There is no such thing as a finished studio

img_2572I’ve been meaning to write-up this info for a long time, as much for my own memory as to share with you.  Every artist and craftsman knows the importance of having a dedicated space to work, and how hard it can be to find such a space.  Whether you have those concerns yourself, or just enjoy the misery of others, you might find my journey of interest.

Early days

I did my first stained glass inside, in a spare bedroom upstairs, but when I got into lampwork I knew that I would have to move my operations out into the old shop in our backyard.  The shop was originally an 8 by 12 foot building (I’ve taken to calling it room A), with a high-peaked gable roof and a loft accessed by a primitive wooden ladder.


Panorama of room A (pre-cleanup)

The previous owners had covered the original roof with a new metal roof, extending the roofline to the right and adding a room with a cement slab floor to the right of room A, which I’ll call “room B”.  On the far side of room B they built a screen porch, which we’ll call “room C”, also covered by that new metal roof.  With an uneven brick floor, minimal framing and ripped screen, “room C” was hardly a room, but it was a covered space, with our cedar perimeter fencing running along the back side.


Panorama of room B from the doorway to room A. The blue glass door in the far corner leads to the porch, room C.

When we first moved in (long before I had an interest in glass) I just moved some scavenged work benches into room A and B, stashed the rest of our tools and outdoor/shop stuff on the makeshift shelves and in piles in room C, and made the best use of the space I could.

Panorama of room C, just a screened porch (with torn screen).

Panorama of room C, just a screened porch (with torn screen).

Once I started thinking of a dedicated space for glass work, I realized that it made sense to reorganize rooms A and B, widen the doorway between the two, tear out the old shelving and build new storage and work benches. I also ran additional electrical circuits and lighting, and installed some additional insulation so that I could more efficiently heat the space in the winter.  And since summer lasts longer than winter in the south, if I was going to insulate I might as well consider adding air conditioning as well.

That was over two years ago.

The first phase to was to rip out the crappy makeshift shelving, do some drywall repairs (particularly to the sagging ceiling), and run additional circuits and install lighting.  Once I started poking around I realized I was practically going to be starting from scratch, because the drywall on the back wall was not installed on the typical stud framing: the sheet rock was just nailed directly to the cedar fence that ran along the edge of our property!  The shop actually had no back wall in the classical sense, since there was no framing behind the drywall.  So I had to frame out a new back wall, install exterior sheathing on the outside, and  drywall on the inside, with insulation in between.  While I was doing that I framed out a space for a window AC unit large enough to cool the enclosed space.

The ceiling was sagging, because the joists were spaced irregularly and over 24 inches apart, so I had to install a lot of blocking on 16 and 24 inch spacing so that I could nail up 4×8′ sheets of drywall.  Of course I had to plan out the lighting, and run the wiring for that, and then I had to put up all the drywall.   And I needed to maintain access to the area until the end, so that I could install insulation in the ceiling.  Luckily the shop has it’s own 200A electrical service, with plenty of open spots for additional breakers, so there was plenty of capacity for additional circuits.

I got finished with room B (well, almost finished) just in time to set up my torch and homebuilt annealer and do a bit of torchwork before I took my second bead making class (over a year ago).  I was able to fuse smaller items and do lampwork, and had a decent bench space for coldworking my fused work, and I was able to get a good bit done.

At some point in this process I found a Skutt 1414 kiln on ebay for $600.  I got in touch with the seller, arranged to pick it up (almost 3 hours away) and lined up some helpers to load and unload it.  Since I didn’t have the room or electrical capacity for it (50A, 240VAC), I had to store it for over a year.   More on that, and my other recent work, in the next post.


What’s that lurking under the floor?

stonenaturalI said a few weeks ago that I would write about activities that are consuming a lot of my time and energy, even if they’re not glass related.  Perhaps a better way to say it is I’ll either write about my glass craft, or write about what’s pulling me away from my craft.  For the last few weeks that’s been rotten wood.

The neverending todo list

As I might have mentioned before, we live in an old Queen Anne house, built in 1897.  It’s a wonderful place, with tall ceilings, 6 fireplaces, stained glass, and some of the original plaster walls.  And in good weather my favorite feature is a screened porch on the back, added more recently, that overlooks a fenced yard shaded by a mature Ginko tree, and on the other side a small lily pond.  (The green frogs are trading their guttural gulping calls as I write this.)

