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Glass act

The first glassblowing studio in the Triangle features creative shapes, but Lisa Oakley says that doesn’t make her an artist.

By Scott Huler

Don’t call Lisa Oakley an artist.

She sure looks like an artist. Moving comfortably between the two furnaces in her glass-blowing studio – the first of its kind in the Triangle – she explains her actions to a rapt crowd of 10 or 15 people, answering questions over and over.

She gathers glass from the crucible in the roaring furnace – “It’s 2400 degrees.” She smoothly manipulates the glowing glass with cherry wood molds and paddles, stored in water to keep them from burning – “That’s a Scandinavian technique.” She blows, turning viscous, red-hot blobs of glass into bubbles and, eventually, vases, drinking glasses and other objects like lamps and platters. At times she slightly cools the glass, still on her pipe, on a steel table called a marver, At others she actually massages it, protecting her hand with a folded and soaked piece of newspaper – “That comes from Italy,” she says of the newspaper idea. “American glass blowers tend to use techniques from a lot of different places.”

She constantly keeps the pipe rotating to control the shape and size of the piece she’s making in what looks like an effortless, unconscious gesture. She reheats the glass by sticking it in the cleft between the doors in the smaller furnace, called the glory hole. The finished tumbler emerges through an application of heat, gravity and skill that approaches alchemy.

She removes each piece from the pipe by gently filing around its connection and then, with a sharp rap of a knife or file, having it drop onto a prepared table. The mesmerized crowd always applauds.

So she’s not an artist?

Nope. “Maybe in a hundred years,” she says. “But no, I’m not. You have to DO something to be an artist.”

To the crowds watching her, manipulating intractable glowing blobs of 2400-degree glass into elegant blue vases and multicolored glasses sure looks like doing something.

“Art is not something you can do over and over and over again,” she says firmly, referring to the tumblers and vases she crafts in her studio. “I mean, if you can do it 25 times, it’s not art.”

All right, then, call Oakley, 31, a craftsperson – like her parents, potters Sid and Pat Oakley, founders of the Cedar Creek Gallery where she has built her studio. Call her a builder, able to spend 17 months creating most of her own equipment – casting the high-temperature concrete for the furnace, welding the struts and tracks for the annealing oven and the blowing bench – herself. Call her a venture capitalist, branching out from her work managing the gallery to gather funds from savings, a Durham Arts Council Emerging Artist Grant (in cooperation with Granville County, where she resided at the time) and a special limited edition of pots her father made.

At this point, call her exhausted, but – finally – call her a glass blower.

This journey started almost three years ago. “I just happened to be standing around when the Penland catalog was there,” she recalls of a winter day at the gallery when she saw the catalog of the venerable Mitchell County arts school. “I thought, ‘I want to go take glass blowing.’ ” So she took two weeks off and went to the mountains – and had the time of her life. “It happened there was a teacher from Sweden who loved beginners,” she says. “So I sat there like a sponge for two weeks and soaked it all up. And I came back and I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

She learned quickly that there were no local studios; she would have to find teachers further afield. So she set to work seeking her next teacher – and, looking down the road, she started cleaning a gallery building that could eventually serve as her studio. A class at the Virginia Commonwealth University didn’t work out, and she found herself back at Penland for an eight-week course in the spring of1995.

There she gained more skill in her craft as well as some studio construction techniques. And she came back with plans for a studio and got to work. Seventeen months later, her studio is running and her work is in Cedar Creek.

She’s improving as a glass blower, but she sees better how far she has to go than how far she’s come. “I just want to get in there and blow, blow, blow,” she said. “Then after six months, I can think about goals.”

For her parents of course, having Oakley become an artist – er, a craftsperson is nice. Though both say that they applied no pressure to Lisa to be in the arts, they are delighted that she’s ended up there. Sid notes that having her add her studio to the gallery is especially satisfying. “That’s where I see the joy,” he says. “She’s expanding Cedar Creek to a new area.”

Rob Levin, a glassmaker for 25 years who taught Oakley at Penland, says she should be around a while. “She has a lot of potential,” he says. “I think she seems to have a real natural sense of form.” More than that, though, “She has a real enthusiasm about working with glass. Glass is a complicated substance: If something gets too cold while you’re working on it, it can crack. If it gets too hot, it can lose its shape.” When that happened at Penland, Oakley didn’t get discouraged. “She’d just pick up the next pipe,” he says. “She has a real perseverance.”

