Tucson’s glass art scene is a tight-knit one, and thriving. At the hub is the Sonoran Glass School, whose reputation, well, glows. By Gillian Drummond.
Hot shops. Warm shops. Fusing and slumping. Frits and torches. And a big, glowing cave for reheating that they call The Glory Hole.
Glass art is factory meets studio, heavy trade meets fine craft, and a world of words that sound part-Tolkien, part porn. When it is tentatively suggested to the men who run Tucson’s Sonoran Glass School that they do not fit this reporter’s typical image of an artist, there is chuckling.“My hair isn’t long enough?” quips executive director Michael Nicholas, whose other job is running a construction company. But he and Dave Klein, co-founder of the place along with artist Tom Philabaum, nod in agreement. Dave concurs that, were he to be stopped in the street, this burly guy would be likely to be taken for a manual worker of some sort, but not an artist. It’s that heavy trade aspect of glass art, they say: the fact that lifting, turning and blowing glass is a job that requires strength.
When Tom Philabaum told Paul Stout he had the build for glass art, “he meant it’s because I’m strong,” says Paul, a taut, muscly guy who looks like he’d be better suited to a body building studio than an art one. Holding glass on the end of a long pole, as one does while blowing it, can mean the glass feels heavier than it is, he explains.
“It takes endurance and strength. The glass might weigh 20 pounds but it feels like it’s a hundred,” says Paul, then a dishwasher in a cafe and now a glass artist in his own right. “It’s the wet towel effect. It’s called lag.” And with that he adds yet another word to the layperson’s vocabulary.With glass comes an “Aha” moment, the time when a person falls hook, line and sinker for the art form. Some will tell you it’s the fluidity of the material. Others will tell you it’s that glass is both strong and delicate at the same time. Yet others will marvel at the color you can bring into glass, and easily too (this is where frits come into it – tiny ground-up colored pieces of glass that clear glass can be rolled in to add hue).
For Michael Nicholas, now in his third year as executive director, the appeal of glass came from the instant gratification it gives. “When I saw the glass and how instant it was, I was like ‘I need to do that’.”
Co-founder Tom Philabaum calls glass “a cruel mistress”. He and other glass artists “worship” the material, he says, for its flexibility and the color potential. “But it can burn you and cut you.”
Tom began the school in 2000 with Dave and artist Michael Joplin (see our feature Glass Act in this issue) from Tom’s downtown studio. William Justiniano recalls calling Tom up to ask him for work, and being launched headfirst into remodeling the building that is now the school’s home, on 18th Street just south of downtown.
“I wouldn’t have lived in south Tucson 11 years ago and now I live a block away. It’s got a lot more gentrified,” says William, who sports the rather enviable job title of lead hot shop instructor. When he’s not teaching at the school, he’s specializing in glass lighting for restaurants and homes in Tucson through his company Justiniano Glass.
Since opening, the school has had another studio added to it, grown to ten full-time employees, and built up to a budget of around $500,000. Glass classes and ‘experiences’ are held throughout the year, apart from the two months in the summer when the school closes. These range from making mosaic trivets to a six-and-a-half-hour stint making paperweights, tumblers and vases.
The Sonoran Glass School is always reaching out to schools and colleges to promote glass art among the young. If a school can’t afford to pay for a program, says Michael Nicholas, the Sonoran Glass School will try seeking a grant to make it happen.
Money comes mainly from two fundraisers: a glass pumpkin festival in October, and Flame Off on February 8, which the school describes as like the flameworker’s version of Iron Chef. Originally a handful of glass artists in a glass-blowing competition around a table at the school, Flame Off is now an event drawing hundreds and takes place at the Rialto Theatre. Around 20 artists vie with each other in two sessions. They are judged, and their results are auctioned off.
The people behind the school are proud, not only that it stands on its own with no affiliations to another body or college, but also of the reputation it’s built up. Says William: “We’ve started to gain popularity to where now people I talk to in Seattle and San Francisco and the east coast, word has gotten around enough without them even being here that it’s a studio to check out.”
The studio’s range of equipment gets positive comments, says Michael. People are coming here from abroad to take workshops, and next month the school will begin its first artist-in-residency program.
William’s “Aha” moment came the first time he watched glass being blown. “It’s the most magical type of art there is. Glass is one of the few mediums you can do anything with. You can paint on it, carve it, sculpt it, inflate it, mold it, you can put it on a lathe like you would wood or metal. No other art can have the versatility and be strong and fragile at the same time.”
Flame Off 2013 takes place February 8 at the Rialto Theatre, and is the school’s own wrapping-up of the Gem Show. Doors open at 6.30pm. Click here for details. For more info on the Gem and Mineral show, see our Et Cetera section.