Viewing fine art requires a trip to your nearest gallery. But to be present to witness an artist’s inspiration transformed into art can be more difficult.
Glass lovers in the Northwest are fortunate. With the popularity of glass, and the region’s numerous glass studios, watching artists create fine art can easily become a spectator’s sport. And because each studio is as unique as the artists who work there, there is no chance of boredom. The following three examples give you just a taste of what you’ll find.
On the beach
You can hear the surf from the Icefire Glassworks Studio in Cannon Beach, Ore. Five days a week and 11 months out of the year, you’ll find Jim Kingwell and his partner Suzanne Kindland there blowing glass together.
Suzanne is known primarily for her color modulations and large free form bowls. Jim has been playing with a series he calls “my bad hair day” pieces, using wild strands of intense colored lines that, for a brief moment before they melt, stick out in every direction.
Although Jim and Suzanne have different styles, the two are very much a team. “We blow independently from each otherwe just switch roles assisting each other,” says Jim.
Jim purchased the studio in ‘91, but he started glassblowing two decades earlier. He taught himself at a time when schooling in the area was all but nonexistent.
“I started by re-melting whiskey bottle glass,” he says. “Then I began making my batch formulas in 1975. From 1975 until I came here, I not only made all my own clear glass, but I made all my own color formulas as well.”
He no longer melts whiskey bottles or has the time to create his own color formulas. But like many other glassblowers, Jim builds his own equipment. His most recent innovation is a highly efficient electric furnace.
“The overall utility costs are less than half of what a natural gas-fired furnace would be,” says Jim. “We built our first one seven years ago and they’re catching on.”
For Jim and others in the glass trade it’s all about sharing ideas. “We tweak the design a little bit and make it better, then show it to every glassblower that comes through so they can steal the ideas and go home and make something better. We’re big believers in industrial spying.”
The truly grand
The Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Wash. is a destination unto itself. Over half a million people have visited since it opened on July 6, 2002. There is over 13,000 square feet of exhibition space. Exhibitions range from the edgy de la Torre brothers’ work in glass and mixed media, to the Best in Show theme exhibition featuring William Wegman
(known for his Weimaraner photographs), David Gilhooly and Karen Willenbrink-Johnson.
The focal point of the Museum, though, is its hot shop that stands 90 feet tall. It’s over 100 feet wide and tilts almost 20 degrees. Inside, it seats 138 visitors and has an observation deck for an additional 60. No matter what the project, everyone has a close-up view with live video footage playing on large screens.
“We have our own home team of artists that work here,” says Julie Pisto, director of marketing. “Ben Cobb, Alex Stisser, Jason Mouer and Gabe Feenan are accomplished artists with distinctive styles. They’ve been blowing glass for 10 or 15 years.”
Every Friday the Museum features a guest artist. For visitors, a special treat is buying a boxed lunch and eating it in the hot shop while watching a special “hot lunch” presentation. “The guest artist is usually from the Puget Sound area,” says Julie.
In addition, the Museum hosts a Visiting Artist Program, which takes place once a month in the winter and every week in the summer. “These are some of the most prestigious artists working with glass today. In the summer the program is part of a partnership with the Pilchuck Glass School. Artists come from all over the world to teach or attend sessions at Pilchuck. The Museum invites some of them to join us here for a five-day residency. Each week it’s someone new doing something entirely differentit’s really an amazing opportunity to see incredible artists at work.”
Blown Glass & Lattes
Erlendson Art Glass in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho has combined what could be considered the two things most associated with the Northwestglass and coffee.
This combination café/glass studio allows people to walk in, have their latte and at the same time enjoy watching Spencer Erlendson blowing glass alongside Joel Nelson and Steve Farr. If that’s not enough, patrons can wander through the gallery inside featuring over a dozen regional glass artists.
Spencer got his start blowing glass in 1993 for the Mount St. Helens Glassworks, where he did primarily production work. After the company was sold, Spencer apprenticed under John Charles MacPherson, a master glassblower in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
It’s only recently that Spencer and Tom Usher teamed together to open the café/hot shop. And after only a year, things are looking good. The café’s menu is expanding, as well as the scope of the hot shop. Spencer is not only offering classes for beginning and experienced glassblowers, but Erlendson Art Glass is also offering classes through North Idaho College.