We’ve known for a while that some of the tongue and groove flooring on the screened porch was rotting, due to a leaky gutter and general exposure to the elements.  Repairing that damage had been on my list for years.  An unrelated item that’s been on my list for about two years is buying a travel trailer so that Amy and I can camp more conveniently and comfortably.  Fixing the porch became a top priority when Amy said “I don’t want to talk about buying a trailer when the porch is in the condition it’s in.”  That was all the motivation I needed.


Just a few rotten floorboards, no big deal.

Since I’d been thinking about doing the work for several years, I had a good idea how to approach it. The porch railing had been built on top of the tongue and groove decking, with the posts and bottom 2×4 nailed to the decking,  so if I wanted to avoid dismantling the railings I was going to have to find a way to cut those nails, both above and below the floorboards, so that I could pry the boards out horizontally.  And I’d need to slide new boards into place under the posts and bottom 2×4.  I started by using my Rockwell rotary tool, which is useful for many situations, but the blades made for that tool aren’t as long as I’d like.  I had better luck using my reciprocating saw with a 6″ demolition blade.  When I started I had a difficulty slipping the blade in above and below the flooring, and I finally hit on the idea of building a doubled 2×6 vertical post, wedging the top end under the upper framing, and jacking it up with a 6 ton bottle jack to raise the posts and railings enough to get free space.  That gave me enough room to work the saw blade in and cut the nails, and it was even more helpful when it came time to slide (drive) new floorboards into place.

It’s usually worse than you think…

What I hadn’t anticipated was how badly the structural members under the decking had deteriorated.  The floor is framed with 2×10 joists toe-nailed into beams made of tripled 2x10s, with those beams supported on cinder block piers.  As I removed the floorboards near the wettest spot (right over one of those beams) I realized that the outer end of the beam, all 3 layers of 2×10 lumber, had rotted away, and the beam had sagged about an inch below the top edge of the cinder blocks.

I’d already been to Lowe’s for flooring and a few 2x10s (I could see from the outset that I was going to have to sister up or replace a few joists), but I went back again, confident that they’d have some sort of screw jacks for bracing floors, and found just what I needed, for a paltry $35 each.  I bought two, so that I could support both the beam and the joists that attached to it, and once I had them in place I was able to cut each member of the beam back to sound wood, staggering the joints, so that I could bolt the replacements in place on the end of the original beam.  Six inch exterior grade carriage bolts and washers allowed me to bolt the whole beam together securely, with the bolts running all the way through the tripled stack, and when I lowered it into place on the pier it was rock solid.  That gave me a stable platform to re-attach the joists.  I also added cross bridging between several joists to further strengthen the framing.

The project took longer than I expected, almost two weeks, and it was brutally hot at times, but it was fairly simple work.  I still need to paint, and (especially) get the leaky gutter replaced, but we now have a rock solid porch.

Several friends have been surprised that I tackle stuff like this myself.  It helps when you’re a tool junkie, here are a few of my favorites:

Stay tuned for notes from the 2016 Glass Arts Society meeting at the Corning Museum of Glass, both firsts for me!

Creepy crawlies in my kiln!

A note for animal lovers:  at the end of this post I make a difficult decision (at least one that was difficult for me), and I hope you can understand.  Those of you who find creepy crawlies repulsive probably think I’m just being silly, but I still feel bad about it.

Giving insects another chance

I mentioned previously that I made some progress with my sculpture when working on orchids, but I’ve also been working on learning how to make insects as taught in Wesley Fleming’s class.  I don’t want to copy Wes (and in fact I feel inhibited from trying certain subjects because he already does them so well), but I am drawn to realistic sculptures because of my background in biology.  Making a life-size or larger representation of a 2″ insect is feasible, while a 2″ bison looks silly.  And insects and (some) crustaceans lend themselves to glass sculpture because they frequently have glossy exteriors, while it’s much harder to replicate the look of fur or feathers.  (If you want to see an artist who handles both beautifully, check out Joy Munshower’s amazing beads.)

I’m also a fly fisherman, fishing primarily for trout, and trout eat a lot of aquatic insects, insects that spend part of their life cycle in the water.  Since catching fish depends upon fooling them into biting an imitation of their food, trout anglers (especially those who tie their own flies) tend to become familiar with mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies.  My first attempts at mayflies were disappointing, so I turned to stonefly nymphs, and have been happier with the results.


