Trade Talk With Talented Glass Workers

Perfecting a Craft: Glass Working

Whether they are soldering in the studio or hurrying about the hot shop, the lineup of talented artisans who work with glass in Chattanooga is impressive. While producing a one-of-a-kind piece obviously comes with a sense of gratification, for these dedicated men, it’s all about the journey. Turning inspiration into a tangible work of art and coming to master such a delicate material takes perseverance, but these skilled craftsmen need not worry. The next big break is right around the corner. 

Photography by Ryan Dugger / Creative Revolver

Matt Thomas

Lookout Mountain Glass

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Can you describe your journey with glass working? 

In college, I was an engineering student and quickly found myself unhappy and uninspired. I would street luge around town and literally ran into a sign for Tennessee Tech’s Appalachian Center for Craft. I walked into the glass hot shop, and it was the first time I felt at home. I had always wanted to be an artist, and this was the first time I found a material that called me to commit to the idea as a profession. 

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? 

My goal is to inspire thought or start a conversation through my unique take on creating functional items. Crafting a lamp into a childhood memory of Atari asteroids or a mead goblet in a Dungeons & Dragons style is what makes me happy. I love introducing electronic aspects into my functional glass. Bridging my outdated childhood with contemporary flair inspires a lot of my creativity.

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made? 

If I had to choose one, it would be an interactive piece titled “Try Again.” It was a carnival claw machine filled with handmade goblets. When the audience played the game, if they managed to grab a cup, it would shatter upon being dropped in the prize box. It provoked a great reaction and was about the idea of learning a craft and making something 10,000 times just to start over again. 

What is your creative process?

Ideas usually begin spontaneously. They come from everywhere around me – seeing a billboard, overhearing people talking out of context, or just my inner voice. It’s strange how random words, smells, or pictures can be the spark that inspires a fresh idea. 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

If it makes you happy, that’s all that matters. Just because it sells doesn’t mean your work is good. Just because it doesn’t sell doesn’t mean your work is bad. Take photos of everything you make; you never know what may inspire you in the future.

What do you love most about the work you do? 

I love the culture. I feel I can always be myself around other artists, especially in a hot shop. No matter your background or country, glass artists have a way of communicating without words.

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Prentice Hicks

Wauhatchie Glassworks

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What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? 

We make functional art – one-off, aggressively handmade drinkware. These pieces have evolved to show the utility of material when it comes to the size and shape of the finished vessel – not too thick, not delicately light.

How would you describe your style?

A cross between Mother Nature and Dr. Seuss.

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made? 

It was a big drinking goblet that was proportional to a 9-foot tall man. I like the gesture the finished piece had even though I had to lay it sideways in the kiln to make it fit.

Which piece has been the most challenging?

The big bowls we do mostly because we don’t normally work with large amounts of glass. Working glass can be akin to driving on ice. Half the skill is keeping a level head when things start to go south. 

What is your creative process?

Making a good cup of coffee after a good night’s rest and then going to work with all tools laid out like a surgical suite. Creativity comes when I make a mistake and like what I lost. Our wine glasses grew out of making flutes and losing them. I’d rather save a mistake to live on and grace someone’s table. 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Do street fairs. It’s a great way to get a thick skin. The marketplace itself is a cruel critic, and everyone who aspires to make a living at what they do needs to know that they can turn their labor into income. 

What is one misconception about glass working, and what do you want people to know about the craft?

With any trade, what looks easy is possibly true for the person doing it. Experiential knowledge comes only from a lot of repetitive work. People ask, “How long does it take you to make one of those?” My logical answer is, “25 years and 15 minutes.” 

What do you love most about the work you do? What’s the most challenging?

Opening the kiln the next morning after a good, well-focused day of making stuff. The most challenging aspect is keeping the sharpness of focus no matter what attempts to come into my head to distract me from the task right in front of me.

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Robert Banks

Stained Glass by Robert

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Can you describe your journey with glass working? 

When I was a child, I had an interest in photography. When I joined the U.S. Air Force, I jumped at the opportunity to repair aircraft camera systems, where we were taught the fundamentals of photography and light. Even before taking a course in stained glass, I was fascinated at how light looked through different mediums. After taking a class with Summer Harrison, who teaches at Reflections Gallery, I began creating my own pieces.

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? 

At first, still fearful of making mistakes, I focused on making simple 8×10 panels for friends and family. As my confidence level grew, I started making larger, more complex pieces. I look at what others have done and try to emulate what I’ve seen. I’ve done several animal pieces and gravitate toward those. One of my favorite pieces is an ocean scene where I incorporated both lead came and copper foil construction and layered some of the marine life to give it a 3D effect. 

 

Robert Banks in his studio working on a stained glass piece

“I love the idea that I’m creating something that will hopefully last beyond my earthly time and evoke some emotion from the viewer.”

 

What is your creative process?

First, I think of a subject that I’d like to create in stained glass. Then I research what other people have done. Stained glass patterns can be found online, in books, and you can even take a photograph and recreate it into a pattern that is compatible with cutting glass. I then start formulating an idea as to which colors and textures will accomplish the look that I want. Sometimes the idea I have in my head does not match the reality of placing the glass onto the pattern, and I’ve learned to never fall in love with a piece of glass! Glass is fickle, and will break your heart.

