Glass-blowing heats up at the Eastside Culture Crawl

Thanks to an innovative new generation of blowers, a thriving art form is heating up this year’s Eastside Culture Crawl

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      Brad Turner has always had an affinity for both sports and art, but it wasn’t until the Calgary native took an elective in glass blowing at the Alberta College of Art and Design in 2002 that he realized those two seemingly disparate realms could come together. The Vancouver resident has gone on to become one of the most acclaimed glass artists in North America. Even more than a decade after that first experience of manipulating molten glass, he’s still struck by how the material manages to bridge two worlds.

      “Working with glass is quite physical, and that was the draw for me—that mix of physicality and creativity,” Turner says in an interview by the roaring furnace at the Terminal City Glass Co-op on Parker Street. “From the sport aspect, it takes a lot of coordination. You have two hands doing two different things and you have to work really quickly. Essentially, from the time you heat up the glass and get to the bench you have 30 seconds to do what you have to do before the glass is cool. You’re going back and forth from the bench to the glory hole [furnace] every 30 seconds for hours. You have to be quick in your decision-making. And it’s a constant challenge. There’s no point where you can just coast. If you lapse, it’s on the floor or it’ll fall off-centre. That’s what I like about it, even though it’s exhausting at times and super frustrating. A lot of people say glass is temperamental or that it wants to do its own thing. Generally, I say it’s just really honest. As soon as you screw up, even for a second, it’s done.

      Two of Brad Turner's ethereal creations

      “There are so many prohibitive things about working with glass—mostly cost,” adds Turner, who got a degree in kinesiology before doing his BFA. “Your per-hour cost of working most places is $35 an hour plus an assistant, and you could break everything that day. There’s no guarantee it’ll all turn out. You could have an entire $500 day that’s a write-off.”

      Despite glass art’s inherent challenges, it’s a form that’s experiencing tremendous growth. And although Vancouver doesn’t have a school for glass art like those of the Alberta College of Art and Design, Oakville’s Sheridan College, or Espace Verre in Montreal, the city is a hotbed of activity. The Terminal City Glass Co-op, for instance—Canada’s first and only nonprofit cooperative glass-arts facility, where Turner is shop supervisor—began in 2012 and already has more than 100 members.

      “The glass community is at a really interesting spot right now; it’s really at the beginning of something,” says artist Robert Geyer, who works with blown, cast, found, and neon glass, and who recently relocated to Vancouver after teaching at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. “A lot of people have moved back to this community, and I haven’t seen this many people come together in this community ever. People are here because they’ve chosen to be here, not because of a school, but because it’s Vancouver.”

      Robert Geyer’s form-pushing fixtures (here and below).

      Geyer and Turner are among the dozen Terminal City Glass Co-op members who will be on hand during the upcoming Eastside Culture Crawl, showing work and doing demonstrations. (“We’ll be blowing glass into Slinkys, making it fun for people to experience the potential of the material,” Geyer says.) The four-day festival of visual arts, design, and crafts brings together nearly 400 artists—sculptors, jewellers, painters, weavers, metalworkers, printmakers, furniture makers, potters, and photographers among them—to showcase their work in over 70 buildings in the region bounded by Main Street, Victoria Drive, East 1st Avenue, and the waterfront.

      Now in its 18th season, the Crawl this year features some firsts: Crawling for Kids, where children can create screen-printed and stencilled works of art at the Melk Studio; and Moving Art, a projection of silent art-based videos and films on an exterior wall of Parker Street Studios. They’re among the ways the event aims to enhance the public’s appreciation and understanding of visual arts.

      Introducing people to the unique medium of glass art is especially important, given that most laypeople simply aren’t that familiar with the form or associate it with the kind of colourful vessels that marked the early work of pioneer Dale Chihuly.

      “Everyone thinks it’s really cool, but they don’t really know anything about it,” Turner says. “The general perception is, if it’s glass, you’re making bowls. I understand why, because that’s mostly what’s out there.

      “The glass world is in a real transition right now,” adds Turner, who earned his MFA at Alfred University in New York state and has been awarded residencies in Norway and Belgium, among other places. “It’s always had its own history separate from other creative worlds and hasn’t made the jump or been accepted into the greater fine-art scheme of things very well because it fostered its own strong culture. Now we’re at a time where we’re getting ready to expand into that world. The battle of the previous generation of glass artists was technical: they had to learn how to build furnaces and how to get glass.…The challenge for my generation is what to make, how to make something new and take it in a different direction. That’s the tough challenge, but it’s also why glass is poised to infiltrate the fine-art world.”

      Turner’s own work is unlike any other. His “Balance series”, for instance, consists of striking sculptures made of assembled hand-blown glass and polished stainless steel with a single point of balance. They involve detailed planning, with Turner sketching designs in advance and using calipers to achieve the objects’ required precision.

      “Tastes are changing,” Turner says. “We’re getting away from glass that was popular in the ’80s to making sculptures that will fit more into art galleries and glass galleries that are more discerning. I make bowls sometimes, but I’m not going to bring a bowl to an art gallery.”

      Geyer, too, is breaking new ground with glass. As a cofounder of Sasamat Creative, a lighting-design studio, he creates interactive hand-blown glass objects, such as pendant lights that are filled with neon gas and that respond to touch from the outside, a bit like those mad-science-type plasma globes. With a BFA from Emily Carr University of Art and Design and an MFA from Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art, Geyer also works with found glass, including large sheets of skyscraper glass that have been slightly damaged during construction and would otherwise end up in a landfill.

      “They throw out more glass in a couple days than I can use in a lifetime,” says Geyer, who got his start under the guidance of another leader in the field, B.C.’s Robert Held. “I still love to blow glass—I’ve been doing it for 18 years—but I also like to work with found glass and reinvigorate or reinterpret its original meaning. You can only blow big bubbles for so long. Neon is really interesting to me. The relationship between glass, light, and colour is fascinating to me.”

      Geyer predicts that the future of glass art will feature more fusion—sculptors using glass along with traditional materials, for example; graphic designers emblazoning glass with text; painters using glass as their canvas; and so on.

      “People are starting to make their own voice with the material,” Geyer says. “You can combine two worlds to make one that’s unique and that separates you from the pack. You can make it into a different experience by making it move or making it interact with light. The hybrid stuff is so interesting.

      “It’s a fascinating material to work with,” he adds. “Once you start working with it, you have to finish it. It’s not like writing a song or working with clay; you can’t take a break or go for lunch. If you stop, it’s over. That’s what I like about it: it commands your attention from start to finish.”

      The Eastside Culture Crawl takes place Thursday through Sunday (November 20 to 23) at various Vancouver venues.

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter at @gailjohnsonwork.