The stonefly above was made with the intention of donating it to the auction at my Trout Unlimited chapter’s annual fundraiser.  I was honored to find that a fisheries professor friend of mine was the winning bidder, and it was really flattering to hear how impressed he was with my work.  Since I was worried about the fragile nature of the sculpture (anglers can be a boisterous bunch), I mounted it in a shallow black shadowbox with white polyfill, like a Riker mount.  (I could have just ordered some real Riker mounts for less, but I didn’t have time to wait for shipping.)  Since that one turned out well, I decided to make another, but I wanted this one to be crawling across a stone (get it?).  And I decided to make the stone out of glass.  Why not?

Rocks are harder than you’d think

I thought I’d written previously about fusing and glass compatibility, but I can’t find any evidence in previous posts.  As a quick primer, glass expands and contracts when it’s heated and cooled, and the degree of movement is known as its “Coefficient Of Expansion” or COE.  I have a lot of “fusing” glass, but it’s all COE 90, and the glass I use for lampwork is COE 104.  If you combine glass of different COE in a hot worked piece it’s likely to crack due to the stresses introduced by heating and cooling.  Since I was making my stonefly nymph out of glass with a COE of 104, I decided I’d make my “stone” out of 104 glass as well.  That way I could do a final tack fuse to adhere the insect’s feet to the “stone” and it would be held in place.

My first attempt was to make a large multicolored gather at the torch, working off mandrel (the gather was just at the end of a glass rod), and then squash it and shape it and pop it in the kiln to anneal.  I left a little nub that I could heat up later to attach some vegetation to, and then etched the surface with etching cream to produce a mat finish.  I like the look, but it’s just too small for the second stonefly I made.lampstone


I put it aside for a while (distracted by other things), but then took up the challenge again when I realized it was time for the annual “Member’s show” at the Oconee Cultural Arts Foundation.  Submissions are due tomorrow (Saturday, May 21), so I had to get moving if I wanted to submit this piece.

For my second attempt I decided to make a bunch of multicolored 104 frit and then fuse those particles together in an irregular fiber mold, and then slump it into a rounded “stone” shape.  It would have a multicolored appearance, like a conglomerate or a piece of granite. frit stone

The first firing left some holes in the piece, so I had to go back and fill them with more frit, and then I slumped the flat piece over a handkerchief mold to give it a rounded “stone” shape.  It looked ok, but the bottom edge (which would sit on a table) so irregular that it wouldn’t sit on a table, so I had to grind off the excess and fire it again with that edge down to flatten it up a bit.  Then I cleaned it up and covered it with etching cream, and after a few hours of etching I had a decent looking “stone”.


Then I put the stonefly on top, and was crushed.  After a week of work and four firings, it just didn’t work: the “stone” was too visually busy, and had so many colors in common with the insect that the sculpture was just lost.  After talking it over with Amy last night I decided to just display the sculpture on an actual stone (much more subdued and harmonious colors), so all I needed to do was one final annealing firing with the insect upright, so that the feet would all touch ground (it had warped a bit during the first annealing).

Distracted by a visitor

So I took the stonefly out to the studio this morning, opened the kiln lid, and froze.


That’s a centipede, curled up happily on the rim of my top loading kiln.  It didn’t move at all, so I put the stonefly down carefully, pulled out my iPhone, and snapped a few photographs.  And then I did something really stupid: I tried to scoop up the centipede with a scrap of paper.

Centipedes are predators, and like a lot of predators, they can move quickly.  I was using a scrap of paper because they’re also venomous.   I’m not scared of them, and their bite is not dangerous, but I’ve heard that it can be quite painful, and I don’t need to experience that first hand.  Being softhearted, I was planning to scoop it up and toss it outside, but it squirmed away, right off the rim . . . and dropped into my kiln!  Frantically I pulled out the kiln shelf and shelf supports, still hoping to scoop it onto the paper, but it scurried into a 1/8 inch gap between the kiln wall and the floor and disappeared.

