Issue Archives
Team effort
First impressions are everything. Shelley Muzylowski Allen remembers well her first impressions of glassblowing as she toured Pilchuck Glass School in the early ‘90s. “I walked into that hot shop and was just smitten. The people working there were like a beautifully choreographed dance,” she recalls.

For the Northwest glass artist, the comments ring somewhat autobiographical. Stepping out of her comfort zone in oil painting, she ventured into glass art at Pilchuck in 1994, met and married Rik Allen, and now works as part of a well-respected husband-wife team. For Shelley Allen, the beautifully choreographed dance goes on, the music ever-changing.

“I look at the time sequence that led me to leave my life in Vancouver and start fresh with Rik, and there’s no looking back,” the Canadian native reflects. “I made all the right choices, but 12 years ago, I never would have imagined this.”

Rik Allen ranks as a serious player in the Northwest glass scene, as well, making his mark with rockets and unique Samurai vessels. A key member of the William Morris glassblowing team, the native-born New Englander points out that the density of glass artists now based in the Northwest generates genuine excitement for glass art. That excitement flourishes in the Allen household, where the talk is of glass, but the directions, subject matter and techniques remain separate and unique.

Rik refers to the “cheap charm” and easiness often attached to glass, as he describes the real work involved in turning out respectable glass art. He is especially drawn to the cold work, conceding, “It’s not as sexy and romantic, and it doesn’t draw the crowds in the hot shop.” Nevertheless, he’s attracted to the delicate, somewhat utilitarian side of the process. He also pays homage to the “stand and sweat” aspects of glassblowing, singling out the risk, stress and team effort involved in producing such pieces as his rockets, space ships and vessels.

“I always drew, but when I went away to college, I majored in anthropology,” he recounts of his college education at Franklin Pierce College in Vermont. “After awhile I got into ceramics because they had a great facility there. But I’d never taken a glass class.”

Directions changed abruptly through a chance meeting with a guy in a café who encouraged him to check out a glass studio. That led eventually to glass artist Dan Clayman’s door and an apprenticeship. Immersing in the grinding, cutting, polishing and cleanup, Allen fell for the cold work side immediately because of his attraction to problem solving and his penchant for analyzing how things function together. In time, he apprenticed with Michael Schiener, Jonathon Bonner and Jim Watkins.

“Watkins had a production studio and we did about a billion tumblers and bowls, so I learned to blow glass. Every day for about two years, I turned colors and did some of my own work,” he recounts of the emerging style that led him to show his work in New England. Allen played with a mixed palette, eventually veering toward greens, organic blues and jewel tones. And then there are the rockets.

“Those come out of my interest in science fiction. I was a Star Wars fan as a kid and I liked the aesthetic look of rockets and space equipment,” he notes of his fantasy side. “I jumped into sculptural art instead of functional, though at first I made toy rockets with lids that came off like a canister. Then I became annoyed that they were functional. I just wanted to make them.” He admits that fashioning rockets instead of his previous subjects and styles freaked out some of his galleries, but not Seattle and its Space Needle constituency.

Both in personal and professional terms, a big break came as Allen snagged an invitation to work at Pilchuck. The chance to join the famous glass school team also offered an introduction to the lively West Coast glass scene–and Shelley Muzylowski.

It’s interesting that while Rik was growing up in New England and entertaining himself with sci-fi, Shelley’s fantasy world in western Canada revolved around horses. “Horses were a recurring theme for me,” she says, adding that the five-acre homestead has room for horses that she hopes to have “someday.” For now, the list of other pursuits is long.

“I came into glass purely through fate,” she says. Her art background was already in place after she graduated in fine arts from the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver, BC. “I had a background in oil painting, and I had goals and a studio. I worked in graphic design, but oil painting was my first love. Then a woman came into my studio and told me, ‘You should be working in glass. Your paintings look like they should be in glass.’ I had no background, but she told me I should go to Pilchuck.”

Taking a giant leap on a generous scholarship, Shelley did just that, winding up at Pilchuck in 1994. She also commuted twice weekly from Vancouver to three-hour glassblowing classes in Seattle.

Though glass edged out oil, Shelley uses her oil painting skills to custom enhance her glass pieces with etchings, rubbings and other specialized touches. This finish work gives her an intimacy with each piece and incorporates her painting background. “My paintings had been translucent, thin layers. They had a sense of movement, and these things transferred well to glass.” Of course the glass art gave a three-dimensional aspect, not to mention a totally different technique.

“With glass, you see a flash of image as you work. It’s completely physical, as well, and you work close to heat. It’s absorbing and you’re completely involved. You can’t put it down. You have to finish, and when you’re done, you’re absolutely exhausted, but elated too. When you’re working, you switch to autopilot and let your body take over. You can’t force the glass, because the glass almost has its own identity. It’s very exciting, and you come away learning something new every time.”

These days, Rik and Shelley work both separately and together, offering respect and vital criticism of each other’s work.

“Glass is a team effort,” Rik emphasizes. “There’s a person with the main idea and everyone brings their own flavor and tries to share in the process.” Shelley adds her own thoughts: “You have to work with others and communicate through gestures. You try to work super harmoniously and strive together.”

Sounds like a perfect recipe for quality glass art–and a quality marriage.

You can see more of Rik and Shelley’s work at Rik’s work can be found at the William Traver Gallery in Seattle, Wash. Shelley’s is available at the Thomas R. Riley Galleries in Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio and at the PISMO Gallery in Aspen, Colo. Rik and Shelley also have visitors by appointment to their Washington state studio.