May 2007 Issue
Passion for Glass
Columbus artists - hobbyists and professionals alike - get creative at the unique studio.
Allen Firestone contemplates the next few hours as he stares into teh 2,500-degree inferno.
Wearing sunglasses and a black bandana, Firestone, 60, resembles an aging rock star as he pops a stick of gum into his mouth. He offers one to his instructor, Rahman Anderson, and both men work the gum hard as they get ready to play with fire.
Firestone's day job is orthodontics. When he's not straightening teeth, he thrives on the thrill of manipulating molten ingredients into fine glassworks. For the past year, Anderson has helped Firestone and other aspiring artists live their after-work dream at Glass Axis, a funky, uniquely artistic place for hobbyists and professionals to ply their craft.
Located inside a warehouse in the Columbus suburb of Grandview Heights, Glass Axis attracts people who share a passion for glass.
"I think it looks really seductive," says Anderson, 33. "All the fire, the hot stuff, it's very exciting."
Firestone's goal in this studio session is to fashion a realistic-looking human head out of glass. He pulls a pipe that's as long as a broomstick from one of the fire pits, gripping it by its rubber-edged handle. Transferring the pipe to a second fire pit, Firestone gathers a ball of white-hot glass on the opposite end of the pipe, immerses it in a trough of cool water and begins shaping the glass to conform to the wooden mold before him.
Holding the pipe as though it were a clarinet, Firestone blows a puff of air into one end, watching the blob of glass slowly expand into an egg-shaped bubble on the other. When Anderson nods approvingly at his student's progress, Firestone exhales a sigh of relief.
For Firestone, working at Glass Axis is at times both frustrating and rewarding. He's been taking lessons for more than three years.
"It's not easy, but it's doable," he says. "There's an edge to the process. You can't go make a call in the middle of working on it. This is time-sensitive and heat-sensitive. There's always a little pressure going on.
"When you feel good about the final product, you're going to high-five the person you worked with, because you did it."
Firestone is one of many Columbus-area professionals blowing off steam by glass-blowing at Glass Axis. There are also doctors, lawyers, CEOs and college professors taking classes or renting space there. For all of them, the craft offers an artistic outlet and a relief from their daily grinds.
"Glass appeals to those who can't creatively express themselves in their professional lives," says Jim Kennedy, 59, president of Twenty First Century Communications in Columbus, and one of a dozen glass enthusiasts who helped establish Glass Axis in 1987.
Open seven days a week, Glass Axis is a nonprofit organization operating on donations and money made from workshops, ranging from $25 to make an ornament to $435 for 18 hours of advanced instruction. Those not needing a tutorial can rent space by the hour.
Kennedy's interest in glass-blowing took shape while he was enrolled in a continuing-education class on the subject at The Ohio State University. When the program folded, Kennedy and his fellow enthusiasts decided to create a place where they could develop their artistic skills.
The original Glass Axis, housed in a former casket company in what's now the Arena District, quickly became a place where fine-arts students could continue their studies and produce a body of work after graduating from college. In 2001, Glass Axis moved to its current location. It contains a hot shop with a furnace where artists gather molten glass, and a "glory hole," a glass-blowing term that refers to a high-temperature chamber where paperweights and vessels are molded. There's a warm shop where torches and kilns are used to melt and fuse glass. And there's a cold shop where glass is shaped without heat. Bleachers are set up to accommodate people who want to watch.
Students as well as professionals display their art in the adjoining gallery, where prices range from $10 to several hundred dollars.
Kennedy, who has master's degrees in economics and business administration, looks forward to Thursday nights, when he escapes the stress of working in crisis communications by indulging in a bit of glass-blowing.
"When you have a piece of hot glass at the end of a pipe, you can't be thinking of anything else," he says. "You're working with heat, and at most you have an hour to work on a piece. It provides immediate satisfaction."
Glass Axis instructor Kami Meighan, 27, says the medium appeals to people who are up for a challenge.
"It's really a scientific [process]," she explains. "No matter how well you think you've conquered a skill, there are always other techniques to pursue. It's endless in terms of the challenge and strategy involved. That's appealing to people, especially people who are driven and in a professional environment. [Glass-blowing] has all the aspects of a game in that sense."
Andy Hudson, 59, admits he easily spends $400 a month on his glass-blowing hobby. The associate director of medical education for OSU's College of Medicine works with a partner and rents the use of the glory hole for six hours a week. He's blown glass since 1968, and says he was inspired by "a bunch of old hippies."
"It got my attention," Hudson says. "I tried it the first time and I was hooked."
Hudson gives much of his work to friends and family members. But he does make a tidy profit. Like clockwork every September, Hudson begins work on the hundreds of Christmas ornaments he fashions at the rate of a dozen per hour. He sells them to art museum gift shops, including those at the Wexner Center for the Arts and the Columbus Museum of Art, earning $3,000 a year.
Back in the studio, Firestone continues to work facial details into his glass head as Anderson watches. Anderson calls himself a glass journeyman who's worked with famed glass sculptors Dale Chihuly and William Morris.
"Anyone whose curiosity is sparked should at least stop in and sit in the bleachers," he says.
|Glass Axis Studio & Gallery
1341-B Norton Ave., Columbus