I harbor no malice towards centipedes, and I would happily have relocated it safely outdoors, but I needed to fire the stonefly.  I pried gently with the paper, but the centipede was not coming out.  There’s no obvious way to separate the walls of the kiln from the bottom, short of taking the kiln apart, and I doubted my 40 year old kiln could survive that.  And I didn’t have the time–I needed to get this piece fired.  I closed the lid and turned the heat on low, just to warm it up to about 90 degrees F, hoping that it might start exploring it’s warm dark home, but no dice.  I thought about baiting it, but since I have no idea what this species might eat, or how long it would take it to get hungry, it seemed pointless.

Feeling incredibly guilty, I called up the program for annealing soft glass (max temperature 935 degrees F) and pressed “run”.  I’ve read since then that centipedes require a moist habitat and dry out quickly, so I hope it passed humanely.

The final product, ready for submission tomorrow:


“Stonefly emerging” by Steve Hilliard, 2016. Lampworked glass and natural stone, 7″ x 4.5″ x 3/4″.











Getting the hang of “soft” glass sculpture

If you’ve read the last few posts you know that I was fascinated by the possibilities of sculpture after taking Wes Fleming‘s class at Penland, but had a lot of trouble making anything after I got back home. I realized that it would take a lot of practice, and I think the time I’ve spent on it has helped.

Switching from insects to plants.

As I wrote previously, I had tons of trouble making even simple “practice spiders”.  Everything I did would eventually crack.  After getting frustrated doing flat spiders over and over, I decided to try something different, and started working on a sculpture of an orchid, specifically Brassavola nodosa.  When Amy and I were still collecting orchids (before a hard freeze and failed heater took most of them out) B. nodosa was one of our favorites.  Here’s a photo of a live plant for reference.


I started by making leaves, the narrow pointed leaves of the species.  Actually that’s not true, I started by blending several greens together with other colors to pull a few rods that would match the color of the plant.  The Brassavola leaf is a good subject for soft glass sculpture, because it’s narrow, with a furrow running down the length, and no noticeable pseudobulb, so it was fairly easy to figure out how to replicate the shape.  I made a bunch of leaves, until I had 4 or 5 that I was happy with.

Then I had to tie them all together on a root.  Like most epiphitic orchids, Brassavola have prominent roots, and spread by putting up new leaves from the basal root, so after a couple of seasons the plant takes a linear form.  This is best seen in this old botanical illustration.


I mixed up a new color for the root (I’m still not really satisfied, it should be more silvery) and made a linear base with little nodes that could be easily heated (and cool without cracking) so that I could go back and attach leaves and side roots.  Then I worked out how to attach the leaves to the base, and I eventually had a decent looking replica of the plant.

The bloom can be the hardest part.

After that progress I had to tackle the real test: the flower.  It’s basically a combination of three forms: a whitish green incomplete (partially open) tube, a broad thin curving lip, and thin curving petals.  Those familiar with orchid flower anatomy know that they aren’t all petals, there is actually a whorl of three petals, surrounded by a whorl of three sepals, radially arranged around the center.  For the purposes of sculpture they all look quite similar, and they’re thin flattened forms, which aren’t too hard to do in glass.  The hardest part was the bottom petal, which is the tube with the broad thin lip on its distal (far) end.  That part gave me fits for a while–my first attempts all cracked.  A skinny thin form is easy: squash a gather and then pull while it’s still hot.  A wide thin form is a lot harder. After a day or so of experiments I was able to build a decent looking tube, attach and shape a lip, and keep everything from cracking.  Then I had to figure out how to put the sepals and petals together, again without everything cracking.  And once all that worked, I had to add the flower on its stem to the assembled plant.


This is the second of three, and I’m happy with how they’re turning out.  If you look closely you can see tool marks that I’m not satisfied with, but at the time I was just happy it wasn’t disintegrating.  I was really flattered when I took the third attempt out to the garden shop at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, and they were eager to add it to one of their sales cases.  I’d like to do more with orchids, particularly those with narrow pointed components like the Brassias, but I’ve gotten back into insects lately, as you’ll see in the next post.

A few additional shots.


“The report of my death was an exaggeration”

One of the best ways to gain a following is to publish regularly, so that those who like your writing will find something new every time they visit.  The converse is also true: neglecting your blog for months is a sure fire way to alienate your readers, because it suggests that you’ve given up, you no longer care, and if you don’t, why should they?  I’ve discovered several fascinating blogs and websites over the years, only to get frustrated when I realize that the author is no longer sharing new content.  I understand how it happens;  life gets in the way and the enthusiasm dissipates, but it’s still disappointing when you find writing that you enjoy.

