Sculptress Suzanne Pascal Carves a Unique Artistic Niche from a Hunk of Forgotten Glass

updated 09/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/08/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Consider the fate of a piece of glass. It begins life in the heat of a furnace, swimming, liquid, open to any possibility, ready to take any form. And what does it become? A Coke bottle. One of millions of Coke bottles. Or an ash tray. Or a storm window.

Consider also the human being, likewise born in possibility. And likewise, it sometimes seems, consigned all too often to be just like its neighbor: another lawyer, another accountant, housewife or computer programmer.

Now consider Suzanne Pascal Regan, sculptress. She is looking at her latest piece of glass. It is no Coke bottle. At nine feet tall and nine tons, it dwarfs its creator. In the sunlight of her Beverly Hills backyard, it shimmers like a huge emerald. Regan peers at it. "There's a world in there," she says. "It's like going under the sea." The work is titled Seated Torso, and it is unique.

Theoretically, glass resists carving. It can be molded or blown, but it cannot be sculpted with hammer and chisel because it will shatter. Nonetheless, through determination and a stroke of luck 20 years ago, "Pascal," as she prefers to be called, sculpts glass as Michelangelo did marble. If she is not the world's only glass chiseler, she is certainly the most successful; her works, which sell for between $10,000 and $300,000, can be found in museums (the Corcoran in Washington) and in the homes of Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Armand Hammer and the Prince of Wales, all but the last of whom she counts among her friends.

Perhaps they value the unique in people, as well as art. Born in Montana, Pascal moved with her mother to Seattle at age 4 when her father died in the flu epidemic of 1918. She herself was disabled; almost totally deaf, she could neither understand nor speak English. Formal schooling was out of the question, but her mother was ingenious. She communicated with Pascal through drawings and, seeing that the child was good with her hands, sent her at age 11 to live with relatives in Italy and study with a local sculptor. Suzanne showed promise working in stone.

Her life then took another dramatic turn. At 17, she had an operation and regained the hearing in one ear. Suddenly, a "normal" existence was open to her. In the next years she married, and although her interest in art continued, stone, she says, seemed too "cold" a medium to capture her new freedom, and she dropped sculpture.

She would be divorced, remarried and prematurely widowed before she found a way to take it up again. At 35, traveling with her mother in Crete, she met an Englishman who showed her a small head he claimed had been chiseled from glass. "It was vibrant, not dead like stone," she remembers. "I told my mother, 'I'm going to carve in glass.' "

Easier said than done. The head was probably molded, not carved. Over the next decade Pascal experimented with glass from Italy, Mexico and the U.S., trying to duplicate the effect, but none was hardy enough; all her attempts ended up shards on the studio floor.

Luckily, her will was more resilient than her medium, and in 1961 she was rewarded. A friend told her about the Pennsylvania Wire and Glass Factory in Dunbar, Pa. The factory had gone bankrupt, and its last batch of glass was said still to be in its long-cold furnace. Pascal rushed to the scene and discovered what was for her a treasure trove. The furnace was a monster, "twice as big as my home," and within it lay "an entire floor of glass," a dull gray sea with hints of emerald and crème de menthe. Enthralled, Pascal grabbed a chisel and struck a small chunk that should have splintered but didn't. Somehow its nine years in the unheated plant exposed to Pennsylvania winters and summers had tempered it. It could be sculpted.

Pascal mortgaged her house in Beverly Hills to buy the Dunbar "scrap." For two years, she moved in with it, taking a room in a nearby motel. She "mined small pieces" and got advice from an old factory employee about the properties of glass. Then, slowly, she began carving. At first, the faces and figures that emerged found no takers. But eventually the works—changing constantly with the surrounding light—were discovered by collectors such as Hammer and Winthrop Rockefeller. "Rich people," Pascal comments, "always want the thing nobody else has." Paul Newman became a patron. A Pascal Madonna graces the Vatican. And when Hammer was looking for a wedding gift for Princess Di, he chose a sparkling green Pascal pony with a solid gold mane.

The sculptress has been working on the Dunbar glass for 25 years now. She long ago moved it to a warehouse on her Beverly Hills grounds. At work, she wears a thick plastic hood to protect her face, rawhide gloves and a thick cotton jacket; nonetheless, her doctor recently picked a sliver from her back: "It's so sharp you don't even feel it," she explains. Although she may understand better than any other human the temper of glass, she admits there are times when "the material is rebelling and insisting on a revaluation. Then my respect for the glass reaches its height, and we commune."

At age 72, she could easily settle down with her works, her wealthy friends and her fourth husband, a cheerful former monsignor named James Regan, who gave up the collar after a tour in Vietnam. James acts as Pascal's manager and agent, for there is still work to do. Specifically, there is Seated Torso.

The huge piece of glass was waiting for her in the center of the furnace's cold belly, a gleaming green boulder emerging from a silicon sea. "I looked down at this great, odd-shaped chunk and decided I'd make a torso that would be the tour de force of my life," she says. She worked on it for seven years in Pennsylvania before transporting it to California; when it arrived, the police cordoned off the street and a 75,000-pound crane padded with air-bags lifted it into her yard.

It is almost finished now. There is still some modeling to be done around the waist, and it will take time to sand down the edges, now sharp as razors. Then Torso, conceived in fire, gestated nine years in its industrial womb, and delivered not by forceps but by Pascal's chisel, will go on private display. It will sell quickly, most likely, for her asking price of $3 million. There has never been anything like it before and, as Pascal works her way through the rest of the Dunbar trove, she lessens the chances of there ever being anything like it again. Some glass does not go on to become Coke bottles.

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