Spokane Journal of Business

A class for blowing glass

Students at Northwest Glass Society seek to tap into hot market for blown glass

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At the Northwest Glass Societys glassblowing studio in Spokane Valley, aspiring and professional artists are firing up their torches and learning how to transform glowing hot pieces of glass into delicate, colorful works of art.

As competition heats up in the blown-glass industry, handmade pieces are fetching mighty high prices, so for some artists, blown glass represents a growing market to capitalize on, says William Hagy, who launched Northwest Glass Society two years ago.

Some of our students are interested in building a home-based business, as theres a large market for glass beads, Hagy says. Other glass artists want to further their skills, and some just do it for recreation.

The Northwest Glass Society provides studio space and equipment for the artists to learn and practice their craft, he says. Such space is difficult to find in Spokane, which is why Hagy started the nonprofit organization in August of 2005.

While teaching at the Spokane Art School earlier, Hagy found that many of his students and fellow artists wanted to take up glassblowing more seriously as a hobby or as a business venture, but didnt have enough space in their homes and couldnt afford the equipment required to perform the craft. Plus, although the Spokane Art School offered classes in glassblowing, it didnt have dedicated space for the art, he says.

Its a struggle both financially and physically for artists, in terms of finding adequate studio space, Hagy says. Theres a lot of positives to bringing artists together, because they can accomplish more as a team.

The Northwest Glass Society is a membership-based organization and currently has 50 members who pay annual dues. It has one resident artist, and hires up to 11 additional instructors a year, including local, regional, and visiting artists. The nonprofit offers two-day classes, up to eight hours each day, as well as two- or three-day workshops that run all day, he says. Prices for classes start at $95, and individual instruction also is available. Topics include introductory skills and concepts, sculptures, vessels, and sandblasting and etching techniques.

Northwest Glass Society also conducts public tours and demonstrations, and recently conducted a tour for the Spokane Tribal Youth program, in which children learned about the history of and science behind glass blowing.

Students from Spokane Community Colleges Institute for Extended Learning, Spokane Falls Community College, Gonzaga University, Whitworth University, and several Spokane-area high schools have taken classes at Northwest Glass Society as part of their degree programs, he says.

At the entrance to Northwest Glass Societys 1,400-square-foot leased space, at 11616 E. Montgomery, a gallery greets visitors with brightly-colored bowls, figurines, goblets, and beads, among other glass items. Prices start at $20 for gallery art, Hagy says. Visitors can buy items there, or at art shows run throughout the year by member artists. Members also have done commission work for businesses in the region, including Anderson Mraz Design, of Spokane, he says.

Behind the gallery is a studio, where workstations line two walls. Each station is equipped with a blow torch affixed to a table and hooked up to a propane line and liquid oxygen line. Each station also has hand tools, which artists use to shape molten glass.

At one of the 10 workstations on a recent Friday afternoon, Hagy demonstrates how to create a blown glass goblet using whats called the lampwork technique. While bent over a blow torch, he picks up a long, slender glass tube with what looks like a bubble in its center. He twists the tube around in the flame, heating it up to between 1,800 and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. He uses tweezers to pick up a tiny fragment of gold and, placing it in the flame, heats it up to about 1,000 degrees. Once the gold has melted, he drops it onto the twirling tube, coloring it a shade of light red. He explains that artists can add color by using colored glass, precious metals, and powder.

Hagy then picks up a long, hollow rod, and placing it over one end of the tube, blows into it, and widens the bubble. He places the glass back into the flame, and cuts off part of both ends of the tube. With a hand tool, he flares one end of the bubble until its the shape of a goblet.

Once a piece is finished, its placed in whats called an annealer, an oven in which the oven is 1,000 degrees, but then cools the piece down at a precise rate based on the size of the object, he says.

In addition to lampwork, artists can also create blown glass by using a furnace instead of a blow torch, he says. When doing furnace work, an artist uses soft glass, which melts at lower temperatures and can be worked on for longer periods of time. Fueled by natural gas, the furnace holds a 200-pound pot of glass and reaches a scorching 2,200 degrees, he says.

Its like staring into the sun, Hagy says, adding that artists must wear special glasses to protect their eyes when doing lampwork and furnacework.

To create a piece of furnacework glass, an artist sticks a long, hollow metal rod into the furnace, and gathers the liquefied glass like honey onto the end of the rod, he says. He or she removes the rod from the furnace and places it on a work bench nearby, twisting and turning the rod, using gravity, hand tools, blowing, and free form techniques to shape the glass. Furnacework typically requires teams of artists, because of the size and scope of the pieces involved, he says.

Northwest Glass Studio doesnt have a furnace currently, but Hagy plans to have one operating there by October. He is seeking funding for the equipment.

One of the challenges involved in operating the nonprofit studio is obtaining the money to buy and operate equipment and to keep prices of classes low, Hagy says. The organization relies on state and federal grants, which have been dwindling in recent years. Its seeking sponsorships from Spokane-area businesses to offset the loss of government funding, he says.

Another challenge for glass-blowing artists involves the flood of cheap, mass quantities of imported glasswork onto the U.S. market, he says. If a consumer is looking for inexpensive handmade products, American artists simply cant compete with foreign-made goods, he says.

E-commerce sites such as eBay are helping artists find customers who are willing to pay higher prices for handmade domestic blown glass, he says. Thus, while competition in the industry is sizzling, artists here can still command high prices for their work if they find the right market.

Emerging and working artists can make a good deal of money doing this, he asserts. People have always had a certain respect for handmade products, and are willing to pay a premium for them.

Contact Emily Proffitt at (509) 344-1265 or via e-mail at emilyp@spokanejournal.com.

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