I don’t want to disappoint my readers, so I’ve felt guilty for not posting regularly, but it really hit me when I realized that my last post had been in November!  And then my mom mentioned that a friend of hers who appreciates my jewelry had jokingly asked if I’d died, because I hadn’t posted anything new to my Etsy store.  It’s time to shape up and start shipping, so I’m going to start with a review and an editorial shift.

boothThere’s a lot of ground to cover.

I had a good holiday season, participating in 4 shows that were very satisfying.  I got a lot of compliments on my work, which is the best part of selling at shows, and I was very happy with my sales.  It was interesting to learn the pros and cons of various events (some are easy to participate in, others take a lot more work), and I have a better idea of what I’m looking for when considering whether to attend a show.

I’ve also continued to sell my work through local venues, currently Oglethorpe Fresh (in nearby Lexington), and the garden shop at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia.  I’d like to add a few more retailers this year, but it’s hard for me to work up the confidence to promote my own work.

leaf beadsI’ve been reading a lot.

Looking back through my daily notes, (I have continued to write 3 pages almost every day since February 2015, easier when it’s not for public consumption) I got very interested in politics with the Paris attack in November and the ramp up to the 2016 presidential election.  I’m going to leave politics out of this blog (I share my views freely on Facebook), but I realize now that I’ve spent time consuming news and opinion that I could have spent creating and blogging.  I’m certainly better informed now than I used to be, so I guess that’s a positive.

I got hacked over the holidays!

My site is hosted with iPage, and during an automated scan of the server they found files in my WordPress install that weren’t part of the distribution, probably dropped there by a rootkit.  The files (a collection of php scripts) hadn’t been used (as far as I could tell), so my site hadn’t been blacklisted or flagged by abuse monitoring, but iPage expected me to clean it up.  It was annoying, but once I got my bearings it only took about a day.  The attack (probably an automated tool) had succeeded because I’d been lax about updating my WordPress install (and themes and plugins that I wasn’t even using), so now I’m a lot more diligent about applying updates and storing frequent backups.

I taught a class!

I was approached by a local ceramicist who teaches out of her home studio, asking if I would be interested in teaching her students how to make fused dichroic glass jewelry, and after a moment’s hesitation I said yes.  I bought extra tools (you can’t have 8 people cutting glass with one pair of running pliers), and plenty of glass for them to choose from, so I spent quite a bit of money, but it was fun, the income was welcome, and they made some gorgeous pieces, like those featured above.

driesI’ve spent a lot of time working with Trout Unlimited.

I’m president of our chapter, Oconee River and it’s been very rewarding.  We taught a fly fishing merit badge class to scouts, participated in a public fly tying demo as an outreach event, helped students release trout fingerlings as part of our Trout In the Classroom program, and had a very successful fund-raising banquet in April.  It takes a lot of time (at least when you’re serving as president), but I get more out of it than I put into it.

I’ve been doing other things besides glass.

By now you’ve noticed that this post is not just about my glass work.  That’s the editorial shift that I mentioned at the outset: I’ve decided to loosen things up a bit, covering not just my studio work, but anything that’s consuming a large amount of my time.  The goal is to write more often, and if I limit myself to writing only about my glass work, then any time I don’t get in the studio for an extended period I have an excuse for not writing.  This is not going to be a “dear diary” daily journal, I’ll never subject you to a description of  what I had for breakfast, and I’m still going to focus on my glass work, but I hope by loosening up I can share not just my work, but what my life is like.  Maybe it will inspire others who want to pursue an artistic “encore career”.  I’ll share more of my latest studio work in the next post.

The title of this blog was prompted of course by Mom’s friend.  According to this source the quote is the correct wording of an often misquoted statement by Mark Twain when asked about the state of his health.  My favorite variation on the theme is John Wayne’s line in Big Jake:

John Fain: Who are you?

Jake: Jacob McCandles.

John Fain: I thought you were dead.

Jake: Not hardly.

“Things don’t always work like they do on TV”


Ichneumon wasp, Wesley Fleming

The title of this post is a quote from a local man my parents used to hire for yard work.  He was practically illiterate, but he uttered those words of wisdom once when he and Dad tried something according to the manufacturer’s instructions and it failed.

