Torch Song, Valley Guide Quarterly

This article originally appeared in Valley Guide Quarterly, Summer 2000

By Lori DeBoer

Glass blowing is not for sissies.

Flames flare against the charred wooden paddles that shield Scottsdale artist Newt Grover from the heat of the molten glass he twirls on the end of a long metal pipe. Sweat streams from his face. The glass glows magma-red from the 2000-degree-Farenheit oven, but Grover and his team only have 30 seconds to blow and shape it before it needs to be reheated in the oven’s inferno. The five men follow a complicated choreography whose pace becomes frenetic as the piece grows larger and more fragile. Each person knows his place in the dance, by turn twirling, blowing, gathering, torching and reheating on one-word commands: “Switch!”

When the piece reaches the size of a basketball, Grover spins the pipe quickly until the glass falls open like a flower blooming. He twists it more slowly as his assistants torch the edges into ruffles. The crew flips the piece over, dislodges it with a tap on the stick, rolls it in asbestos mitts to clean up the end and sticks it in an oven to cure. His crew is exhausted but jubilant, and ready to do another piece.

“When we do the big pieces, it’s pretty difficult,” says Grover. “If I had to do the whole thing, all of the reheats myself, I would be just exhausted. You just wear out when you have a ball of glass this big. It takes about 45 minutes to an hour usually to make a piece, but it’s an extremely intense hour.”

As the head of the studio, Grover plays the “gaffer” in each piece’s creation, handling the piece the most and directing its development. But glass—made out of earth, wind and fire—has a force in its own creation. The next piece grows as large and orange as a pumpkin before it cracks the metal rod and hits the floor. “I think we can resurrect that,” says Grover, and they sweep it back into the glory hole for reheating. As Grover spins it out of the oven, it forms five points, like a star fish.

“Isn’t that the great thing about art,” says one of his assistants, as the final product rises, Phoenix-like, out of the depths of the oven.

Onlookers are welcome to watch the show on weekday evenings in his Scottsdale studio. Because blown glass is so fickle to work with, he and his apprentices work hard to perfect their art, sometimes blowing four or five pieces an evening. It took Grover a year-and-a-half to master glass blowing techniques and he is still experimenting with different styles. One of his signature pieces is a glass cowboy hat, which were commissioned by the restaurant Ajo Al’s as lamps.

“It is more addictive than heroin or crack, because it is just so fun to do,” Grover says. “It takes years to be really competent. I’m still in the process where we have happy accidents.”

 

 

One of the hottest collectibles in the United States, a growing number of American artists produce luminescent, fanciful works in candy colors, ranging from realistic-looking glass flowers to chandeliers whose serpentine shapes resemble sea creatures. Not since Tiffany introduced his stained glass lamps has the medium been so popular.

“I am seeing an ever-increasing interest in glass—it seems there are lots of people who appreciate it and want to collect it,” says Robert Knight, director of the Scottsdale Museum of Modern Art. “And more and more artists see it as a viable medium.”

That trend is evident at the Museum of Modern Art, where a popular glass show featuring master’s around the world runs until August 20. The large-scale glass was collected by Gerard L. Cafesjian, a former Valley resident who founded the museum. He began collecting glass in the 1970s because he was fascinated by its qualities, including its color, transparency, mass and its ephemeral properties of light. One of his favorite artists is Dale Chihuly, the charismatic and celebrated artist who pioneered the studio glass movement. The Scottsdale Center for the Arts counts among the its Chihuly exhibits the Cafesjian Chandelier, which hangs in the center’s atrium.

Glassmaking dates to Roman times, though it was done entirely by craftsmen in factories who carefully guarded their trade secrets. That all changed in the 1960s, when artisans discovered a method to heat glass at lower temperatures, opening the field to individuals who could afford small glass furnaces. The trend is so new that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounted its first studio glass show only four years ago.

European cities like Merona, Italy, were once the seats of glassmaking, but Seattle has stolen their fire and many of their techniques. Arizona may not have the glass community that Seattle has, but its growing enclave of artists, galleries and collectors have fostered the growth of studio art glass in the Valley. About a dozen studio glass artists call Arizona home. Collectors can buy locally made pieces and international items at The May Gallery’s three locations, the Josh Tallery Gallery, Clemons-Eicken Fine Gifts and Collectibles, Copenhagen Imports, SCOMA’s Museum Store and elsewhere.

Tom Philabaum of Tuscon is perhaps the most well-known Arizona artist, having studied with the father of the studio art glass movement, Harvey Littleton, and having having twice been awarded the Arizona Governor’s Art Award. He perfected a design technique that he dubbed the “Reptilian Bag” series, from the way his glass pieces appear to have grown subtle scales. Philabaum also makes slabs and coils from molten glass, assembling them hot, to resemble coiled baskets or sculptures. In the Valley, his pieces—which range from $5 to $10,000–can be found at the May Gallery in The Borgata and the Museum Store art the Scottdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

The Valley’s first hot glass studio, Desert Fire Art Glass, opened in 1995, when David E. Vogt of Chandler retired from engineering and decided to work full time as a glass artist. His interest was piqued by watching glass artists at work but he became “hooked” when his wife bought him lessons for Christmas one year. He started making small objects, like beads and marbles, using glass rods and a torch. He eventually built his own glass-blowing equipment and as designed specialized tools and remains fascinated by the medium. “I view my work as a frozen moment of time,” he says. “Working with the molten glass is a struggle with time—there is a limited time window to manipulate the cooling mass of glass.”

