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Cover Story - Posted December 28, 2012 11:29 a.m.
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photos by Shannon Richardson

Splendor in the Glass

Amarillo aglow with work of glassblowers, sculptors

Glassblowing cannot be characterized by a single noun. Yes, it’s an art, and a process, but it’s also a dance, a carefully choreographed and fiery one. It’s a grueling sport that strains the muscles, yet, at the same time, it’s a meditative exercise that soothes the mind and soul. And for some, it’s an inner calling, a fated path.

To watch the primeval technique of morphing a mass of molten glass on a blowpipe into a crystal goblet, avant-garde bowl or contemporary vase is enrapturing. Hot and resplendent, glass seems irrepressible, a force of nature. But with the right master, or as one sculptor prefers to call it, collaboration, glass can be wielded and forged into a beautiful vessel, the glassblowers’ frustrations, ambitions, tears and sweat eternally sealed inside.

Peruse our photo gallery, behind-the-scenes photos and a demonstration from Chad Holliday! See the links at right.

As children, our parents tell us not to play with fire. We hear them, but can they honestly expect us to turn away from a ballet of beguiling light? Fire is irresistible to the eye; however, it takes an extraordinary person to tame it.

In 1999, a 20-year-old Christian Luginger stumbled upon a PBS documentary about famed glass sculptor Dale Chihuly. Raised in Amarillo, Christian dropped out of high school his sophomore year. His future was not emitting a bright light, he admits, but through that documentary, he sensed a path that would ignite him to pursue glassblowing, master it, and bring it home to Amarillo.

“Just being a hungry kid, a homeless kid, someone who had a GED, someone who never went to college,” the 34-year-old owner of Flame One Productions opens, “I wanted to show the community that someone like me who didn’t have high hopes can be a producer, a giver – someone who bears fruit to society rather than a drip.”

The first stop of Christian’s journey was Boulder, Colo., where for two and a half years he took classes and apprenticed under professional glassblowers, a period he calls a “real faith trip.” Glassblowing is a healing and creative process that allows Christian to express himself, like art therapy. It’s spiritual significance corresponds with his appreciation for Aikido. And, of course, it’s just downright cool.

“It’s a sculptural material you can’t touch with your hands…” Christian ponders. “I’m always going to be limited from making my piece the way I really want to do, because I have to have that tool to get in there to touch it, and not get burned or cut. I like the challenge of it being so hot and so dangerous, but can flow and dance with it.”

Christian spent a month studying abroad in Italy where he acquired centuries-old, glass sculpting tools. He doesn’t treat them like fragile, prized antiques. Rather, their tarnished handles find themselves entwined with his fingers every day at his studio. From Italy, he went to Rochester, New York for another internship and learned glass casting.

It’s now been 11 years since Christian returned to Amarillo and opened his shop. He was named a Texas Treasure in 2008 and has written articles on glassblowing in publications such as American Art Collector and Glass Line Magazine. But those are just words and awards.

“[It’s] not just these stacks of magazines or all these books I’ve been in, but it’s about giving back to the community and how I can use my talents and glass to give back,” he corroborates. “I want to use my talents for beauty.” Beauty being charitable contributions. The list of charities and organizations Christian has worked with is ongoing, from Big Brothers Big Sisters to Girl Scouts of the USA. He volunteers demonstrations at schools around the area and has joined forces with glass sculptor and West Texas A&M University professor Chad Holliday for three years for the university’s Night Blow.

“I want to do something with art that is healing, and work with the kids,” says Christian, who hopes to establish his own charity. “We’ve already got the ball rolling, the wheels greased, we just got to keep the ambition because we’ve come too far to just stop…”

Currently, Christian is focusing his artistic efforts on creating lighting installations, one of which can be seen hanging in 575 Pizzeria. It’s a whimsical piece of snakelike spirals that signifies a turning point in Christian’s life; in the course of 10 years, he has gone from a life lacking ambition to having a respected career as a glassblower. This year, he will show at a gallery in Times Square, will have a $6,000 wall piece at Pismo Contemporary Art Glass in Colorado and will join Paul Marioni to terrazzo the second floor of the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, a $2-million project.

Inspired by God, nature and historical shapes, such as cathedrals, Roman vessels and Mayan pottery, Christian blends a modern twist into primeval designs. He recently won an award for his collaboration with Dina Kalahar, a former teacher, on an elaborate sculptural goblet of a woman.

“Glass is not a selfish thing,” Christian postulates as he rustles through his briefcase, his extravagant, blue glass ring catching the light. “It is something that gives instead of takes, and that’s what I love about it.”

As a glassblower, Christian mostly operates solo. He has assistants, one of them being Daniel Johnson, who has accompanied Christian on his journey for the past six years, but Christian doesn’t require a team. However, it’s not the method that makes you a glassblower or sculptor.

