Hot, grueling and downright scary, the work in a glass studio seems like horror at every turn. The molten material could disfigure or kill a person, start a fire or cause bystanders to burst into screaming flames (this is maybe a rare-to-nonexistent occurrence, but I can’t stop imagining it), the volatile half-born objects could explode into blinding shards, red-hot metal implements plunge hissing into containers of brackish water, releasing plumes of steam; everything’s hazardous, antithetical to flesh, potentially weaponized.
Furthermore, there’s the constant presence of disappointment and frustration. For every translucent wonder of natural brilliance and human adroitness, there are legions of ruined things, fatally cracked while cooling, or misshapen by a hiccup in muscle memory, irretrievably warped by an assistant’s millisecond hesitation. And even post-manufacturing, once the vases and tables and sculptures and chandeliers and fine-stemmed, long-necked or massive objects arrive safely in showrooms or gallery spaces, they remain vulnerable. Sheer devastation is potentially just a toddler-tantrum away.
The Current visited three working studios over the course of a week, where artists patiently explained techniques and equipment, and showed us lovely and diverse work. Through these three San Antonio studios, we got some preliminary appreciation of the scope of the scene, from grand design empire to grassroots.
The first artist we talked to was Jake Zollie Harper of Zollie Glass Studios. His Southtown studio/workshop, where he also teaches the craft, is a cavernous but inviting sheet metal warehouse-type structure, appointed with solid, professional equipment including kilns and a work table affixed with small, powerful torches called lamps. Harper primarily does lampwork, also known as torchwork or flamework, which involves melting solid blocks or rods of glass into shapes using the torch as both a heating and a cutting tool. When I walked into the studio the Friday before last, he was crafting—twirling a glowing globe on the end of his wand, then deftly cutting into the softened glowing glob a blocky, folkloric, appealing skull about the size of an apple. It’s mesmerizing and satisfying to watch. (Author’s note: for a more detailed description of Harper’s glass working process, including a demo video, check out the Current’s previous feature story.)
“People watch the work being made, and it’s such a cool process … but it’s so much harder than they think. It’s exhausting, just the amount of physical work. And it’s not just something you can pick up quickly. I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface of it, and I learn as much by teaching techniques as the students do.”
Harper is easygoing, laid-back and self-effacing. He considers himself an artist, but grins that his formal education was at San Antonio College, or as he affectionately calls it, “San Pedro High.” He’s got a sandy beard, a sleeve of tattoos and a low-key rumble of a voice that my voice recorder has trouble capturing a bell-clear impression.
Harper cites time, commitment, the expense, the inevitable and incredible heat involved (“it’s kinda funny how some people aren’t prepared for just how hot it is,” he chuckles), and the limited number of working studios and equipment as constant impediments to would-be glass artists. He’s committed to creating more opportunity in glass art—in terms of putting the audience more within reach of practitioners, sharing his techniques and “just letting people watch and hang out; one guy who’s just amazing and developing really quickly, he hung out and watched for about a year before he said, ‘I want a torch.’”
After the demo, we accompany Harper to his gallery space in the Blue Star Arts Complex where finished skulls, smooth and lovely and more friendly than menacing, beckoned from shelved displays. Also on display, on shelves, in cases, hanging from the ceiling and on the walls, are glassware, light fixtures and several abstract sculptures. Harper exhibits other glass artists’ work along with his own; an upcoming ZGS exhibition on October 17 features one of Harper’s New York City glass comrades.
In addition to running a shop and gallery and teaching, Harper is a member, along with founder/glass artist Sean Johnston (aka SBall Glass) and Justin Parr, of Esferas Perdidas, an ongoing project which Johnson conceived to craft hand-blown marbles of various sizes and designs then hide them in outdoor locations with photographic hints posted on social media. It’s part ad-hoc multimedia exhibition and half community scavenger hunt; hundreds of participants have now scoured parts of San Antonio and its outskirts, photographing their booty once they’ve recovered them. Their Facebook page has over 4,000 members and the mini-movement has spread as far afield as New York.
“The [Esferas Perdidas] idea came from many points of frustration; it’s hard to sell glass, harder to sell marbles. I’ve been making marbles all day every day for a year. And pipes are the easiest thing to do and make a buck, but I got sick of it. I didn’t want to do pipes. So I had an impossible time selling, so [I] started giving my work out to people. Then I [learned of] a guy in Wisconsin, hiding marbles in local parks. And little kids loved it. That’s when it all clicked for me. It all made sense that this is how you educate people, that there are contemporary art marbles. Before [Esferas Perdidas], peoples’ reaction were more or less “marbles, whatever.” But people started to realize that this is contemporary art. Sean Johnston, Jake Zollie Haper and Justin Parr will bring Esferas Perdidas to Luminaria November 7-8.
Gini Garcia’s Garcia Art Glass hums along in a busy, well-run, if slightly hidden, workshop on South Alamo. We first make our way back to the “hot shop,” where Master Glassblower Gerardo Muñoz, a burly guy radiating with practiced competence, is closing up shop for the day with the help of assistants. It’s bright, clean and open, via a garage door, to the afternoon sunshine; workers finish by 2 p.m. due to the heat. A bank of stadium risers stands against a wall and demonstrations, open to the public, are held on Saturdays.