 

 

Part of the reason that studio art glass has grown in popularity is because it has made the transition from craft to fine design. “In the early 1960s, a number of artists—particularly out of the Toledo Museum of Art—began experiment with glass as another sculptural material, as opposed to creating a decorative or utilitarian object,” says Knight. “They used glass as they would any other material: wood or steel or bronze or stone. That was really the point of demarcation, in that these artists began to create three-dimensional art using glass as a base, but didn’t think of themselves as typical glass artists.”

A new generation of glass artists have pushed the medium, making elegant designer and sculptural. Artists experiment with metal oxides and colors, layering the colors on top of clear glass to achieve clear, bubble-free perfection. Glass blowing is as much science as it is art, because the expansion rate of the various materials need to be the same or the items crack.

Glass aficionados can collect everything from glass paperweights and the traditional glass flowers to wild vases and elaborate chandeliers. But, in addition to glass blowing—which is considered a “hot” method of working glass–there are a number of other methods that yield beautiful results.

Don Carroll and Carole Perry, life partners who own Laughing Glass Studio in Cave Creek, are among a few Arizona artists who work with fused glass. They layer glass together and bake it in a kiln until it melts and achieves the correct drape. Their signature pieces include mouse pads (for classy offices) and dishwasher and food-safe dinnerware sets, whose funky and fresh designs look like something Frank Lloyd Wright would salivate over.

Because Perry was smitten with glass making because of its performance artists qualities, she decided to rebel against the “do not touch” rules regarding glass and fashion something that encourages people to reach out and touch it. The result is a glass tapestry of long, colorful filaments that looks like fabric.

To make the piece she weaves glass cane, which look like colored spaghetti, on the kiln shelf nine layer deep. It takes 5000 threads to complete one sculpture. The piece is heated to nearly 1500 degrees Fahrenheit before being removed from the kiln and hand manipulated within 15 seconds to its final shape. To do this task, Perry wears a cumbersome suit that looks like something NASA would concoct, but she recalls with humor that the first time she experimented with one she set her workshop and herself on fire.

Nowadays, she hopes the works themselves ignite passion in someone’s heart. “The common perception is that glass is cold and fragile is reinforced by that frequent admonition (to not touch) and I feel my mission is to teach the warm and soothing properties of glass,” says Perry. “The surprise explosion of color and texture in my work allows me to capture someone’s eye’ then lead them into a need for tactile reinforcement almost immediately. It is a heady experience to know that each time someone reaches out to touch a glass tapestry, I have knocked on his or her soul with my work.”

 

 

Taking Care of Glass

 

People who live with glass in their houses should not throw stones, but they certainly don’t have to hide their glass under lock and key.

Just ask Faith Sussman and Rick Corton, Arizona glass collectors who have accented their house glass pieces that glow like gems in their well-lit house. Sculptures, pottery artists and furniture designers themselves, glass goes well with the furnishings they designed for their own home and the paintings and sculpture they collected from other artists, most of whom are local. “We have always been interested in the crafts as well as the arts, and when we became aware of glass a few years ago we started collecting it,” says Sussman. “We started with our Christmas tree ornaments on a very small scale,” adds Corton. “We now have about 2000 ornaments of glass.”

They just commissioned a glass dinnerware set from Laughing Glass Studio. Their bigger glass pieces are thoughtfully placed in rooms to show off their luminescent qualities. “I like to see glass spread around the house instead of all together. People have a tendency to put it in one cabinet,” explains Faith. “ Of course, it’s more dangerous.” A case in point is a piece that sits on a floor under a painting. The grouping is spectacular, she says, but they remove it when they entertain guests so it won’t be broken. Of course, some of her smaller, more delicate glass perfume bottles are placed carefully in a cabinet in their dining room.

Like anything else, the Sussman-Cortons advise that you collect something because you like it, not because you think it is going to appreciate in value.

Artists advise that glass does need to be treated more carefully than other works, and should not be placed in the dishwasher. Most pieces can be cleaned with window cleaner and should be kept dust-free to enhance their light reflecting properties. Do not pour boiling water on glass because it could snap. In addition, water left sitting in glass pieces will cause a mineral buildup.

When buying pieces of glasses, shoppers will find that different countries have different styles of glass, notes Eli Gabriele, Phoenix, one of Newt Grover’s apprentices. Venetian glass is usually generally thin and sports a very fine geometry. Czech glass is usually heavier with bolder colors. Shoppers should evaluate their glass based on its clearness of colors and, in blown glass, they should avoid buying pieces with cracks, cloudiness and bubbles. (Bubbles are normal in fused glass and add to the loveliness of the piece.) Older, unstable pieces of glass can be identified by lines (called “crizzling) running through them that look like spider webs, which is caused when glass starts crystallizing.

Glass can best be transported by nesting it—that is, wrapping it with bubble wrap, putting it in a box of Styrofoam peanuts and putting that box in another box also filled with Styrofoam peanuts.

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