“Chad [Holliday] dips glass from his crucible. So do I. You take a blob, you blow it into a shape. You make a goblet, a plate, a bowl, a window, jewelry – it’s all made out of glass. The glass may have a different recipe to it, but that’s the only difference,” he deadpans.

Carlyn Ray has also used glass as an avenue to give back to the community, but she collaborates with a team of assistants, more aptly described as a well-oiled machine. The 31-year-old is the artist in residence in the West Texas A&M University fine arts department, under the direction of Chad Holliday. Carlyn commutes on the weekends between Austin and the university, where she works with Chad’s students and provides them with insight into what it takes to succeed as a professional glassblower.

“I think it is really inspirational for the students,” Carlyn says. “Not only just being someone in the next step of their career, but also a woman blowing glass. Glass blowing is a very male-dominated art form just because of the fire and the weight…”

Carlyn first saw glassblowing at the age of 8. At the demonstration, she turned around and told her parents, pointblank, “This is what I want to do.” Exposed early on to the artistic world through her mother’s gallery, Carlyn Gallery, Carlyn learned marketing and business strategies. It was the greatest gift they gave her, she says.

When Carlyn was 14, she had another rousing encounter. Dale Chihuly was at the Dallas Museum of Art and was signing books. Carlyn waited in a long line to reach Chihuly and once she did, she said in a straightforward voice, “Mr. Chihuly, I would like to be a glass blower.” He replied, “Well, when you get a little older, you have to come to my school.” Carlyn took that as a personal invitation and set that as her goal.

Eventually, Carlyn did get to Chihuly’s school in Washington. She started down her path by setting another goal for herself: to be awarded a full athletic scholarship to college. She checked that goal off her list when she earned a full ride to the College of William and Mary to play volleyball. Before setting off to Virginia, Carlyn’s mother presented her with a graduation gift, a flameworking class at West Carolina University.

“It involves a lot of elements,” explains Carlyn, who also studied glassblowing in New Zealand. “It’s very raw. It’s magical. It’s alive… There’s fire. Glass is heated at 2,300 degrees. It’s molten sand. It’s the same temperature as lava and it has the light of the sun. It’s the most beautiful material, and when you see a glassblower who understands the material, working with the material, it’s just beautiful.”

In Jamestown, Va., Carlyn reenacted colonial glassblowing demonstrations. For two years, she attended the oldest craft school in America, Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains, blowing glass seven days a week and taking intensive courses. She later moved to Seattle after assisting in a series of classes with some of the finest glass artists in the country, and she ended up working at Chihuly’s school, and as a member of his hot shop team.

Carlyn accepted a job with the Corning Museum of Glass, demonstrating glassblowing on cruise ships around the world, sharing the technique with guests. The experience provided an impetus for Carlyn to give back.

Her biggest community project to date is a 6-foot chandelier she and students at her alma mater, the Episcopal School of Dallas, constructed. Attached are 200 glass feathers, inspirational quotations written on paper sealed inside them.

“I have a passion to work with at-risk kids, but also privileged kids, to hopefully instill that belief, too, to continue to better this world,” she elucidates. “Success isn’t when your pockets are full. Success is when you’re fulfilled. To be fulfilled is understanding one’s self, strengths and sharing that with each other. That’s something I like to bring to light when talking to kids.”

It’s impossible not to become infatuated with the orange glow of the furnace or the molten blob taking shape like a breathing life form before your eyes. But glassblowing is not for everyone.

“You have to know that from every failure you are learning something. There are speed bumps. It’s a rocky road,” she says. “It takes a while until you can pave your own path. You really have to feel it out. It takes a team and you have to rely on assistants and other people.”

What differentiates glass from other materials is the way it holds, transfers and renders light. You can blow it and inflate it with breath. It doesn’t just hold color and light, but it also retains energy and emotion. It’s fragile, and at the same time, strong.

Carlyn’s mediums of choice are glass and metal, which she uses for chandeliers and intricate glass weaving, her signature pieces. The metal becomes part of the work, like the copper wire she uses to weave the glass pieces together.

“I like to incorporate those two materials because I think they have a communication with each other,” she denotes. “The way you form metal in heat that is used, it creates a texture. Glass doesn’t create a texture. I don’t try to hide the glass. I don’t try to hide the metal.”

Surveying Carlyn maneuvering around the work bench, swinging into her seat, then gliding to the glory hole (furnace) is like watching a stone skimming across the still surface of a body of water. Her moves are fluid as she shapes the glass with tools made for a man’s hands, her actions in sync with the rhythm of the song belting from a weathered CD player. Red splotches begin to spread on her neck and arms as she spins the glass with centrifugal force into an abstract shape, which will later cool into a blue and yellow bowl after it rests in the annealer.

For Carlyn, her clients aren’t solely people who purchase her pieces. She allows them to be a part of the creative process. “I try to let them create the piece through me,” she utters. “I look at myself as a vessel. They kind of speak through me and I speak through the material. I try to imagine what they see, what they enjoy, what they like, what they love, what they’re attracted to, what feelings they are desiring to have, and invite them to their environment. And that’s what I feel and think and design with.”

