Spiraling through Layers of Glass, Oceans, and Change

Written by Anne Liu Kellor; Photographed by Alyssa Teuton

In 2008, April Surgent was ingesting a series of radio programs and articles on climate change as she worked on a glass engraving for a show at the Bellevue Art Museum. This piece would take her over ten months to complete and become “Into the Surface”—a fourteen-foot wide by four-foot tall collage of 100 glass panels depicting seven people in shades of black, white, and gray, within an urban environment. The images in April’s work, whether human or non-human, at first glance can appear as blurred photographs. As you stand closer, however, you can see the three-dimensional, multi-layered quality to her engravings—alive with depth and movement.

At the time of this commission, April had been living in Hillman City, a neighborhood south of Seattle, reflecting on the sense of anonymity that one feels in urban landscapes, the loneliness that can pervade. The fractured nature of the 100 panels evokes this sense of how we, as humans, are both connected through our environment—and held apart. As she learned more about climate change, April started thinking about how this wasn’t “just some abstract future.” It was now.

“I felt terrified and overwhelmed,” she recalled. But she also remembered how her mentor, Jiří Harcuba—a Czech master engraver whom April met in 2003 and went on to study and teach with for ten years—had advised that “knowledge is the greatest agent for change. Instead of being afraid…go learn more about it.” And so she did.

Over a span of six years, from 2013 to 2019, April would go on to join expeditions in Antarctica, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the Farallon Islands, and Southwest Alaska. April explained how “everything spiraled from the Antarctica trip,” where she’d been selected to be an artist-in-residence at Palmer Station in 2013. There, she met wildlife biologists who told her about a position with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, where she would volunteer as a field biologist in 2016, and make art—pinhole photography, daily drawings, writing—on the side.

“I was literally 1,200 miles from the nearest civilization with two other women on a 35-acre island in the middle of the ocean for five months,” April said of her time on Pearl and Hermes Atoll, which sits at the top of an ancient volcano and is critical habitat for the endangered Hawaiian monk seals. “It was incredibly remote…a ten-day rescue if anything were to happen. There was no resupply—all the water that we had we brought with us.” She describes this as her most profound travel experience, as if she were in “the womb of the planet, where life was literally boiling up from the ocean.” 

This landscape gave her a “real sense of what it means to be a human, what it means to be somewhere…I wasn’t really supposed to be.” It was also a visceral confrontation with her own environmental impact, “because here I am in the middle of the ocean and it’s smothered in our freaking garbage.”

As she looked around and recognized all of the plastics on the beach—lighters, Crocs, nets that birds would be entangled in—April says, “I started really understanding just how much my individual actions actually make a difference, whether I’m able to reconcile those impacts or not.”

From an early age, April has listened to what moves her. She grew up in Kenmore, Washington, and came from a family of woodworkers. Her parents built a sailboat in their driveway, and she spent her childhood drawing and sketching near the Salish Sea. But it was a trip with her mom to Vancouver, B.C., at age fourteen, that first introduced her to what would become her primary genre: glass. Fascinated, April soon found a local glassblowing studio and got lessons for her fifteenth birthday. She continued to blow glass throughout high school and soon began to travel the world following her passion—first as an exchange student in Bornholm, Denmark, where she heard that glassblowing was thriving; then as a student at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit for a year; and finally transferring to study glass as an art major at the Australian National University in Canberra.

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