For N.J. artist, overcoming dyslexia as a child has led to 50-year career of inspiring others

Paul J. Stankard may not be a household name, but in the world of glassblowing, flameworking and ornamental glass art, his name is immediately linked with inspiration, a passion for excellence and boundless creativity.

Its been an ongoing journey of discovery for Stankard, whose career in glass began and developed in an industrial and scientific setting. He worked in many capacities before eventually gravitating to the more artistic and creative realm of glass as art, where he says he is most comfortable.

In his more than 50 years of work, Stankard has not only become an accomplished master glass artisan, author, professor and lecturer, but is also internationally recognized as a preeminent authority in his field.

But, despite his many achievements, he has battled many demons.

“I graduated second from the bottom of my Pitman High School class because I was an undiagnosed dyslexic,” Standkard said.

The 68-year-old artists says no one really understood or knew much about dyslexia when he was growing up.

“Most people looked at children that had trouble as I did with reading, writing, math or any number of other things as being either lazy or stupid,” Stankard said.

A fascination with all things in nature

The second oldest of of nine siblings in an Irish Catholic family, Stankard grew up in Attleboro, Massachusetts, where his fascination with flowers, plants and all things in nature became a passion that blossomed early on.

Stankard recalls an unforgettable moment  at age 13 when he was transfixed by red plastic roses floating in glass bowls filled with water. They were offered as prizes in a coin toss at a local carnival.

“I won that rose in a glass bowl for my mother on that hot July 4th evening and it was one her most cherished possessions, until her death at age 88,” Stankard said.

Two years after that memorable summer evening, the Stankard family moved from Massachusetts to Wenonah, N.J.

The many physical and emotional challenges associated with dyslexia continued to plague Stankard and nearly brought his desire to be an artist to a screeching halt.

“After barely graduating high school, I took up glassblowing at what was then Salem Vocational Technical Institute, now Salem County College, in Pennsgrove. My grades were so bad, the principal recommended I quit school and join the Army.”

Stankard ignored the advice and is now a distinguished alumnus and professor at his alma mater, Salem County College, where he still teaches students in the Paul J. Stankard Studio and Lab.

Trevor McKeee, a former student who majored in Glass Art at Salem County College, is quick to credit Stankard with igniting his enthusiasm in the field.

“He’s intensely invested in making sure students are aware of how important their education can be,” says McKee, who added he was on the verge of dropping out of the program to take a full time job.

“When Paul found out I was planning to drop out of school, he asked for my mother’s phone number and called her right in the middle of class to share his concern,” said McKee.

It was that phone call that McKee says not only convinced him to stick with the program, but with his education in general.

Advancing budding careers, sharing his wealth of knowledge and motivating others to design extraordinary creations in the glass medium is a way of life for Paul Stankard.

To that end, his vision, commitment to education and his works has garnered him two honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts degrees from Rowan University and Muskingum College, in 1997 and 2007, respectively.

“I think glass is reinventing itself,” said Stankard. “Young people in particular are attracted to this controlled risk with flames and working with their hands. It’s very technologically rich and provides a terrific learning experience at so many levels.”

The beauty of nature

The designs and detail seen in all of Stankard’s pieces represent hundreds of hours of skilled manipulation, intense concentration and potentially hazardous work conditions, with torches whose temperatures often exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

His many intricately crafted and colorful masterpieces, featuring a multitude of tiny native flowers, insects, birds and fruits are suspended miraculously in glass spheres or in larger glass blocks.

“Making things enhances my sense of self worth has really allowed me to reach my full potential and overcome the obstacles associated with learning disabilities,” Stankard said.

Board member of the prestigious Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center, in Millville, Robert Minkoff, is a long time enthusiast and collector of glass art. He has an extensive collection of Paul Stankard’s work and is in the process of publishing a new book about his career, due to be released this spring.

Stankard and his wife, Pat, of 48 years, have raised three daughters and two sons, all of whom at one time or another have worked with their father.

He says he hopes his story and his works will provide inspiration for generations of today as well as those of tomorrow.

During the weekend of June 29th – July 1, Paul Stankard, along with fellow renowned glass artisans, Richard Marquis and Paul Marconi will be participating in hot glass demonstrations, roundtable discussions and other commemorative events at Wheaton Arts and Cultural Center in Millville. General admission $10/day ( 10 am – 5 pm) and $7/day for students. Admission is free to members.

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