Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - July 5, 2013

The story behind the glass

Artists share their stories before displaying work at the Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival

by Karishma Mehrotra

Before 2004, Deme Theofanous knew nothing about being an artist, other than watching a video about glass-blowing in second grade.

Now, along with more than 150 California artists, she will present her clay and glass pieces at the 21st annual Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival on July 13 and 14 at the Palo Alto Art Center. As in years past, the Association of Clay and Glass Artists will host thousands of guests to peruse the various art collections and purchase the ones they enjoy, witness live art demonstrations and even make clay sculptures themselves.

Theofanous said she never expected to be at this festival, but throughout her life, the memory of that glass-blowing video stuck with her.

"I joked with people that I was going to be a glass blower when I grew up," she said.

But instead, she stuck to the path that her parents wanted for her: business school.

One day, though, Theofanous decided to make a change.

"I thought, 'You know, I really don't have to do something that I don't enjoy," she recalled. Theofanous said she used this moment to restart her life and "find something more true to (her) passion and (her) art."

Soon enough, she found herself in a class learning to make glass beads and jewelry. She said she never knew what the phrase "my calling" meant until now.

"That was kind of my start," Theofanous said. "I took that first class and I knew. I guess the way to describe it is that I've always gotten straight A's but never felt like anything was a natural thing for me."

Not only did she find her calling in that class, she also found Dean Benson. They soon became romantically and professionally involved, launching a new art-business venture together called Avolie Glass, based in San Francisco.

At the Palo Alto festival, Benson and Theofanous hope to show off pieces with colors that are derived from nature — like the tropical ocean colors painted on their tall, glass, teardrop-shaped "Surf & Sand" series. Their prices will range from $35 to $495.

While the Avolie Glass duo prides themselves on involved color applications, Doris Fischer-Colbrie — an artist displaying work at the festival for the third time — said she uses instruments from nature, such as real plants, to make imprints on her pieces.

"(My fascination) with plants and nature, in the beginning, was very, very simplistic," she explained. "It's gotten a lot more interesting in the use of design and the glazes and the imprinting."

Fischer-Colbrie started her work on clay while completing her PhD in mathematics at UC Berkeley. Similarly to Theofanous, Fischer-Colbrie quit her day job as a teacher at Columbia University and San Diego State University and immersed herself in ceramics 10 years ago.

"When you are working in clay, you can actually get results. You can show people," she said. "Sometimes in math, you can't for a while."

Her festival pieces range from $20 to $300. She specializes in functional clay pieces that she said are one-of-a-kind, such as a stainless rod topped with clay animal heads that can be used like a toothpick cake test to check whether or not a baked good is done cooking. She said she is most excited to present large brown platters decorated with dynamic plant patterns.

"I am very much an artist that wants to include art in just the daily life," she said. For example, her "Serial Bowls" are bowls that can be stacked into one decorated unit.

Much like Fisher-Colbrie's attraction to nature, Swanica Ligtenberg — whose work will be displayed at the festival for the first time — has always felt a connection to nature and the "meaning of life," especially after she moved to Japan.

"As an artist I connect my work with culture, history and mother earth," she said. "My stay in Japan provided me with insight into how craftsmanship has evolved into art and has become an essential part of the culture and Japanese spirit."

After returning from her seven-year stay in Japan just a few months ago, she sees how this trip allowed her to fuse her father's attraction to history and her mother's attraction to art. She lived with her husband, who was able to start a business there after falling in love with the country 20 years ago, in Kamakura, a city with a rich history in carving and red glaze where Ligtenberg felt right at home. The prices for Ligtenberg's art will range from $20 to $2,000.

She said at the festival, she will present smoke-patterned pottery that were made with a decorative technique called the horsehair raku technique, in which burning hair leaves permanent lines and smoke blush on the pot. Ligtenberg won several awards for this technique in Japan, like the Mashiko Special Judges award — a highly sought-after prize that honors worldwide known potters.

"I form, transform and decorate my work by playing with the clay and doing research and being influenced by spiritual thoughts and designs: Mother Earth, Circles of Life and Flower of Life, Paths in Life," she said.

While these three artists find their inspirations in different places, they will all join the numerous other artists in Palo Alto's 20-year tradition of celebrating creativity in the arts.

What: Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival

When: Saturday, July 13, and Sunday, July 14, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto

Cost: Free

Info: www.clayglassfestival.com

Editorial Intern Karishma Mehrotra can be emailed at kmehrotra@paweekly.com.

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