Guest Column

The Expressive Power of Public Art

By Stephen Balik

Public art isn’t just something nice to look at as one walks by a building or park. It fosters a sense of place. It creates community and brings people to that place. It can transform a landscape totally. And it can even be a signature landmark for a city. Consider the LOVE statue in John F. Kennedy Plaza in Philadelphia, better known as LOVE Plaza. Or Cloud Gate, affectionately called “The Bean,” part of AT&T Plaza in Chicago’s Millennium Park. Or the Big Blue Bear peering into the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. These are just a few examples of public art that have become icons in their respective cities.

The Glass Medium

When one thinks of public art, the most common associations are with statues, sculptures, graffiti murals and other types of commissioned artwork. We often think of pieces made of stone, metal work and painted structures. While these mediums can be beautiful and contribute handsomely to a community in their own way, recent technological advances have allowed glass—specifically, glass combined with digital imaging—to become an excellent design medium for more ambitious and multi-functional applications that were not possible until the last decade.


As an example, Maryland-based artist Heidi Lippman was commissioned to create the artwork that is displayed in the Doyle Carlton section of the Riverwalk in Tampa, Fla., stretching beneath Interstate 275. The piece is titled “Andante,” an Italian musical notation for a walking tempo or walking music. Each panel printed with a unique design, the artwork incorporates linear elements that resonate throughout the 14 bays surrounding the city, consisting of 28 large glass panels.

The direct-to-glass printing process used in this piece allowed for an interplay of opacity and transparency, as well as the durability needed because of its exposure to the elements.

“I chose to use glass, which allows the focus to be on color and the strength of color,” says Lippman. “This process does that extremely well. And it’s not just the glass. There’s interactivity. The light around the artwork changes depending on the time of day and the seasons. It enhances and enlivens a walkway that is otherwise quite ordinary and bland.”

“The direct-to-glass printing technology that we utilize enables any design to be reproduced in glass,” adds Muhammad Arif, GGI decorative products manager. “Lippman created large-scale images that GGI was able to transfer onto the glass using this process, which also allowed us to evaluate and control the varying degrees of opacity required.”

A Collaborative Process

Public art can vary drastically in size: smaller pieces can convey a subtle or more intimate statement, while large, towering pieces can command the environment in which they are situated. The design process for public art is typically a collaborative one; it is intended to be an expression of—or in some cases an inspiration for—the community.

“For some projects, adding public art means greater tax incentives, or variances to the building,” says Lippman.


“Public art can also soften the edges of more utilitarian buildings or spaces,” says Catherine Woods, a Florida-based artist whose work includes the glass sculpture “Striding” in Silver Springs, Md. She’s also currently working on a piece for a local police station. Woods says communities want the public to be more comfortable walking into places such as a police station.

“Police station architecture can be pretty intimidating,” she says. “We want to soften the edges a bit, make it less of a bunker-like appearance.”

Airports have also become great places for public art.

“It’s so nice to have something to make the often-stressful traveling experience much less stressful,” says Woods.

She enjoys working with glass because it is surprisingly durable and does things that no other medium can do. Woods says the digital imaging process using ceramic frit paint is the most colorfast, durable process for outdoor applications. For her “Striding” piece, Woods used glass discs as repeating modular elements, incorporating images from the surrounding community in each individual disc.

“[The glass] gives a lightness to exterior sculpture,” she says. “You can see through parts of it. You can have trans-parent, translucent and opaque options with glass. You get different effects with glass. I love that!”

Combining Glass and Digital Imaging Opens the Door to Endless Possibilities

Advanced technology has helped achieve innovative product solutions for glass and digital imaging to coalesce in a variety of options. Each option offers a distinct set of benefits, as well as potential limitations. This makes it essential to understand the different processes and products that are available in today’s market, as the design considerations for each project are unique. Here’s a closer look:


Silk-screening has existed for decades. It continues to be a cost-effective approach when applying the same artwork—and standard design options such as dots or lines—to a large quantity of glass of the same size. The key is repetition and volume. This process involves the cost for screens, set up fees, paint minimums and storage of screens.

Printed Interlayers and Films

Images can be printed directly onto a specialty interlayer that is then laminated, or onto a film that is applied to the glass surface. Depending on the process or type of interlayer, this can result in a high level of color saturation and detail. Notably, the films are limited to translucent opacity and may only be used for interior applications due to fading issues. While the maximum size is sometimes restricted, this process may offer an advantage for curved glass applications, especially if the radius is extreme—rather than simply a slight curve in the glass.

Direct-to-Glass Printing

Direct-to-glass printing technology utilizing ceramic frit paint provides great design flexibility and durability. Plus, it is cost-effective when designing small projects, or larger projects that consist of multiple unique designs. Architects, artists and interior designers can achieve virtually unlimited artistry in color, size and opacity using this process.

The image is applied using ceramic frit paint that is digitally jetted onto the glass surface, which is then tempered. The tempering process permanently fuses the image into the glass; the ceramic paint becomes an integral part of the glass substrate. The extensive range of color options and the ability to layer multiple colors and patterns offer limitless design possibilities for architects, artists and interior designers. Unique to ceramic printing on glass is the ability to control the level of opacity, including the option to have some portions of the design trans-parent, while other areas or colors are translucent or opaque. An image can be applied to multiple pieces of glass, then laminated to create depth and dimension to the artwork

Stephen Balik is the director of architectural sales and marketing for GGI. He can be contacted at

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