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For the Love of Glass
Glassblowing goes public on the Alabama Gulf Coast

by John Gifford

Joe Thomson heating glass

On a rainy October morning a crowd of spectators huddles at the edge of a small workshop at the Orange Beach Arts Center – a cluster of stately white buildings surrounded by a lush green lawn and Spanish moss-draped live oaks, on the shores of Wolf Bay. Autumn is arriving to the Alabama Gulf Coast and the rainfall cools the morning air, but the visitors are warmed by the shop's churning furnaces and the carefully choreographed ballet of two world-class glass artists in action.

With dark glasses shielding his eyes from the intensely bright, 2,100-degree furnace before him, Joe Thompson spins a glassblowing pipe in his hands. On the other end of the pipe, inside the cavernous furnace, a sculpture is taking shape, molten glass growing in size with each revolution of the pipe. Stripes appear now on the glass bubble and as Thompson steps back, removing the pipe from the furnace, spinning it in his hands, he turns and hands it to his partner, glass artist, Robert Jones, of Seattle, Washington .

Glass artists display their work

Quickly, deftly, Jones takes the pipe and places the lava-like glass bubble into a wet wooden mold and, with the help of Thompson, spins the sculpture, shaping it. Moments later Thompson crouches, blows into one end of the pipe and the infusion of air expands the nascent glass structure on the opposite end into something resembling a searing atomic pumpkin. The audience gasps as the glowing orange mass doubles in size and explodes into a symphony of colors – orange, red, purple and pink.

This type of glassblowing demonstration is new to Orange Beach and was made possible only after the August 2009 grand opening of The Hot Shop – OBAC's new glass studio. And while the Orange Beach Arts Center had long envisioned facilitating resident artists in various mediums, the prospect of hosting glass artists seemed remote and unlikely.

The Hot Shop

"Because of the expense of the equipment, a glass studio was far down our list," says Juli Jordan, board member of Friends of the Arts, Inc., a support organization for the Orange Beach Arts Center.

But then one day the OBAC received a phone call that would take glassblowing from the bottom of that list to the top.

Birmingham , Alabama artist Joe Thompson was seeking an art center to which he could donate his glassblowing equipment, with the stipulation that the studio be available to the public.

"Glass equipment is very expensive and it is better to share those resources so more people can afford to blow glass," says Thompson. His company, Bear Creek Glass, is North America 's largest producer of designer, handmade glass sinks.

Meshing perfectly with the OBAC's wish to host resident artists, Thompson's generous offer resulted in The Hot Shop – the first and only public-access glass studio in the state of Alabama . Dedicated to educating the public about glassblowing, sculpture and art, The Hot Shop provides educational opportunities through lessons, demonstrations, school field trips and public art exhibitions.

"The excitement surrounding The Hot Shop is…state and region wide," says Jordan . "There is something mesmerizing and mystical in the process of glass blowing and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to provide a unique experience to residents and visitors of the Alabama Gulf Coast ."

Georgine Clarke, of the Alabama State Council on the Arts, agrees: "It is an opportunity not available in many United States locations," she says. "Because of the facility and strong support and vision of the City of Orange Beach, this will become a major center for hot glass. I have talked with one glass artist who is thinking about re-locating to work with the programs."

For a glass artist, part of The Hot Shop's intrigue may well be the $250 thousand of glassblowing equipment that Thompson donated, including a crucible furnace, glory-hole furnace, annealing oven, and scores of others specialized tools. But a glassblowing studio is also expensive to operate – prohibitively so for many artists. The crucible furnace, for example, which contains the crucible in which the molten glass is made, must run continuously. Consequently, utility bills for studios like The Hot Shop may approach $2,500 per month.

Without the fundraising support of Friends of the Arts, The Hot Shop simply couldn't function. And along with Friends, the City of Orange Beach, too, has been instrumental in making the glass studio a reality.

"The City has been very supportive in this venture and without their assistance we would still be raising funds," says Jordan . "The City of Orange Beach has very forward thinking leadership in the mayor, city administrator and city council. They recognize that The Hot Shop and OBAC bring a depth to our community."

Depth indeed – fathoms, in fact. Part of the benefit of the public-access studio is that visitors are able to work under the tutelage of an accomplished, resident artist. Through the OBAC's glassblowing classes, students are introduced to glassblowing techniques and are able to sample this art form by making their own glass ornaments or paper weights. This is a fun and productive way to experience glassblowing. It also affords a deeper appreciation of the artistry and skill of masters like Thompson and Jones.

" I began blowing in 2001 after attending Pilchuck Glass School for the first time,
says Thompson. "I returned and built my own hot shop in my garage and then moved into a larger shop about 3 years after."

His experience and dedication are evident in his one-of-a-kind designer sinks, lighting fixtures, bath accessories and other unique objects, which are featured in retail showrooms around the country.

Thompson's company, Bear Creek Glass, recently merged with Robert Jones Design, giving the two artists time to work side by side in The Hot Shop. It is Thompson's hope that this merger of talents and resources will allow more people to experience his company's sinks and other products, which will give more exposure to glassblowing.

Already, interest in glassblowing is growing in Alabama , such that Georgine Clarke is optimistic about the state's future in this medium. "We haven't generally thought of the South as a strong center for hot glass," she says. "But I anticipate that it [The Hot Shop] will draw students from around the United States , eventually leading to the establishment of other private studios in this area."

Clarke points out that glass captures, reflects and uses light for its effects.

"What better place for year-round light than the Alabama beaches?" she says.



For more information:

The Hot Shop, 26389 Canal Rd. , Orange Beach , AL 26561 . (251) 981-2787, www.orangebeachartscenter.com . Newly opened, The Hot Shop is the first and only public-access glass studio in the state of Alabama . Glassblowing classes are $20 - $35. Open Saturdays, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.

Alabama Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, 3150 Gulf Shores Pkwy. , Gulf Shores , AL 36542 ; (800) 745-7263, www.gulfshores.com


John Gifford

( www.john-gifford.net ) is a professional writer specializing in travel, the American South, and in providing marketing, branding, and public-relations copy to organizations. Gifford graduated from the University of Oklahoma and later received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Central Oklahoma. A former U.S. Marine, he is a fly-fishing enthusiast, author of the books Oklahoma Sportfishing and Small Stream Bass , and he covers the outdoors and nature for the Oklahoma Department of Tourism and Recreation. Gifford's work has appeared in magazines like   Boys' Life, Evansville Living, Saltwater Fly Fishing, and Southern Traveler ; a variety of literary journals; and the anthology, Battle Runes: Writings on War.   

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