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  • Tom Philabaum, creator of beloved County awards, retiring

    Over the years, hundreds of people in Pima County have been honored with a weighty, glass award known simply by the name of its creator: Philabaum. 

    Famed glass artist Tom Philabaum has been making glass sculptures, installations and utilitarian pieces since 1971. He’s worked in Tucson since 1975, when he opened his first local studio on North Sixth Avenue, but is now in the process of closing up shop. 

    He opened his current studio, 711 S. Sixth Ave., in 1978, where he’s been blowing out exquisite glass creations and training the next generation of glass artists ever since, including those iconic glass discs known in the County lexicon as Philabaums

    Long a fan of Philabaum’s work, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry asked the artist if the County could use the discs as a way to honor those who work for the County. 

    Since then, Pima County has presented countless numbers of people with the iconic, two-inch thick glass discs, emblazoned with the County logo and with the person's name etched on the surface. 

    “I’ve always admired Tom’s work. He’s a master artist and an asset to the Tucson community,” Huckelberry said. “I can’t think of a better way to honor our valued employees at significant times in their careers than with a one-of-a-kind artwork by Tom Philabaum.”  

    For Philabaum, a University of Arizona graduate, knowing that artwork from his studio commemorates years of service or other milestones in so many peoples’ careers provides a thrill. 

    “It makes me feel connected; connected to my community and that what I do is part of the community and people value it,” Philabaum said. 

    The Tucson Museum of Art gave Philabaum its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 and noted that his glassworks are in collections and museums around the world, including Phoenix, Seattle, Italy, Germany, and Denmark.

    With the studio closed and the furnaces off, those Philabaums may soon become even more esteemed mementos. 

    Philabaum said he chose to close the studio and retire from professional glasswork after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The physical labor and constant heat from the glass studio’s furnace take a toll, he said, adding he needs to take better care of his health since the diagnosis. 

    But he doesn’t plan to go away, the artist said. Instead, he will convert the work space of the studio into additional exhibit rooms and use the remainder as a painting studio where he will practice his latest passion: Encaustic painting, or painting with pigmented molten wax. 

    “Tom is not only an icon of the art community, but a valued member of our Pima County family through his distinctive and beautiful commemorative awards and honors we present to elected officials, staff, volunteers, retirees and honored constituents,” Huckelberry said. “On behalf of all of the people of Pima County, thank you, Tom. You are part of what makes Pima County a beautiful place to live and work.”
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