William Bernstein, known to most as “Billy” was born in 1945 and grew up in the New Jersey suburbs just a few minutes from New York city. Raised in a politically active family his early teen years found him on frequent protest marches for civil rights and anti-war activities. He also became involved in the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the late 50’s. He attended Newark’s Arts High School where he was introduced to drawing and painting and working with clay, metal and other craft media.
At age seventeen after the sudden death of his father Billy moved to a fifth-floor walk-up in the East village working at a documentary film studio and taking night Classes in film at City University in New York. After two years, he applied to and was accepted to the Philadelphia College of Art where he immersed himself in creative learning, eventually finding himself drawn to craft media, especially ceramics which became his primary interest. In his last semester, the Ceramics Dept added a small glassblowing studio and this provided his first introduction to working in glass.
Though he had been accepted to Harvey Littleton’s glass program at University of Wisconsin, a late invitation to be an artist in residence at the Penland School in North Carolina was offered to him, and in the summer of 1968 he and his wife Katherine were married and a few weeks later the couple moved to North Carolina. At Penland Billy was given a glass studio to work in while Katherine, who had been a sculpture major at PCA, set to work in the ceramics area.
The Penland residency was a time of great experimentation and growth in Bernstein’s work in glass. He was inspired by his earlier work in clay, and the fanciful forms of early Jersey glass gaffers. It was during this period that he got to know many other glass artists as they passed through the Penland program. In 1971, he joined with friends Fritz Dresbach and Mark Pieser to envision and plan the first meeting of what would be the Glass Arts Society at Penland in 1971. Attended by about twenty people, GAS has just celebrated it’s 50th and has a membership in the thousands.
In 1971 the Bernsteins moved to nearby Celo Community in Yancey County and restored a log cabin to live in and a disused dairy barn was converted to a glass and ceramic studio. Billy established his glass career and Katherine continued her work in sculptural ceramics until the mid-70s when Harvey Littleton convinced her to start casting her work in glass crystal. The resulting pieces were a great success and she started working exclusively in glass.
They made their art, gardened, raised chickens and generally got back to the land, raising two sons, Josh and Alex in a community land trust called Celo Community, sharing about 1000 acres with about 20 other families. Finances were always tight and eventually they found that the work they collaborated on sold much better than either’s one-of-a-kind pieces. As time went on they established a balance of keeping their individual work going forward while paying the bills with a highly successful line of functional glass under the business name Bernstein Glass.
William’s career has included a wide variety of teaching and workshops including many years as Penland faculty, and teaching workshops at Haystack, Pilchuck, and Bezalel in Jerusalem. Through Harvey he met German artist Erwin Eisch and was later invited to the Eisch Factory in Bavaria as a guest designer. He was greatly affected by Eisch’s work which was visionary and intensely personal. During his stay at the factory he learned to use vitreous enamel to decorate glass, spending his free afternoons painting on glass blanks designed by Erwin.
In the late 80’s Billy set up a painting studio about a mile from Celo and had a place to work freely on painting and continue his work in enamel on glass. It was here that he really started to develop his distinctive approach to work on canvas and paper. William’s work is represented in many publications, books and in public collections through out the United States and Abroad.