Noe Valley Voice December-January 2001

Four Artists Stay Fired Up About Glass

By Betsy Bannerman

It's made of sand, ash, lime, and fire. It's expensive, hot, tiring, dangerous, complex, unpredictable, very creative -- and downright magical. Making glass.

Glass making is an ancient art. In fact, glass beads have been dug up that are perhaps 4,500 years old. The earliest hollow glass vessels appeared in Egypt around 1500 B.C.; they were formed around a solid, organic core that was later picked out. Historians think the glass-blowing process -- blowing air through a tube to shape hot, liquid glass -- was discovered 2,000 years ago during the Roman Era. But there have been modern inventions as well, like the computer chip that keeps the cooling oven -- the annealer -- at exactly 900 degrees for a chunk of time, then lets the glass slowly cool down over a 12-hour period so it can set properly.

Art glass remains a compelling interest for local artists and collectors alike. There are a number of glass blowers in the Bay Area, and at least four of them live in or near Noe Valley.

Mark Rubnitz and Kevin Grady share a house on Douglass Street, David LeCheminant lives on Vicksburg, and Nancy Otto on Laidley near Noe. These four do most of their glass blowing in a warehouse in Alameda, whose maintenance, rent, and expenses they all share. Rubnitz found the place several years ago, outfitted it, and in 1999 turned it into a glass-blowing cooperative called Formationz Art Glass Studio.

All four artists in the collective are deeply addicted to the art of glass blowing. "I love the way light gets bent by the glass," says Otto, "and I love playing around with different angles and colors to maximize that reaction." And that's despite the medium's many challenges. The fuel (natural gas), tools, and supplies are pricey. Shears for cutting the raw glass when it's malleable, for instance, cost $200. Color rods of red glass are extra-expensive because they contain gold.

Glass blowing is also extremely tiring. Your shoulders, arms, and wrists ache, and at the very least, standing next to a 2,000-degree oven for several hours causes you to sweat pretty much nonstop. And it can be dangerous. LeCheminant once spent an afternoon in the emergency room with second-degree burns on his palm after accidentally picking up a hot brick.

Sometimes the glass seems to have a mind of its own. There's a trash can in the studio where broken or unsalvageable pieces are tossed. "It's tricky knowing when to stop working on a piece," says Otto. "You can fuss with it too much and wreck it."

It's hard to imagine how art glass is made without seeing the process. But basically, you're holding and trying to keep control of a four-foot-long iron pipe with a somewhat heavy hunk of molten glass stuck on the end. You must keep rolling the pipe back and forth on the rails as you work the glass, so it will maintain centrifugal force and not fall to the floor. The glass needs to stay soft and hot in order for you to play with it, so you are continually taking the pipe to the oven -- the "glory hole"-- to reheat it.

You're using "jacks" (large tweezers), wooden paddles, wet folded-up newspapers, blowers, torches, and other tools to manipulate and smooth your piece. At some point, if it's a vase or bowl, you switch it around and work on the other end, the lip or rim. You can't stop for a moment and step back and take a look because the glass is always getting cooler and your tools might scratch or dent it. And yet if you want a certain shape, certain colors, and certain decorative accents, you have to keep the original design in your head at all times.

"I feel as if I have a mentality for it," says Rubnitz, who started as a collector of art glass and then six years ago, at the urging of his brother ("Why don't you just make the stuff yourself?"), took a glass-blowing course at San Francisco State. "I can now think like glass," he says, "the way glass works, what it's going to do."

Three and a half years ago, Rubnitz taught his partner, Grady, how to blow glass, too. "Sometimes I take a piece out of the annealing oven, and I look at it and I can't believe I made it," says Grady, who gave up an accounting career in the corporate and nonprofit sector to blow glass fulltime. "It's still like that for me. It makes me so happy."

"I look forward to blowing glass every time I go to the studio," says LeCheminant, who used to stare hungrily at art glass in galleries and buy Murano glass at garage sales. Two and a half years ago, he quit his marketing director job at 3-Com to pursue glass blowing. "I did enough time behind a desk," he says. "Basically, I'm a laborer at heart with the soul of an artist. Glass lets me combine both interests." His favorite workshops have been at Corning Glass in New York and Haystack Mountain in Maine. "It's never been a chore for me. It's fun. I think my body or my money will give out long before my ideas do."

Otto learned glass blowing with her dad in 1994 at an arts and crafts school in North Carolina. She and LeCheminant work out of Public Glass in the Bayview­ Hunters Point area, as well as at their studio in Alameda. "I like that you have to be concentrating and present in the moment," she says. "No daydreaming. It fits in with my Buddhist philosophy, and feels like a great way to live my life."

Otto is the only one of the four to maintain a day job -- she directs a youth program part-time for the American Civil Liberties Union. "I may not see results for a while," she says, "but I want to be careful to keep the balance of enjoying the craft and at the same time trying to make a living at it."

