I'm no daredevil, particularly when it comes to art. I'm comfortable with a paintbrush or a pencil, but I generally stay away from media that are capable of causing serious physical injury. That's why I was a little reluctant when Colored Sands Glass Art Gallery's Frank Oddou offered to let me try my hand at glassworking.I'd been watching the studio's co-owner, Todd Taylor, form an elegant Christmas tree ornament from a glass tube, his nose just a few inches from a roaring torch, his fingertips even closer to the flame. Taylor obviously knew what he was doing, and the molten glass moved just the way he wanted it to move. He made it look easy, but the process definitely appeared to be something that would be tricky -- maybe even dangerous -- for a novice.
Dispelling that notion is the mission of Colored Sands Glass Art Gallery.
"It's just a matter of taking time," says Oddou. "It takes practice. If you want to take this up as a hobby, you have to devote a lot of time to it.
"But," he added, trying once again to convince me to give it a try, "making a glass bead is easy. It just takes a few minutes."
Creating a small, colorful bead from a thin rod of glass is the simplest glassworking technique, and it's the objective of Colored Sands' most basic glassworking class. The studio also offers two classes in more advanced techniques -- figure-making and glassblowing.
If the idea of handling molten glass is intimidating, Oddou and Taylor do a remarkable job of easing the apprehensions of a novice like me. They go out of their way to understate their own glassworking history.
"My story isn't very interesting," says Taylor. "I'm self-taught, and I learned by doing it over and over and over.
"And," he says, motioning toward Oddou, "I figured if he could do it, I could do it."
Oddou is nearly as casual about the way he came to be the operator of a glass studio. He learned the techniques while moving back and forth a couple of times between Indiana and Oregon, working in his parents' basement and for a company that made colored glass sheets for stained glass. He moved back to Fort Wayne in February and teamed up with Taylor to establish the studio in a small building on Wells Street.
"We had to do a lot of work," Oddou says, pointing out the huge venting system hanging from the ceiling. "We had to do a lot of electric work and things like that. It took a lot of time of energy, but it's paying off in the end."
In July, the studio took over the front of the building, creating a showroom space to display the duo's creations. At present, the space is mostly empty, thanks to other projects that are making time a precious commodity for Oddou and Taylor.
"There are only 24 hours in the day," says Oddou, "and I don't like to work more than 12 of them."
Aside from the studio's classes, Taylor and Oddou are devoting a good deal of their time to another large undertaking -- creating ornaments for a Christmas tree to be displayed in the annual Festival of Trees at the
Embassy Theatre. A third partner in the studio, Sandy Farlow, got the idea of putting a tree in the festival in order to increase awareness of Colored Sands' work.
"Right now we're focusing on getting the tree done," Oddou says in reference to the nearly bare display space at the front of the studio. "We have to get through Christmas, and then we'll worry more about making pieces to sell. The more we sell, the more we have to make."
And that's where the 24-hour-day dilemma comes in. It's surprising that the pair is able to find time for their classes, but their enthusiasm for teaching glassworking techniques seems to need an outlet -- and it's certainly a contagious enthusiasm. By the time Taylor had finished making a small ornament, I'd overcome my reluctance and was ready to make my own attempt at the craft.
"As far as safety goes," Oddou explained, "remember that just because it doesn't look hot, that doesn't mean it's not hot. And, well, I guess that's about it."
Somehow I was skeptical that there were no more safety considerations. I would, after all, be working over a torch that uses propane and oxygen to produce a powerful, white-hot flame. I'd be using that flame to turn glass into a viscous liquid that would get so hot I'd need to wear tinted glasses to avoid being blinded by its glow.
The process of creating a glass bead is simple. A small metal rod, called a mandrel, is heated until it glows white, and at the same time, a rod of glass is heated to its melting point. Keeping both the mandrel and the glass rod in constant motion, the artist lets the glass flow onto the mandrel, using gravity and movement to form the glass into the desired shape.
It's a simple process in theory, but it's challenging in practice. The glass must be positioned at the right point in the torch's flame in order to keep it at the correct temperature, maintaining a consistency that's sort of like a thick syrup. Knowing how to make the glass move to the desired place is dependent as much on the feel of the rod in your fingers as it is on watching it flow.
For their Christmas tree ornaments, Oddou and Taylor use Pyrex, a form of glass that is tolerant of high heat, but in their glass bead and figure classes, the studio uses "soft" glass, a traditional material with a lower melting point and less stability at high temperatures. (When Oddou explained that soft glass would "explode all over the place" if heated too quickly, I regained a bit of my hesitance to work with the stuff.)
My few minutes of working with the molten glass were awkward, and I created one of the ugliest little trinkets I've ever seen. Oddou explained the keys to mastering the basic techniques.
"Some people have trouble with it, but it's easy for others. It takes concentration, and it takes focus. If you break your focus, it can start a chain of events that can make the whole thing fall apart. But the basic techniques are simple, and once you have a solid foundation in them, you're really only limited by your imagination."
Once you're ready to test the limits of your imagination, the studio's classes allow you to explore the creation of glass figurines (fish seem to be a popular first step in glass artists' menageries) and blown glass vessels. My own first attempt at glasswork was limited more by my fumbling fingers than my imagination, but I quickly overcame my slight apprehension at working with such an apparently hazardous material, and I simply began to have fun. Although I'd be embarrassed to show my aesthetically challenged glass bead to anyone, I had the distinct feeling that with just a bit more practice, I'd be able to create something beautiful -- and if I can do it, anyone can do it.
Colored Sands is located at 1517 North Wells Street in Fort Wayne, and their phone number is 423-1689. Classes meet one night a week for four weeks.