By Leah Shapiro | Photos by Mary Vogel
From reeds swaying calmly in the wind to a violent tornado charging in from the not-so-far distance, the scenes depicted with glass by Yaffa and Jeff Todd evoke feelings of wonder, intrigue, and natural beauty. While by definition glass is a solid and static material, glasswork can convey incredible movement, such as the dangling leaves on a flower stem or waves of water. Since meeting in 1980, Yaffa and Jeff have worked together to create a range of sculptures, forms, and scenes with crystal glass and colored glass produced using their own formulas.
Yaffa was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, to parents who escaped from Poland during WWII. At age five, she moved with her parents to Philadelphia. Her family nurtured her natural artistic talents from a young age.
One summer during high school, Yaffa attended the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts. “This changed my life,” she says. “I started out thinking I was going to be a painter, and when I got to the Philadelphia College of Art, I tried ceramics and jewelry. As it turned out, I did not enjoy metal, but I loved clay.” Yaffa also tried working with hot glass for the first time. “When I got involved with glass, my initial reaction was how wonderful it was to work with this material that could not be touched, yet had to be kept on center—that had a flow and rhythm to it with the help of gravity.”
In 1974, Yaffa completed her bachelor of fine arts degree in ceramics from the Philadelphia College of Art and taught ceramics for a little over a year. “I found myself using the clay as a three-dimensional canvas.” She also knew she wanted to do more with glasswork.
In the summer of ’74, Yaffa participated in a craft show with her clay work. It was there that she met a glassblower and professor at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) who encouraged her to become a graduate school student in the program. At this time, she had already arranged to take a two-week class at Penland School of Crafts in glass later that summer. When she arrived at Penland for the course she fell in love with the area. After the summer, she didn’t need much convincing about grad school.
From January 1975 to May 1977, Yaffa attended RIT and majored in glass. In her second year, she began extensive investigation of opal glass systems, specifically fluorine opal glasses, which would become the subject of her master’s thesis. She played with formulas and tested many combinations of materials to develop the fluorine opal glass formula that seemed to be perfect for the colors and other qualities she wanted to create.
During her last semester at RIT, she worked as assistant to glass artist Mark Peiser who also taught at Penland. After graduation, he asked her to come down to Penland for a few months to help him get ready for a show. She jumped at the chance to return to Penland. In the summer of 1978, she taught a two-week session in glass as the second female ever to teach glass at the school.
Jeff was born outside of Philadelphia, near Valley Forge. During high school in the early ’70s, his mother, an artist, taught at Penland School, so Jeff was able to take classes for free. He learned a bit about jewelry, and decided he would attend college at Southern Illinois University (SIU), where he could explore blacksmithing. “Within six months, I realized that beating things on an anvil wasn’t what I wanted to do,” he says with a smile. He began focusing on jewelry and glass instead, graduating with a degree in those two mediums in 1978. He moved to Penland, where his mom lived, in 1979. One day in 1980, while Yaffa was building her studio near Penland, Jeff came by to see if he could help. Yaffa jokes that he never left. Within a few months, they were working together, and, a couple years later, they were married.
While each created goblets on their own, they began making them together. “One day we woke up and saw wild purple iris growing on our bank and decided to see if we could cut the top of the goblet into an iris form,” says Yaffa. “This was the beginning of our Flower Series.” Within a couple months, the goblet form split off in two directions—perfume bottles and flowers. The floral sculptures, as with every concept, transformed over time and inspired other ideas.
They use canes and torch work imagery to create the designs. “We don’t paint glass,” says Yaffa. “We use hot glass on glass.”
“You can’t put trees and mountains in a perfume bottle very easily, so we went bigger,” says Jeff. Known as Imagery Glass Forms, these larger, flattened sculptures depicted scenes of nature. Next came the Memories Series of vertical glass scenes built with multiple layers of imagery to create self-contained worlds. Unlike the other works up to this point, these pieces were solid throughout and not blown.
In 1991, the year their first child Rachel was born, Jeff and Yaffa were encouraged by a dealer in California who sold antique paperweights to create traditional-style paperweights. By using the lens-shaped horizontal form, these pieces create a window for the viewer to look through. Images are inspired by childhood memories and the environment, such as the gardens around their house and the Toe River behind their studio in Burnsville. The Still Life Series of paperweights also evolved.
Since 1991, Jeff and Yaffa have participated in Varriales, an annual international glass show hosted by La Galerie Internationale du Verre in Biot, France. Artists’ works reflect the theme and collectors come from all over the world. Each year’s theme inspires Jeff and Yaffa to try new things, such as incorporating mixed media into their work. This experience has been hugely influential for their art. With glass (as in love), anything is possible.
To see more works by Yaffa and Jeff Todd, visit the Asheville Art Museum, Penland Gallery, and Bender Gallery. For more information, visit yaffajefftodd.com, their Facebook group, Yaffa and Jeff Todd Glass Studio, or call 828.675.4792. Their studio (open by appointment only) is located at 2865 Blue Rock Road in Burnsville.