Chad Holliday feels compelled to give back as well, but he chose the conduit of academia. Going on in his fifth academic year at WTAMU, Chad is an assistant professor of 3-D Art. Upon arriving at WTAMU in the fall of 2008 after a period in the Czech Republic, Chad has “re-imagined” and breathed new life into the program.

“I was fortunate to have people who founded the Studio Glass Movement. They’ve become my mentors, they’re my close friends,” Chad says. “Everybody has been so generous to me that it was time to give back. That’s why I have found the time to teach now... It’s more out of obligation than anything else.”

Chad was a psychology major at Emporia State University when he was first introduced to glass blowing, and the two philosophies clicked. He became the president of the Glass Guild and the elected student representative of the Glass Arts Society.

“I saw it and thought, ‘Wow this is cool!’ And after I touched it, it was done,” he exhales. “It was over. And since then glass has afforded me so many opportunities. And it’s really natural for me. I think glass finds people.”

After his graduate work at the University and the Rochester Institute of Technology, Chad was invited to be the artist in residence at the Grand Crystal Museum in Taiwan, then moved to the Czech Republic as a Fulbright Fellow to research glass education. He also lived in the northwest U.S., where he became employed as the glass technician at Pratt Fine Arts Center beginning in the fall of 2003, taught as an adjunct professor at the University of Washington, Tacoma and took on the position of lead hot shop technician for the Museum of Glass. He also was in charge of maintenance at Chihuly’s shop for three years.

It seems Chad may have veered off his path by coming to West Texas A&M, but he felt compelled to teach, so he and his family moved from the Czech Republic to the Panhandle. “The philosophy behind it revolves around sculpture and design, informed by elements of design, formal issues, figure and tradition,” the 37-year-old explicates, his eyes distracted by the sun-like glory hole. “We’re innovative, but we have a good foundation of these fundamental elements.”

To date, Chad has taken 30 students from the Panhandle to the Czech Republic to study glass, including Clayton Spaulding and Josh Davids who accompanied him to the International Glass Symposium in October. “They helped and sacrificed so much for me for this event and I felt it was important to take them,” Chad says. “They’re feathers in my cap. My success is their success.”

Chad applies his learning as a psych major to glassblowing, through problem solving and rationalization. A glassblowers’ process is the same as a scientist’s, Chad compares, because they both have a conception, a hypothesis they must prove.

“I respect all mediums, but for me, there’s no other material besides glass,” he plugs, his blackened hands gesticulating about. “And part of the reason has to do with all the properties. It’s translucent, it’s transparent, it reflects light; it refracts it. It changes here; it changes there. It does all these things that are quite interesting… We can create things that aren’t really there!”

The philosophy of Chad’s hot shop is teamwork. The person working the torch is just as imperative as the person that wields a charred, wooden paddle, shielding the gaffer from the heat of the molten mass.

Respect the glass, and it will respect you, Chad claims. It will take 100 attempts to make a good goblet, he teaches, and after that, it becomes second nature. Most of the time, before Chad embarks on a piece, he sketches his design, molds it and casts it before he begins the glassblowing process.

“We’re going to let the glass tell us what to do,” he says strolling around the outdoor hot shop on the patio between the Sybil B. Harrington Fine Arts Complex and Mary Moody Northen Hall. “We’re going to start out with this premise, this basic form, and then we’ll go from there. And we’ll just respond to it, see what it’s going to give us. Glass is delicate, fragile, and I tell the guys, ‘This is a very sensitive, sensitive woman. You gotta be nice to her. Or she’s going to be really mean to you.”

Chad’s team is his family, too, and the hot shop educes a camaraderie that is visible in the students surrounding the grill situated in the northwest corner of the patio, plopping grilled sausage on their paper plates on a clear, crisp, November afternoon. “That’s what we’re about,” Chad says, opening his arms. But he doesn’t sugarcoat the career of a glassblower when speaking to his students.

“[Glass] is flashy, it’s shiny, it’s cool, colorful and pretty, but now what are you doing to do with it?” he grills his students. “Half the work is done for you. Somebody may look at it and go, ‘Oh you’ve got it easy.’ But I kind of look at it like the opposite. We have an added challenge. Once it’s done, it’s done. It’s not like clay where you can cut off a little piece and patch it back up. It’s immediate. And your moves have to be efficient, well-timed and purposeful.”

Glassblowing is intoxicating and Chad candidly sums up why it attracts people like moths to a flame: “It’s instant gratification.”

by Drew Belle Zerby

After graduating from LSU in 2009, Drew Belle worked as a page designer in north Louisiana until moving to Amarillo and joining AGN Media in late 2010. In her spare time, she loves to read, travel and spout out useless movie trivia.
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