I’ve had the same trouble lately with sculptural work, in my feeble attempts to imitate Wes Fleming’s amazing insects.  I’ve written earlier about taking a class with Wes this summer, and I came away with an intellectual understanding of how he does what he does, but now I have a much better appreciation of how difficult it is to translate that knowledge into practice.  One of the first things Wes had us do was what I call a “practice spider”,  a simple squashed gather that you then add legs to.  You make the gather, press it thin (which makes it easier to reheat the spots you’ll attach legs to) and then you add legs by heating a gather on another rod, carefully heating the spot you want to attach to, and then touching down and drawing out the first segment of a leg.  Repeat that 7 times, getting them all evenly and appropriately spaced, and at similar angles to the “body”, so that the final leg placement will look good.  Then you go back and add second segments, and third, and so on.


That’s 3 days (a few hours here and there), trying to make practice spiders.  And this pile is deceptively small, because one of the beauties of this approach is you can just remelt a spider that cracks and start over, which I did at least 8 times in the span of this practice.  Right after the Penland class I was able to do this, but that ability seems to have evaporated in the last month.  I’ll keep at it, but it just drives home how much dedication and talent is required to do the kind of work that Wes does.  I keep telling myself that he’s had 10 years of practice to get this good, so I can’t compare my work to his.

I was finally able to get one practice “insect” (I can’t count it as a spider, since it only has 6 legs) to survive long enough to attach secondary and tertiary leg segments to, and I had a lot more fun with that.  The thin parts are very fragile looking, but they’re actually easier to do, since it’s easier to heat a thin attachment point and get a good weld.  So I went kind of crazy with this one, adding extra spines at the joints.

legsNote that two of the legs didn’t get firmly fused to the body–that’s probably why the body didn’t crack, I didn’t heat it enough to stress it.

Soft glass sculpture is a rewarding endeavor, but it’s not for the faint of heart or those looking for immediate gratification.  I’m going to be at this for a while.



Flamework in Ireland, part 2

sunsetWe quickly settled in at Cheryl’s, and had a wonderful time.  We spent three days in her well equipped studio, ate wonderful meals prepared by her cook Sheila, and spent plenty of time enjoying the views, laughing at the antics of her two goats (one full blooded ancient Irish, and her half breed daughter Granuaile, named for the Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley) and taking walks down to Clew Bay or along the hills.  Amy had fun painting, and I spent my studio time working not on beads, but on insects and fuschia flowers, practicing the techniques I’d learned at Penland.

We spent several days afield, enjoying guided tours with our driver, Colum Ginelly of Wild Atlantic Way Travel.  He’s full of information and enthusiasm for County Mayo, and his warm and upbeat personality made every trip enjoyable.  And we didn’t have to face the challenge of driving on the left and deciphering Irish traffic signs (some of which were downright mysterious), and could just enjoy the views.

Our first  trip was to the Sligo area, for a visit to the Eagles Flying raptor center, with a stop on the way to tour the County Life Museum in Turlough Park, just outside Castlebar.  The museum was excellent, and I could have spent more time there, but I also wasted a bit of time because I lost my Tilley Hat, and had to retrace my steps to find it.  We had a quick lunch in their cafe, and then drove on to the raptor center, as much a petting zoo as a raptor center.  Members of the group got to handle a large python, fly several different types of hawks and owls, and Charlotte even rode a pig!

Another day we spent touring the country between Mulranny and Westport, where we spent some time shopping.  My favorite was an all day tour of Achill Island, touring church ruins, marveling at the gorgeous protected bays, and soberly exploring the “deserted village”, a town of about 100 stone cottages on the slopes of Slievemore mountain that were abandoned in the 19th century.

It was a wonderful introduction to Ireland, and we’re already talking about when we can arrange our return.

Flamework retreat in Ireland

boatAbout a year ago my friends and mentors Terry Hale and Marjorie Langston mentioned that they were arranging a flamework retreat to Mulranny, in County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland. Their description of the trip was very appealing, but my first thought was “I’d like to see Ireland, but not to sit in a studio for days”. My wife’s reaction was much more enthusiastic: “We should go, because while you’re in the studio I can paint landscapes.” We sent in our deposits in March, and got back from the trip about a month ago (seems like yesterday). We had a wonderful time, and are already making plans to return in 2017.

