Glass Passion: Tom Philabaum and Family

Decisions made long ago -- shaped by time -- created a visual dream in glass

From time to time you’ll hear someone say, “just one decision today could completely change the rest of your life.” 

Which is probably true. Sometimes. But when Tom Philabaum jumped into his van on a stormy Chicago night in 1975 he knew he was headed to Tucson, drawn by the desert, the borderland cultures, and his passion for creating beauty and inspiration from glass. Tucson would be his next stop.

Meanwhile, a young and enthusiastic Dabney Miller packed up and headed west from  Tallahassee.

"They didn't know each other...they met in Tucson, in the Fourth Avenue art scene," said their daughter Aubyn Philabaum. Dabney was a potter, low on cash, but full of life. And were about to meet. "The famous (in our family) story is - they were both at a dinner party and someone asked Dad about himself (he had just moved), and he said he was an artist, new to town, didn't know anyone, no friends in town and Mom immediately said, 'I'll be your friend'. which melted Dad's heart on the spot."

Not long after Tom arrived in Tucson he took over the lease on a pottery studio and started a clay and glass cooperative with six other people. 

The quest to form a community of like-minded artists was built on Tom's early ventures including his move to Madison, Wisconsin to study under Harvey Littleton (the acknowledged father of the studio-glass movement) and with Don Reitz, a master ceramicist.

"While in Wisconsin I worked equally hard in both materials, but had less successful results in combining the two," Tom said 

By the late 70s, Tom was engaging the glass community on advisory boards and securing grants to help spread the rising medium of studio glass. Soon his artistic glasswork was popping up in galleries around the country. His work in clay remained strong while Tom earned his Master of Fine Art in 1983 at the University of Arizona.

Early on, Tom said, "working in ceramics was like coming home. It fed my need for physical and spiritual involvement in the aesthetic process.” But he started to push new boundaries in glass art.

A break-out new series of his intricately patterned glass shapes really took off based on his experimentation. "Around that time, I had perfected a technique of design and form in glass that came to be called the “Reptilian Series,” he said, adding that "these pieces really got things happening."

From there, he found himself in Iceland, then Germany, and other stops to work with his peers including lengthy studio collaborations in Guadalajara and Mexico City. 

Back home in Tucson, Tom decided to spin off his own studio and gallery. He just needed to find the right space for what he envisioned as a passionate place where artists could come and work together. And, so, in 1984 they bought a tired Tastee Freeze drive-through at 711 S. Sixth Ave. The kids would sometimes call it "Tastee Glass.”

Soon, a gallery and studio were carved out of the space, and again, kindred artistic spirits were drawn together to create with molten glass and other materials. The Philabaums opened their exhibition space to artists working in many different materials.

By 1991, they were all-glass all the time. Since then, more than 500 glass artists have participated in the gallery's exhibitions. They continue to plan new shows with 65 of their core artists, including 25 across Arizona. The gallery is the largest glass-specific venue in Arizona.

He developed a new passion: mining new talent. "People come in the door with fabulous talent. New artists with new techniques which create new synergies," he said.

In 2000, Tom and David Klein launched the Sonoran Art Foundation, a non-profit glass school that has its own studio near 22nd St. and I-10, and is now known as the Sonoran Glass School. Tom enjoys seeing the school grow and its ability to launch new artists in this realm of glass.

All the while, young Ian and Aubyn were playing in what today is known as Five Points. Back then, it was a pretty rough part of town. But it was their neighborhood and it helped shape them into passionate seekers of grace, free expression, and justice.

Aubyn went to Tucson High School where she developed her dramatic skills, building on years of dreams halt close since she was five. Then she went on to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Boston University, and her Masters of Fine Arts from The Yale School of Drama. As a professional actor, she can be seen on ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, Netflix, HBO, FX, and in numerous films. She is also a teacher, having worked as a guest artist at multiple universities. Aubyn is the Founder and owner of the Aubyn Philabaum Acting Studio now officially open here in Tucson!

Ian was a student at University High School. Along the way, he's charged forward to address many of the challenges facing our less fortunate neighbors. Today he co-directs the Oregon-based Innovation Law Lab's anti-incarceration legal program. Previously, Ian was the project coordinator at the CARA Pro Bono Project which provides legal representation and advocacy for women and children held in the Dilley Detention Center. Ian holds a bachelor’s degree in Latin American Studies from the University of Arizona and a Master’s in Development Practice from the U of A.

Today, Tom can be found most mornings at his studio, working on large sheets of glass with paint, copper mesh, and just about any other object that can be sandwiched between glass sheets in a molten process known as casing.

A diagnosis of Parkinson's in 2017 remains top of mind for Tom and the family. He’s also been swimming – often more than two hours most days – to help him remain strong. And reading to help keep the gears turning.

A year after the diagnosis he was no longer able to blow glass. He’s narrowed the focus of his work to flat glasswork. 

“Glassblowing is very athletic,” he said, adding, “that’s what I miss, the teamwork. We’d position four to six people (around the kiln) and plan each movement. It was like a dance.”

Aubyn and Ian have both moved back home to be closer to their parents and to help Tom as needed (though he remains very active…they are just glad to be close). And they both are glad to be back to celebrate a fantastic partnership between Tom and Debney, a venture that turned Tucson into an important center of glass art.

In 2020, the Philabaums sold the gallery to Alison and Dylan Harvey. "Alison and Dad have a wonderful bond, so he comes into the back studio (almost) every morning to create," Aubyn said. 

Alison was the long-time Gallery Manager after Dabney stepped down and has been incredible in growing the business, bringing in new artists, expanding the reach of customers through social media and other platforms. "She and Dylan and their three kids mean the world to our family, taking on Mom and Dad's legacy, honoring it so gracefully, and building on it." 

Aubyn said celebrating her parents partnership is part of what makes these days all together special. "She and my Dad were a total team in the growth and success of the business. While he ran the studio, she ran the gallery. She was instrumental in helping Dad decide which artists to feature and what shows to showcase," Aubyn said. "He really respects her opinion and eye for art. And I think she learned a lot from him over the years. They compliment each other well."


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