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    Everything’s made of glass at the Imagine Museum

    Latchezar Boyadjiev’s “Birth Glass.”
    Imagine Museum
    Latchezar Boyadjiev’s “Birth Glass.”

    Is that glass? No way. That was our immediate response to the sculpture in front of us: a beautiful vessel, deeply colored and textured. It looked like a gourd, or perhaps a finely carved wood sculpture, maybe something ancient, discovered during an archeological dig. It was glass, created by William Morris, an internationally renowned artist, known for his innovative and experimental techniques. It’s one of more than 400 major glass pieces of art displayed at the newly opened Imagine Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla.

    Housed in a repurposed building in the burgeoning Grand Central Arts District, located just a few blocks away from the Morean Arts Center, which contains glass artist Dale Chihuly’s permanent collection, the wildly colorful Imagine Museum showcases work from the studio glass movement superstars and contemporary emerging artists. From tiny dioramas to large chandeliers, the collection is stunning. If you haven’t had much exposure to this artistic genre, be prepared to be amazed.

    The museum, the vision of benefactor Trish Duggan, a glass artist and collector, shows a chronological history of studio glass making in the United States, an art that has risen from humble beginnings.

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    “Early on, glass making didn’t get the respect that it was due,” says Jane Buckman, deputy director of the museum. “It was considered more craft than art, functional rather than sculptural. It took a while.”

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    The first two rooms are devoted to the beginnings of the studio art movement, during the 1960s and ’70s, with works by early pioneers like Harvey Littleton, considered the founder of the studio art movement. There are also a handful of early, rather tame pieces by Dale Chihuly, so much different than his well-known flamboyant, contemporary sculptures.

    Chihuly taught at Rhode Island School of Design and founded the Pilchuck Glass School. Move into the next room and you’ll see the works of some of his most successful students, including sculptures by Morris, Toots Zynsky, Dan Dailey, and Mary Shaffer.

    “What you see is that his [Chihuly’s] students were being taught to find their own voice,” says Buckman.

    We moved from room to room, taking in the highlights. There was the intricate, multicolored Crazy Quilted Teapot by Richard Marquis, a set of blown and hand sculpted glass horses by Shelley Muzylowski Allen, and the Krakonia Luminopod, a squid-like sculpture with flowing tentacles by artist Rik Allen. There was a large, bright blue chandelier by Martin Blank and a collection of Paul Stankard paperweights, housing tiny flower bouquets and lifelike honey bees. All made of glass.

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    What are contemporary studio glass artists creating? The last rooms in the museum display some of the finest works from emerging artists. “Their pieces are more figurative, harder-edged,” Buckman says. “And we’re seeing more personal statements rising above technique.”

    We stood a while in front of the Cubism Sphere by Brent Kee Young, a complex piece, with hundreds of swirly, interwoven rods of glass, and puzzled at Vitruvian Visions by artist Tim Tate, which “explores infinity and alternate dimensions,” with the use of glass figures and mirrors.

    One of our favorites, Michael by artist Oben Abright, a sculpture of a common working man, was so life-like, it was scary. There’s no way that’s made entirely of glass, we thought. But it is.

    1901 Central Ave., 727-300-1700; www.imaginemuseum.com. Admission: adults $15, ages 7-17 and college students $10.

    Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at bairwright@gmail.com.