We flew into Dublin (our overnight flight was ok, but I couldn’t get comfortable and got no sleep), and met the group at the Ashling Hotel, near the river Liffey.  Luckily we didn’t have anything specific planned for that day, because I was wiped out by the flight.  We got together for an enjoyable dinner that night, and then the next day our group got a guided tour of the the Blaschka artwork in the collection of the Natural History Museum of the National Museum of Ireland.  The Blaschkas (Leopold and his son Rudolph) were innovative German artists who established a thriving business in the 1800’s making glass models, first of orchids, then marine invertebrates, and finally a huge commission of plants and flowers for the Harvard Museum.  We were there to see the Ireland Museum’s collection of Blaschka glass, including some amazing radiolarians.  Our tour guide was Nigel Monaghan, Keeper of the Natural History division.  With him was Emma Bourke, a glass artist who’s studied the Blaschka collection and is currently hoping to arrange a full show of a collection of pieces she’s done, involving medicinal plants and the organs they affect. She builds small replicas of the flowers at the torch, and then mounts them inside glass representations of the associated organ, and each piece is then finished as a article of jewelry, i.e. a pendant or a brooch.  We enjoyed meeting Emma and seeing some of her work, and the Blaschka specimens are amazing.

After two nights in Dublin we were off on Iarnród Éireann, the Irish rail, for a comfortable train ride to Westport (all trains should offer Guiness), and then a short road trip to Mulranny (spelling constantly debated) to the home of Cheryl Coburn Browne, our hostess for the rest of the trip.  Cheryl occasionally hosts creative groups such as ours, but her primary focus is Gift of Hands, a local craft collective that engages creative volunteers in the local community to produce craft for sale, the proceeds of which provide financial support for the Mulranny Environmental Group.

I’ll write more, but for now pictures of Dublin, the Blaschka collection and one of Mulranny.



The Penland school of crafts

schoolThis has been an amazing summer, and I feel incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to explore my passions.  After working hard through temperature indices in the 100’s in May and June building an additional room on my studio (more on that in a future post), I got the chance to go fishing with good friends for two weeks in Montana.  It was an amazing trip, and I’m hooked on fishing for wild trout on big waters.

Long before I committed to the fishing trip, Amy and I had made plans to visit Ireland as part of a bead making retreat arranged by my friends Terry Hale and Marjorie Langston.  I’ll describe that trip in another future post, but suffice it to say it was everything we hoped for and more.

The icing on the cake was when I found out Wesley Fleming was going to be teaching sculptural flameworking at the Penland school of crafts.  Penland had been on my radar for years, and I’d admired Wesley’s work since I first discovered his web site, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.  I hesitated a moment before applying, because the course ended the day before we left for Ireland, but I’m so glad I made the decision to attend.

Here’s a bit about Penland, lifted directly from their website:

Penland is an international center for craft education dedicated to helping people live creative lives. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Penland offers one-, two-, and eight-week workshops in books & paper, clay, drawing, glass, iron, metals, photography, printmaking and letterpress, textiles, and wood. The school also offers artists’ residencies, community collaboration programs, and a gallery and information center.

Some of the greatest names in studio glass have taught at Penland, and a number of current and former instructors and resident artists have moved to the area and operate studios nearby.  The nearby town of Spruce Pine is known for “Spruce Pine Batch”, a glassblowing supply company started by Harvey Littleton, one of the founders of the american studio glass movement.

The course started with check-in and orientation Sunday afternoon, followed by dinner, and then an introductory session in the studio.  I was assigned a room with a shared bath in a log cabin that was quite comfortable and modern, and only a short walk from the glass studio.  Wesley turned out to be a modest and generous teacher, starting out Sunday night by sculpting a simplified beetle, and I knew by the end of that session that I was going to learn an enormous amount.  He was willing to put in several hours a day demonstrating his techniques, and he was assisted by another talented artist, Jupiter Nielsen, who flew in from Hawaii just to assist the class.  There were 8 other students in the class, with a range of experience and interests, from lampwork beads to boro sculpture, and two of them were in the middle of academic programs in glass.  The flameworking studio was fairly well equipped (we were using Nortel Minors, but they also had Smith Little torches for detail work, and Carlisle CC torches for those who wanted them), and we all got plenty of time to try the techniques that Wesley demoed.

