Herald Sun

Herald Sun

Herald Sun

Reprinted with permission of The Herald Sun of Durham, NC. Reproduction does not imply endorsement.
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Herald Sun
Herald Sun, January 2009 page1
Herald Sun, January 2009 page2

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Cooking with Glass

Story by Al Carson
Photos by Joe Weiss

Lisa Oakley labors in her own wonderland, busy cooking glass, not for a looking glass, but for a chalice tumbler or other vessel that sails in from the glassy seas of her imagination.

Oakley says she blows glass, does not say she really knows glass, but she is learning how to pose glass in forms so unique that each is as different and fascinating as a snowflake.

Her studio is amazing, a small and cozy L-shaped room with a high ceiling and plenty of natural light. Orange-pink fires glow palpably inside a well-insulated propane gas-fired furnace which is kept burning 24 hours a day, for 10 months of the year.

“You don’t want to take it down,” she said of the fired up furnace. “It’s more efficient to leave it on.”

That’s because it takes two good days of heating to get the oven to the right stage for baking up a batch of glass Then it takes another 14 hours for the glass to cook.

When the glass is ready Oakley can’t loaf around. Once the heat is on and the glass reaches 2,450 degrees it becomes a bubbling cauldron of silica sand, soda ash and limestone. She turns the heat down to

2,250 to “squeeze” out the bubbles, then works with that batch of glass for eight to 10 days until it is all used up. There is only a two-week window before the molten glass “overcooks” and starts to decompose becoming stringy and unusable.

“My ideal schedule is to melt the glass on Monday and then blow it Wednesday through Friday of that week and Monday though Friday the next.” she explained. “I melt 150 pounds of glass at a time. If I blow smaller pieces it may be 10 days before I use it all up. If they are larger, it may be only eight days.”

Oakley’s studio has two “glory holes,” separate ovens fired up with propane jets, where she shapes her wares as they pass through stages from glass blob to goblet.

And it is a glory to behold the way the gritty, sandy, coarse and powdery granules are transformed into crystal clear molten glass which she works with her tools and her mind, sizing each up and shaping an idea, which comes on in clarity as she produces each rarity.

Oakley buys glass mix in 50-pound bags and shovels it into a crucible which sits in the center of the furnace.

“It starts as a powder, but it is bad to breathe it, so they pebblize it,” she said. “The mixture starts to soften around 1,200 or 1,500 degrees. It starts to puddle at 1,600.”

You can put her work under a magnifying glass and behold other worlds, or hold it closely and peer through it, creating a blue, green, yellow or rose-colored world around you.

Her glass is finding its way into society, from a small shed out back of the relatively remote Cedar Creek Gallery in the country outside of Creedmoor. Oakley brings a new meaning to field glass, as some of her works seem to mimic nearby fields of grass and straw, blowing in the wind under wide open blue and silver skies.

A helping hand

Done by hand, piece by piece, her work mirrors the land and magnifies the sky and the water. She loves to fish and her work lets others spy on her special world created in such heat, nurtured in a warming process until it is cool, crisp, smooth and hard and almost icy to the touch

Oakley works with an assistant Justin Stewart, at the moment.

“He has just been an awesome assistant,” she said. “He is incredible. He didn’t have any experience in glass when he came here. He just knew he was interested.”

Stewart, who attended Jordan High for two years and then finished his last two at Carolina Friends School, tried college for one year at Guilford. But now he is going to school with Oakley and getting paid for it. “I thought I would study sociology at one time,” he said. “Now I’m thinking about studying outdoor education.”

Stewart took over from a good friend Oakley’s previous assistant, Aaron Miller. Now Stewart wants to lean more about glass.

“I’m getting ready to go up to Penland [School of Crafts] for a month-long class,” he said. “I’ve been fascinated by it for a while. I had never seen it done, but I think it is beautiful.”

Stewart works days with Oakley and nights at George’s Gourmet Garage in Durham.

“When I first met Lisa, she said ‘I didn’t really know enough to open a studio, but I didn’t know enough not to,’” he said.

Organic, abstract approach

Oakley, 32, wears glasses, and when she makes her glass she ties her long blond hair back. Clad in jeans and a flannel shirt, she works with her bare hands, just inches from molten glass, nearly 2,300 degrees as it comes from the ceramic crucible in the propane-fired furnace, hot enough h to burn waterlogged newspaper she uses to shape her art with an Italian technique. She also has water-soaked blocks of green cherry wood, which have blackened from the hot glass when she works in a Swedish style.