Inside the display room, office and design studio combination, Garcia sits behind a large design table to answer questions, but it’s clear she’s got about a hundred other things to do. She’s clad in a fuchsia blouse and modish bottle-green specs, and projects a warm but focused and intense energy.
“Anybody you ask about glass becomes an ambassador,” she says, and her focus and demeanor are ambassadorial indeed. She schools us on the Studio Glass movement of the early 1960s, when “a focus came about on the meeting of craft technique and fine arts; there’s always this razor’s edge between the decorative [and the] goals of studio art.” She talks about the transformation of her own process from hands-on studio technique and what she laughingly refers to as “a Mac on a desk.”
Behind her, photography lights and a white scrim stand ready. Where Harper’s South Presa space and gallery have a cool hangout/DIY vibe, Garcia’s workspace is a crucible of a professional empire, part roaring forge manned by numerous skilled workers, part business hub with ringing phones and bursting project files, part atelier of gleaming, brightly colored, elegant work. She sits at its center, responsible for all original designs. She shows us pages from her sketchbooks; we’re especially taken with a rendering of a gorgeous octopus chandelier, both ornate and whimsical. She garners a lot of inspiration “from nature and God’s creation,” and brushes aside the notion that she’s a one-woman empire.
“Because so many hands have touched them, each piece we put out [is signed] Garcia Art Glass, not ‘Gini Garcia,” she says, acknowledging the hard work of the designers who interpret her original concepts, her admin assistant, her sister and her mother who run the business, and the glassworkers themselves.
And where Harper gleaned his ever-growing technical mastery largely from informal apprenticeships, one-on-one training with other artists, his own hands-on research and trial and error, Garcia’s educational bonafides are formalized. She earned a BFA in Industrial Design at the Kansas City Art Institute, did graduate work in hot glass at the University of New Orleans, URBAN GLASS in Brooklyn and the renowned Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine.
Garcia Art Glass executes big commissions all over the world, including a giant chandelier recently installed in Ligner Castle in San Antonio’s sister city of Dresden, Germany, and the elaborate glass ceiling in the waiting area of the JW Marriott San Antonio Hill Country Resort & Spa.
Profiling Garcia could easily turn out to be a set of lists of accomplishments, big-name clients and civic leadership. In our half-hour interview, Garcia shows us images from her furniture line, which she jumped into after a bout of serious illness in 2011. “It’s my soul work,” she says, a little bit dreamily. A line of glass and metal tables appears dreamlike and otherworldly, the vivid bulblike spires and tendrils of electric blue and glowing oranges reminding us of gemstones and Dr. Seuss. Ambassador though she is, her imagination still tends toward the gorgeously fanciful, with a strong nod to Latin baroque traditions.
One of the artists Jake Zollie Harper recommends to us is a former glassworker at Garcia Art Glass; his name is Glen Andrews, an independent glass artist who shares a studio co-op called Caliente Glass with other practitioners out of his friend Ralph Laborde’s hydraulics shop.
Glen Andrews is a muscular, smiling guy with cropped hair, a close-fitting T-shirt emblazoned with an “Om” symbol and, intriguingly, meticulously manicured fingernails. He looks like he could be a firefighter or a bouncer, but his conversation is sanguine and peppered with phrases like “I could bloviate for hours about how glassblowing has made me a better person.”
He likens the treacherous practice of working with molten glass and the uncertain, hard-won results to the precepts of Buddhism, although he’s a pantheist. “A friend told me something wise; there are only two kinds of glass: broken glass and glass that will be broken.”
Andrew’s approach to glass art mirrors his daredevil approach to, well, everything. He tells us how he became career-focused in the precariousness of glass after “jumping out of an airplane and breaking myself,” taking “five months before I could so much as take a step.”
Andrews is a true glassblower, not a torchworker; he formulates his creations not with a focused, blue-flamed acetylene torch, but with the aid of blackened medieval-looking metal implements, pincers, shears and pliers. His workshop, which he shares with “a dozen other artists, give or take” is compact, darkish, and looks like an industrial den of secrets. It’s efficient but far from neat; everything’s sooty, crowded and piled up, with the distinct exception of the areas just surrounding the glory holes and annealing kilns.
His pal Ralph Laborde, lanky and avuncular, stops by to say hi, and tells us while grinning what his wife Kathleen says about his work: “that one would be really pretty if the neck wasn’t bent over.”
Andrews proudly, and with a wink of humor, shows us the “glory hole” (“I didn’t come up with the term,” he assures us), an open, tubular mouth of red-hot Hell encased in concrete, where one inserts the glass object and pumps in air, best-case scenario resulting in the glittery, onyx-black bowl with open sides like petals or the delicately translucent purple vase encircled with metallic silver tendrils. Of the three shops, it may be the Caliente co-op workshop that best illustrates the central paradox of glass art. It’s a kind of macho, dark-tinged and dangerous work that requires patience and sensitivity, and the deftest of touches.
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