I was in heaven.  I learned an enormous amount from Wesley, not only from his demos but also from watching him work even when he wasn’t narrating his actions, and got quite a bit from Jupiter as well.  We had a good vibe in the class, and there were very few moments when I was tired or even ready for a break.

A benefit I hadn’t anticipated was the hot shop class, located in the same building.  Monday morning I woke about 6am, ready for coffee, and found to my dismay that the school coffee shop isn’t open until 9am.  Breakfast was at 8, but I was ready for coffee.  During our intro walk-through the night before I’d noticed a kitchen area in back of the glass building, and I heard music coming from the studio, so I walked up the hill and found the hot glass class in full swing.  Penland’s got an impressive facility, with 3 glory holes, but with about a dozen students they had to establish a work schedule that ran from 6am to midnight, and the first teams were already hard at work.  I prowled around in the kitchen area, found a small coffee pot and a couple of tablespoons of coffee in a crumpled bag, and brewed 4 cups.  Then I watched the class work until breakfast.  I ducked out later in the day to buy more coffee and beer (I’d neglected to bring any), and my routine for the rest of the week was established.  I’d start the day watching the hot glass class, eat meals and attend our class, and spend the rest of my time watching the activity in the hot shop whenever I was done torching for the day.  The hot shop class for that session was also natural form sculpture, taught by the lively and talented Karen Willenbrink-Johnson and her husband Jason Johnson.  They’ve got decades of experience working with top artists, and watching them sculpt birds of prey out of hot glass was a joy.  And the highlight of their class was when one of the students who worked with raptor rehabilitation arranged for owls and hawks to be brought to the shop as live models.  Rumors the birds were coming had gotten out earlier in the week, so there were a number of students from other disciplines that dropped by the hot shop that day.

Our class was treated to an equally amazing bonus near the end of the week, when sculptor Shane Fero stopped in to see how the class was going.  He and Wes decided to do a collaboration as a demo, and created an amazing female/bird/insect hybrid sculpture.  I was riveted, watching Shane’s slightly different approach to the same material that Wes had been working with, and how the two of the bounced ideas off of each other.

I haven’t spent any time in my home studio since I took the class, but watching world class artists like Wesley, Shane, Jupiter and the Willenbrink-Johnsons really opened my eyes to the possibilities of sculpture, and my time at Penland is going to have a profound influence on my work.  It was a mind blowing week.


Group therapy

sunflower1In late March I spent a weekend with about 20 other flameworkers at an event in Asheville North Carolina called “Fire on the Mountain”.  It’s a bead making retreat arranged twice a year by two of my mentors, Terry Hale and Marjorie Langston, and my first experience with it was last year’s fall event, known as Hot Time in the Mountains.  For a long weekend Terry and Marjorie, with the able assistance of Kevin Masiulis and Gary Newlin, turn Gary’s shop, A Touch of Glass, into a torching studio for about 20 participants.  They’ve been doing it for over 10 years, and some of the attendees have been there for almost every session.  For those who attend the events regularly it’s as much a social event as a technical session, giving them an opportunity to catch up with friends they may only see once or twice a year. Terry and Marjorie line up volunteers to demo techniques, and then attendees can either try their hand at the technique, or just play with any ideas that come to mind.

Terry and Marjorie each did demos this spring (mushrooms with stands and boro icicles, respectively), and the other two demos were done by Carol Crye (sunflower focal beads) and Yee Murdock (silver fumed galaxy beads).  When I attended last fall I hadn’t done any torchwork in a month or so, and struggled with everything I tried.  And even more importantly, I didn’t follow up with more practice when I got back home.  This time around I made a number of icicles, mushrooms and galaxy beads during the retreat, and set a goal of making 20 of everything when I got back.  I haven’t reached that goal yet, but I’ll show examples and share my experiences in the next few blog posts. Here are a few other examples of my earliest attempts.

These events are a lot of fun, in part because of the great demos and new techniques we learn, but mainly because of the warmth and comradery of the people who’ve become my friends over the last few years.  The fall event is already full (they keep a waiting list), and I’m sorry I’ll be missing it, but f you get the chance to attend an event like this take advantage of it, because you’ll learn something new, and have a lot of fun doing it.