Texas, and he was from there so he moved back. But he is doing something he doesn't really like and I think he would like to come back. But the situation here is really very bad.
RM: Is it still rough because of the storm?
EB: Yeah, it is. It's really bad. But these glass people are doing fine with their little glass shop. There are still a lot of tourists coming here. The county's in a bad way because of the hotels that never reopened. The Waiohai and the Coco Palms.
RM: My family and I used to stay at the Coco Palms when I was a kid! Is it really closed for good?
EB: Well, they don't have the money for repairs so it just is sitting there rotting and no one can do anything. It's really sad.
RM: Did the hurricane completely wipe your house out?
EB: Yes, it was totaled. And the saddest thing was the glass. I didn't have any idea that it was going to be such a horrendous thing. I didn't even take the glass out of the counter it was in. The first hurricane we had we just stayed in the house while it was repaired so I didn't know we were going to go through anything like this. It was unbelievable!
RM: I don't think the islands have experienced anything like Iniki in over 100 years.
EB: The eye of the hurricane hit Kauai you know, and the thing that destroyed my house was 227 mile-an-hour winds! I was in the house and you just cannot explain it.
Well, it's six o'clock here and I have to get some dinner.
RM: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me, Elsie.
EB: You're very welcome. I will mail you these materials.
RM: And I will send you some slides. Aloha, Elsie.
EB: Good bye.
Since our conversation, I finally managed to obtain a copy of John's book from the Book Exchange in Corning, New York. Elsie and I exchanged mail. I sent her slides of my work and she sent me a packet of old newspaper clippings of John and his achievements and his book of poetry. His was a truly remarkable life and we are all richer for it. John Burton deserves to be remembered. I would like to conclude this with a quote from the "Collected Poems of John Burton".

Masked not, this I,
With any hindering sham-
Strong, loving, fleet of foot,
With sparkling eye..
Myself the wine of life,
Willing to live or die
In any form..

And in a flash I see
His needs go satisfied
Whom Life lives through each day-
Craftsman with any tools that strew his way,
Wherewith he answers every hour's demand,
Potter of any clay that is to hand..

(from 'Alone Afoot', by John Burton)

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