The four Formationz all get along great together and assist each other during the glass-blowing process. In fact, having a partner is essential. Your partner can "take heats" for you (carry the pipe to the oven to reheat the glass), blow through the pipe to stretch the piece out while you're shaping it, use paddles to shield your hands when you're working close to the hot glass, prepare a new "gather" of glass to add to the piece, and tell you how things look from their perspective.

Grady says he's learned a lot apprenticing with Rubnitz. "You get to see the process and see what you need to do. Then when you're doing it yourself, you have the background in your head."

The steps in glass-blowing vary, depending on what shape you want to make, how large or opaque you want the piece to be, and how many elements you want to add. And each artist has his or her unique style as well.

LeCheminant often focuses on simple shapes with direct, big areas of color, two or three colors at most. He also makes what he calls "funky-shaped things, tall lean-y things, and puffy bowls."

Grady's pieces are symmetrical, with lots of color ("I like bright orange or yellow on the inside and different-colored mottled effects on the outside"), and he says he's happy to still be "in the vessel," learning how to get the shape right. He is apt to use powders and "frits" (colored glass pebbles), as well as chunks off a color rod.

Otto likes to make bowls -- "I'm very drawn to them, maybe because it's a feminine shape" -- and to put designs on the inside, at the bottom. "I like to draw people in." She has discovered that different colors do different things, especially when in contact with each other -- white is stiff, it doesn't blow out fast, whereas blacks, reds, and yellows are soft and expand quickly. She calls her pieces "functional," although she doesn't care how people use them.

Rubnitz's glass is usually more sculptural than functional. "It's a real challenge to try to make asymmetrical forms," he says, "because I'm going against what the glass wants to be. It wants to be round, centered." Also, he likes to try different color combinations, which often present a surprise. "When colors get hot, they don't look the way they do when they're cool." He has made vases, bowls, and platters, but also fantasy figures, hanging pieces, and underwater scenes.

All four artists claim it is difficult to price their glass art -- they are too close to it. "Even a small piece can take a lot of time and skill," says Otto. They often end up having their friends do the pricing for a sale. They also admit to occasionally having a hard time giving up pieces. It helps to photograph the work, but that doesn't really capture the whole piece. "Some of them will never leave," says Rubnitz. "I've gotten too attached."

Grady and LeCheminant once traded vessels, so they could still "visit" the pieces they had made and loved.

Otto has saved a multicolored vase that almost didn't survive. "The glass got too hot, I lost control of it, and it started to fall. So I quickly threw it up and it kind of folded back on itself and made this weird little loop thing -- that I just love! But I don't know how I would duplicate it."

Interestingly, all these glass blowers are artists in other areas as well. Otto learned how to do stained glass and glass fusion, and she also makes glass beads and small glass rings, mostly for her own enjoyment. LeCheminant taught himself arc welding and is working on multimedia sculptures that combine metal and glass. Grady makes three-dimensional assemblages out of found objects. "When I first quit smoking," he laughs, "I needed to do something with my hands."

He and Rubnitz also create colorful ceramic mosaics. And the two have just opened an art gallery called Rogue Artspace in a corner storefront at Eureka and 19th streets. They are hopeful that it will be a successful new venue for local artists.

The four glass blowers agree that the neighborhood is friendly and has a nice blend of commercial areas and homes. LeCheminant, who lives near 24th Street, likes the mix of working-class and business people and the old establishments like Herb's Fine Foods and Tuggey's. Grady and Rubnitz appreciate that they can walk to Castro and get everything they need without having to drive someplace else. Otto likes living on a block where she knows all her neighbors (it helps that she has a dog).

Noe Valley has definitely supported their art -- at Open Studios and holiday sales.

"I used to think I didn't care if people bought my work or not," says LeCheminant, "but then I realized it was important. One, you can pay your rent, and two, that's how Americans show their appreciation: we're consumers."

Grady puts it even more succinctly, "We've been pretty lucky. What we do is marketable. People like it. That's an affirmation."

You can see the work of these four and other artists at a holiday show at Rogue Artspace, 4360 19th Street (near Eureka), on Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 1 through 23, from noon to 5 p.m. For information call 863-4940.

Mental Qualities Needed for Successful Glass Blowing

Kevin Grady: "It requires patience and determination to stick with it."

Mark Rubnitz: "You have to have a sense of urgency, but not panic. You need to stay calm and focused, too."

Nancy Otto: "You need to be open-minded during the process, because sometimes the piece may not be what you intended, but you can learn a lot from these mistakes and you might get a piece you really like."

David LeCheminant: "The most important mental quality is a creative imagination. A teacher once told me, 'Screw technique, let creativity lead, and learn the technique to produce the thing you've thought of.'"