As Oakley works, the glass takes form – sometimes a vase or lamp shade, or maybe Christmas ornaments, and sometimes even round, dense, heavy paperweights, which have the depth of a distant sea.

She takes the clear, molten glass and blows it into a ball, then rolls it in tinted powdered glass or frit, a granulated colored glass, on a metal table called a marver. She also uses pieces of colorful glass rods which she melts on the outside of some pieces.

“I could do patterns,” she said. “But I prefer a more organic, abstract approach.”

When a piece is finished, it is placed in an annealer, an insulated and heated box which will allow it to cool down slowly. If hot glass cools too quickly, it will crack.

Oakley uses tools to file, grate and grind the small area where the glass connects to the steel blow pipe, polishing it smooth.

From a humble beginning

“My only problem is, I have so many areas of interest,” said Oakley, who studied psychology and graduated with honors from the University of’ North Carolina. “I don’t have time to explore them all.”

“Every day, as I work, I will see something happen that I wasn’t expecting or planning.”

Oakley lives in Raleigh, but works on the land where her parents have made their life. Sid and Pat Oakley opened the pottery two years after Lisa was born. Sid is from Stem, just a stone’s throw away, while Pat hails from Oxford, where her family ran the Hotel Oxford for years.

“They had a studio with one shelf,” she recalled. “They were both making pottery and the gallery was opened in 1968 as Strawberry Fields.”

Lisa Oakley has an older brother, David, an advertising copywriter. She lived in Granville County until moving to Raleigh recently.

“I’m really lucky to have a studio here,” said Oakley, who started her glass work three years ago. “The cost is a big thing. I have to rationalize that this is grad school. It costs about as much as going to a good graduate school for a year.”

Home from her travels

Oakley worked in the gallery and worked around clay all her life. But when it came time to turn a pot or two, she turned away.

“I used to help Daddy and when l was 16 I worked in the gallery in the summertime,” she said. “He gave me lessons and said I had to put in eight hours a clay making pots. I figured eight hours sleeping, eight hours in the gallery eight hours throwing pots. What will I give up?”

She gave up the clay, but continued to work in the gallery. She traveled in Europe after graduation, but came home at Christmas. Then she worked in a law firm and considered studying law. Next came a job in a backpacking store.

The circle complete, she ended up back in the family business, as they opened a gallery in Raleigh. When it shut down, she was back in Granville County.

“My parents have been real supportive of me,” Oakley said. “They were excited when I came back to Cedar Creek.”

“It’s always awkward when you work with family. We had some power struggles. My father had been doing this for 30 years and then l would want to do things differently.”

A way to brighten winter

It was after Lisa had settled into the family business that the glass bug bit her.

“January is a dull, gray month,” Oakley said. “I got a catalog from Penland in the mail.”

And the rest is her story

“I had always known I wanted to blow glass. I went to school outside Spruce Pine, in the mountains.

“I didn’t have a choice. Once I blew glass once, I knew I had to do it.”

After attending Penland School of Crafts she considered commuting to Richmond two days a week, but the expense was such that she ended up opening her own studio

“It was a very expensive endeavor,” she said. “And like everything, it got to he about twice as expensive as I had planned.”

“But it was the only alterative. To grow and develop you need to do it on a daily basis.”

Oakley said she has gotten help from other artisans at Cedar Creek including potters John Martin and Brad Tucker, and her father.

“And I have gotten support from glass blowers around the county.”

Looking for special homes

Oakley displays – and yes, sells – her wares in the Cedar Creek Gallery, which is just off Will Suitt Road, a little more than a mile from exit 186A off I-85 North.

“I’m kind of shy about that,” she said “It’s hard to put stuff out in public. But: I approach it like it’s one of my kids and it is going to a special home. I can’t keep everything I make.”

Oakley, who makes a wide variety of pieces, said it is a learning process

“I think I work best when I work on a theme for a while,” she said. “I do take inspiration from other people’s work, and things in the world. There is some great ancient glass around.”

So far, Oakley said she may be breaking even. “I can probably meet expenses,” she said. “But I get nothing for my time. It [her business] is very young, but if it was easy, everybody would be doing it.”

Oakley has other interests. She likes to fish and scuba dive. She gets a built-in vacation each summer.

“I’ll shut the furnace down in July and August,” she said. “It gets 30 degrees hotter in the studio than it is outside. So when it gets in the 90-to-95-degree range outside, it’s too hard on the body inside.”

Oakley does not usually have the public into her studio when she is working, but Cedar Creek Gallery is having an Open House the first two weeks in April and she will be doing demonstrations at the following times

April 5, 6, 12 and 13: 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information call 528-1041 between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

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