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Potter’s daughter sees the light

Lisa Oakley finds her ’truth’ in glass blowing

By Kathy Watts
Lisa Oakey’s face shines bright red. She’s sweaty and covered with glass dust after working 60 minutes nonstop on a single piece for her Galaxy bowl series.

“At the end of the day, I can lick my lips and I can taste the salt,” she says as she gently places the 16-inch diameter bowl, still burning hot, in its cooling oven. “I feel like I’ve been working.”

People who know North Carolina’s artistic heritage would not be surprised to find an Oakley getting dirty for the sake of art. But they might have expected Lisa Oakley’s medium to be clay, not glass – for her to take up the tradition that brought renown to her father, potter and painter Sid Oakley.

Sid and Pat Oakley built Cedar Creek Gallery in 1968 on the old Effie Sharon tobacco farm near Creedmoor as a place to sell their own works. They gradually expanded to sell other potters’ creations and in time added other fine crafts. Now their daughter has her own 3,600-square-foot studio a mere 60 steps through the woods from the original gallery.

“Lisa found her truth, which is glass blowing,” says Sid Oakley, 70. “She’s passionate and dedicated to it. When truth is found, beauty is always there because truth and beauty are companions. This makes her soul smile, and as a result, mine does too.”

Early on, Lisa knew she did not want to be a potter. “I saw how hard it was to be a potter she says. “I knew how pottery is dirty; you have to work so much to make a good living out of it.”

She graduated in 1987 with honors from UNC- Chapel Hill with a degree in psychology and considered becoming a lawyer. In 1994, she attended a two-week glass blowing course at Penland School of Crafts in the North Carolina mountains.

“The first night, I called up Mom and Dad and said, ‘This is what I want to do,’” she and recalling her epiphany in finding glass. “There was glass, and glass was light, and glass was clean.”

She laughs now.

“It’s the dirtiest, nastiest thing I’ve ever known,” she says. “I love getting dirty. I like to get so dirty that getting clean makes a difference.”

State-of-the-art studio

When Oakley returned to Cedar Creek, she had nowhere to practice her craft. Most of North Carolina’s glass blowing studios are in the western part of the state, said Rob Levin, owner of Levin Glass in Burnsville and an instructor at Penland who taught Lisa twice. The Triangle has only a handful.

To provide her an opportunity to fine-tune her skills, her father moved out of his own studio, removing his kilns so she could set up a glass blowing furnace. Her mother acted as her assistant, a critical job for larger pieces that need a second person to anticipate what the glass blower needs even before she asks for it.

As she worked in the small, hot studio, she viewed her time and financial investment as her own “graduate school” in glass. She planned to build a larger, state-of- the-art studio, but her father pushed up the timetable and even served as general contractor.

“Daddy told me, ‘When you plan your building, you build the building you’re going to need in 10 years,’ ” Oakley says. “He’s so right.”

Spacious porches for pulling bead cane encircle the building. The ceilings rise to 22 feet, which keeps the temperature about 105 degrees when she’s blowing g1ass.

Oakley has a collection of color in powders and various sizes of chips stored in old coffee cans and plastic tubs. She takes a blow pipe and adds layers of glass from the furnace, turning it in the fluid glass like honey. Then she takes the hot, malleable sphere and rolls it in color chips of emerald and indigo.

“That’s what I used to dream about,” Oakley says. “I wanted to melt color.”

The furnace holds 150 pounds of molten glass and heats to 2,300 degrees. Next to the furnace is the glory hole, which is even hotter and reheats glass during the creative process. Across the room sits an annealer, which controls the cooling rate of the blown glass pieces.

The studio has a cold shop for grinding and a room for making jewelry from her glass beads, which are held in what resembles a card catalog of color. It has an office for her husband, Craig Chandler, and a nursery for her 9-month-old daughter, Emily. The studio even has a shower.

Art is a vital part of the Oakleys’ lives.

“In a way, art is not something that somebody needs,” Oakley said, “but it’s something that everybody needs. It’s something that connects you to another soul. You don’t get that spirit from something that’s mass produced;”

Do something you love

Charlotte V. Brown, director of N.C. State University’s Gallery of Art & Design, has long been familiar with the name Sid Oakley. When she began her job 21 years ago, his name would always be one of the first that people mentioned when she traveled to conferences in North Carolina and in other states.

“Cedar Creek has been a really major player in the whole development of people’s appreciation for crafts in this part of the state,” Brown says. “He’s always represented a very high standard of talent and accomplishment. He’s a well established maker who’s mentored other craftspeople. Nurturing and mentoring are probably more important, or as important as ... having the gallery.”

Neither of Oakley’s children carried on their father’s passion for painting and pottery, but they seem to have absorbed his most valuable mantra: Do something you love.

“I don’t really feel like I’m carrying on his legacy with glass blowing,” Oakley says. “It was sort of my own thing. I’ve never wanted to be a potter. I want people to value my glass because they value my glass and not for any other reason.”

Her brother had similar feelings.

“I wanted to do something where I didn’t have to get dirty to be creative,” says David Oakley, 41, creative director for Boone/Oakley Advertising in Charlotte. “I saw how hard my parents worked. They were always covered in mud.”

The elder Oakley retired in 2001 but has begun painting again. And he has nearly finished writing a play that he calls “Emma.” His grandchildren Sydney and Lucas love to visit because they never know what creatures they’ll catch or how many frogs they’ll find at Cedar Creek, which they and their mother, Claire, call “the wild kingdom.”

For 16 years now, Pat Oakley has operated her own massage therapy business.

“All four of us have really gone in different directions,” Lisa Oakley said.

And though the way they express themselves is different, she said, “it’s all sort of passing on yourself.”

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