That’s certainly true. In her demonstration blowing, Oakley occasionally loses one – a piece gets hot and folds over or just cracks off the pipe onto the floor. She shrugs, explains to the crowd that that’s just part of the process with glass, and takes a break – then picks up another pipe and starts again.

“I got that growing up,” she says, describing how her father would take one of the nicest of a series of his clay pots and, while it was still wet, slice it open to check its structure inside.

“It’s what you’re doing that’s important,” she says. “And how you’re doing it. Not necessarily the finished product.” Other artists, other glassmakers, may try just to get as much work onto as many shelves as quickly as possible. “I was brought up with that really being taboo.”

But the key with glass, she says, is more than just being philosophical when you lose a piece. It’s the key with anything: being open to what the glass wants to do. It’s a plastic, manipulative process, and Oakley is comfortable when a tumbler becomes a vase, or a vase wants to be a paperweight.

Not that the perseverance doesn’t show. At one point, working with a vase that has resisted her efforts and thinned to a dangerous point, she turns to the crowd: “Sometimes, with glass, you reach the point where you have to just accept that it hasn’t worked,” she says, about to give on the piece. Then she bites her lip. “Well, hold on. Let’s try something.” And half an hour later the thinned bottom of the vase has become a smooth, swelling handkerchief fold, and the vase is in the annealing oven, where it’ll slowly cool for hours before emerging as a finished piece.

“When you make a piece that’s really challenging, and you take it out,” she shakes her head. “It’s the biggest high I’ve ever felt.

“You push yourself until you’re exhausted and then you’re done.”

OK, so she’s not an artist. Whatever she is, it looks like fun.

'Look Ma, I blew it myself'

For the viewer, turning molten glass into a vase approaches magic. So when her assistant was temporarily unavailable and Lisa Oakley asked for help, I didn’t require any convincing.

She first showed how to gather a small dollop of gloss – called a bit – on the end of a long pole called a punty. While she shaped her main piece on the end of a pipe, I rolled the bit in a pile of colored powdered glass, then heated it by firing it in the glory hole. Gathering the molten glass from the crucible in the furnace felt like turning a long knife in extremely thick honey; even several feet away, though, the radiant heat was almost overwhelming.

Heating the glass on the punty in the glory hole was less difficult, as the doors remained closed. Hardest was remembering to constantly turn the punty so the melting glass did not drop off.

When the bit of glass I had colored was red hot, Oakley would grab the punty with special shears and blob the glass onto her piece. She’d then melt the whole thing again, giving a layer of color to her work. As she fashioned the glass, she also kept me busy opening and closing furnace and glory hole doors and holding a paddle when she wanted a smooth edge on a glass or vase. I even did what is called bench blowing – providing a little air in the pipe while Oakley was rolling the piece on the bench.

Then during a break in her demonstration, Oakley offered to help me blow a piece on my own.

Gathering glass with the pipe was much harder than gathering on the punty, and managing enough glass to be a tumbler – what I was supposed to make – was far more difficult than keeping a little blob rotating on a punty. But I got it hot enough, kept it centered, and then Oakley said: “Now blow!” I did. And after a few breaths a few false starts, there in the center of my glass appeared a bubble.

I spun, I blew, I heated, I reheated. As my glass grew in size its walls got thinner and more wobbly and my inexperience showed more and more. But with Oakley’s help I managed to keep it on the pipe. Using a paddle we got the bottom smooth, then transferred it to another punty in order to finish the top, though as the glass grew more unsteady so did I. At the last moment Oakley heated a bit of glass and stuck it onto mine, I spun, giving my glass a thick purple stripe. A minute later it was in the annealer.

Finished, it certainly doesn’t look like one of Oakley’s pieces. Meant to be a tumbler, it looks more like a rocks glass that in middle age has given up, loosened its belt a few notches and admitted it’s becoming a bowl.

Still, I made it. I worked with molten glass, shaping it, paddling it and, yes, even blowing it.

For a minute there I was an alchemist.


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