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Seattle Glassblowing Studio produces works of wonder in Belltown

John Hogan, center, wears a heat protection suit in preparation to move a piece of blown glass to a cooling container as Brynn Hurlstone, foreground, applies two heat torches at the Seattle Glass Blowing Studio in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle on Friday, February 6, 2009.  - Chad Coleman / Mercer Island Reporter
John Hogan, center, wears a heat protection suit in preparation to move a piece of blown glass to a cooling container as Brynn Hurlstone, foreground, applies two heat torches at the Seattle Glass Blowing Studio in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle on Friday, February 6, 2009.
— image credit: Chad Coleman / Mercer Island Reporter

Stepping into the Seattle Glassblowing Studio, I am immersed in the colors of coastal tide pools. Sunshine filters from studio lights on a sea of red, orange and yellow wall plates. In a centerpiece by the window, green glass spears lick upward and a deep blue fish swims wetly through its tendrils. Amorphic vases, their rims undulating, open to the air in liquid grace.

I hear a roar, not unlike the din of breaking surf. It’s coming from the hotshop in back of the store. With so much gorgeous glass yet to view, I glance toward it hesitantly.

“You’re more than welcome to come watch,” a woman behind the counter invites me.

She’s young, though not quite as young as my 19-year-old son who recently started a six-week beginner class here. I smile and nod, study a glistening case of glass earrings, pendants and rings, then move away to check out the side gallery.

In this room, the display is more muted, a quiet, crystalline space. I check out a collection of glass sinks along one wall and run my finger over the bronze-speckled rim of my favorite, picturing it in my home. It feels cold, smooth to the touch. On the shelves are glass fruit and Christmas ornaments, iridescent starfish and river rocks, and on the floor stand two three-foot-tall snowmen made entirely of glass, their coal-black eyes glinting merrily.

After taking my dip in the cool gallery grotto, I feel more prepared for the hotshop beach. At the entrance, I see a wide-mouthed propane torch — fire blasts from it in shimmering blue, exploding in bright orange as it hoses against an orb of glowing glass. A young woman in nondescript jeans, T-shirt and dark glasses wields the tongue of fire.

She’s not alone. Five other artists, difficult to distinguish from one another in their nondescript clothing and dark glasses, crowd around a work in progress. Right now, it’s a large piece of hot molten glass attached to a pole. One guy turns the pole, one holds metal paddles at the ready, another stokes the cooker. One artist, his dreads stuffed in a tan knit hat, blows every so often through a pipe on command. “Blow.” “Stop.” “Again.”

I’m in the roped-off section with two other hotshop visitors, women dressed in winter coats, gloves, furry hats. Unlike the gallery I just left, this warehouse-style room is gray and drab, composed of steel, iron, cement, pulsing furnaces, fireballs of glass.

From what my son, George, has told me, I realize that the artists before me are the main event, the ones who clearly know what they’re doing. In the background, a beginner class is underway. A small group of students clutch lidded paper cups of coffee and watch a rod with a small dot of glass spin, and spin. The teacher is demonstrating something, and they smile and nod, mesmerized by the hot orange pole-tip.

I look up and notice two strobe lights dangling above us. Skylights and open vents punch several holes in the ceiling. On one wall, a painting of a black fire god looms in a backdraft of flames above the Space Needle. A glass “rock wall” frames the entrance to some kind of office. Behind the roar of torches, I hear a soundtrack of percussive rock and roll — this is glassblowing, Seattle-style.

The main event artists are weaving skillfully around their molten glass, which no longer glows orange. “Even if it looks cool, it isn’t,” George told me when I asked to see what he made at his first class. “It may be over a thousand degrees. It has to cool down in this thing called an annealer for a couple of days.” I get nervous as I watch the pole guy swing the sculpture into the cooker — what if it accidentally nicked another artist? Would he go up in flames?

“Do you have any questions?” the young woman from the front gallery asks. She has appeared next to me unnoticed.

I decide not to ask that one. But I have loads of others. I introduce myself, then work down my growing list: How do the artists know what to do when? Is one guy in charge? What is this project they’re working on? What’s that cooker called, where they keep sticking the glass? What’s that angular metal thing, the one coated in newspaper?

“The job today is a commission for a Vegas resort restaurant,” Karin Wagner, studio assistant, fills me in. “It’s a huge commission for us.”

She explains how the studio has been working on the installation for months. Today, the artist in charge is Jason Christian. He’s called a main gaffer. The oven I’ve been calling a cooker is properly named a “glory hole.” The angular metal thing is a marver, for shaping the glass. Wet newspaper is used on the marver because it gives the softest touch, and burns off without a trace. As Karin talks, one of the artists applies the angled marver to the spinning globe — acrid smoke billows into the air; the glass grows thinner, longer.

There are many steps to the process. First, the starters mix and melt the glass. Then the gaffer, pole turners, torchers and shapers take over. The molten glass is attached to the end of a blowpipe. When it’s not reheating in the glory hole, the blowpipe is braced between two wheels and spun steadily by the pole turner. A gaffer periodically blows into the blowpipe to inflate the molten glass. Blow torches are applied to heat it up when needed, and air pressure is applied to cool it. After much spinning, blowing, shaping, crafting, heating and cooling, a magnificent, tulip-red sculpture with creamy white stripes — today’s project — is born. At the end, I watch them break the glass from the blowpipe. Next it will be set in the annealer to cool.

Reluctantly, I tear myself away, pass back through the shimmering tide pool, and step out onto Fifth Avenue. On this February morning of wintry cement, I instantly miss the color.

Directions: From I-90, take I-5 North and exit at Madison Street. Turn left on Madison, right on 6th Avenue. Follow 6th Avenue north to Bell Street. Take a left on Bell. The studio is on the corner of 5th and Bell. Metered street parking, or paid lot directly across Fifth from the shop.

Transit: Take the 550 from the Mercer Island Park and Ride to the Westlake Center tunnel stop during weekdays, or 4th & Stewart on weekends. Walk 4-1/2 blocks north on 5th Avenue to Bell Street. Seattle Glassblowing Studio is on the west side of the street.

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