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

In the classes that I’ve taken, one of the things that has been stressed repeatedly is that nothing in stained glass is irreversible. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. They are going to happen. Learn from them and move on, and always keep challenging yourself!

What do you love most about the work you do?

After working on a piece for such a long time, it is simply magical to see light come through it for the first time. I also love the idea that I’m creating something that will hopefully last beyond my earthly time and evoke some emotion from the viewer.

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Thomas Spake

Thomas Spake Studios

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Can you describe your journey with glass working? 

I’ve been working with glass for almost 25 years now. I took my first glass blowing class at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, back in 1994.

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? 

I’ve always leaned toward creating decorative pieces – vases, bowls, and sculptures – that are inspired by the natural world. 

How would you describe your style?

I feel that my style of work is really unique. It’s greatly inspired by impressionists like Monet, Klimt, and Van Gogh. I strive to create unique patterns and textures by using pigmented glass chips and powders that express the idea or impression of a landscape, opposed to creating an actual representation.

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made? 

I just finished 12 large pieces for an exhibition at Central Piedmont College in Charlotte, North Carolina. This was a rare opportunity to explore some new ideas and techniques that really pushed my physical limits.

What is your creative process?

For my one-of-a-kind pieces, I usually start with a photograph and use the glass as a canvas to interpret the image. 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Go all in, but only if your heart is in what you are wanting to do. Be patient with yourself and your skills, but work hard. You have to be willing to put in 10,000 hours before you can really see any kind of progress. 

What is one misconception about glass working, and what do you want people to know about the craft?

I think one misconception about glass blowing is that you have to be able to have a great lung capacity. There’s really not a lot of blowing in glass blowing.

What do you love most about the work you do? What’s the most challenging?

I enjoy being my own boss and creating my own schedule, but this is a challenge as well. It takes discipline to get up and go to work and be creative all day, every day. Especially on days when you’re not feeling terribly creative.

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Chris Mosey

Ignis Glass

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Can you describe your journey with glass working? 

I started blowing glass in 1997. I was a ceramics student at the Appalachian Center for Craft. I had to take another studio elective, and glass looked very interesting. I spent five years honing the craft until I opened up my own studio in 2001. Since then, I have ebbed and flowed between sculptural and functional glassware. 

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? How have they evolved over time?

My aesthetic anchor is in ceramics. I gravitate more toward the distressed surfaces and finishes and keep a more earth-toned color palette. My aesthetic has evolved from clean sharp lines to a more warm and organic form over the past 20 years.

Do you have a favorite piece you’ve ever made? 

Being a more process-oriented artist, I don’t necessarily have a favorite piece. It’s more about the journey. I enjoy the challenge of new work and how I get to the end result.

What is your creative process?

Just observing my surroundings. I find inspiration in nature, movies, other art mediums, and other artists. I take those ideas, sketch them out, and enter into a conversation with the material and see where it goes. 

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Be open to all inspiration, whether it be literary, the natural world, or personal experience. It comes in all forms. Along with that, I would also apply a practical perception to the art. Learn how to run a business, at least on a very small scale. If you can’t make money with what you do, it’s very hard to continue having a creative artistic outlet.

What do you want people to know about the craft?

That it is a very difficult medium that takes years and years to master. There’s also quite a hefty price tag that goes along with running a glass shop. Most people don’t realize that. There’s always some sort of sticker shock when they see the price. 

What do you love most about the work you do? What’s the most challenging?

I love the creative freedom and the ability to relate to others on a nonverbal level. That dialogue has always fascinated me. The most challenging is being an artist as a practical endeavor. Without being able to pay the bills, having a creative outlet as an artist is difficult.

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AJ Harris

Glass Cannon Studio

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Can you describe your journey with glass working? 

I’ve always been fascinated by the interaction between light and glass. When I heard there was a glass studio offering college credit, I knew I had to go! I was the only student to show up and had two excellent mentors. I ended up learning how to run a studio while spending my time there. 

What types of products do you make, and why do you gravitate toward those? 

I try to not limit myself to a particular type of product. I usually make what I want to make, but I like crafting jewelry most because it feels great to see people wear and enjoy things you’ve made. 

How would you describe your style?

Unique is the word most people use to describe my work. I suppose that fits, as I try to create my own techniques. I like to combine what I’ve learned from past projects and incorporate many different elements like metals, crystals, resin, etc.

Which piece has been the most challenging and why?

Miniature aquariums are probably the most challenging. Small things are inherently difficult – a  little too much heat and you’ve melted your work into a blob. I start by flattening a glass ball into a rectangle for the base, then I build some seagrass and coral and attach a tiny fish. Finally, I seal that inside a tube and flatten the walls. This ends with a fish and other decorations inside a hollow cube, and I add two holes on top so that it can be filled with water or worn as a pendant.

What is your creative process?

Usually something will pique my interest, and I’ll explore that and discover how to incorporate it into my art. I get bored after making the same thing a few times. Sometimes I’ll be fixated on a new idea until it is complete, and other times I will come back to the idea years later.

What advice do you have for aspiring artisans?

Don’t make what you think other people will like; make things you like. As you grow, try to find a balance between what sells and what you like to make.

Do you have any memorable moments from any of your projects that you’re willing to share? 

Learning how to make kaleidoscopes was very memorable. I had to learn how to cut mirrors, solder, work copper tube, shape wire to hold marbles, and more. It took a few mistakes to get there, but that first look into my own kaleidoscope was amazing.

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