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Feature story: Patch works

Creations for the annual Great Glass Pumpkin Patch take shape in a friendly, noisy studio

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The Bay Area Glass Institute is no quiet, refined art studio. Box fans roar through the cavernous San Jose building that once was a cannery, and music blares. Instead of delicate paintbrushes, the artists use tongs and torches.

And glassblowing is not for the faint of heart. Furnaces heat up to 2,150 degrees, keeping the studio rather sultry. Upper-body strength is needed to hold up a steel pipe and the bubble of glass on the end, especially when you need to keep reheating the glass to make it stay malleable. And you have to stay in the right temperature range.

If glass gets too hot, artist Chris Moore says, "It's like trying to shape honey with chopsticks."

All these factors make glassblowing an often collaborative affair. This afternoon at the studio, two artists are working together. While Janett Peace blows into a pipe to expand a bubble of glass, Mark Murai shapes the bubble inside a pad of wet newspaper.

The artists follow a routine to keep everyone safe around the hot glass. "Everyone is really conscious of the work flow," Murai says. "It's like a dance."

As a result, the atmosphere in the studio is friendly and communal. So it's fitting that many of the pieces in the annual Great Glass Pumpkin Patch — a favorite community event in Palo Alto — take shape here.

Now in its 13th year, the patch comes to the Palo Alto Art Center on Sept. 30 for an exhibit in which thousands of pumpkins gleam in the grass. Some of the show's California artists are also bringing glass flowers and pumpkin-shaped plates. The exhibit runs through Oct. 3, with the pieces going on sale on Oct. 4 and 5.

Some of the artists hail from other parts of the state, including Barry and Susan Farley, who will come from Fallbrook, California, to hold glassblowing demonstrations. A few blow glass in their home — although not everyone has a set of thousand-plus-degree furnaces in his or her Eichler.

Locally, many of the patch artists do their work at San Jose's BAGI, including Chris Moore, who is both the institute's operations manager and program director for the patch. She started out in high-tech, but while going back to school for a master's degree she started helping out in the BAGI office about six years ago. She never left.

Moore says she has always loved glass, and now enjoys the communal feel and concentration of working with the material.

"It can be very therapeutic because you can only focus on one thing that you're doing," she says.

Many patch supporters see the event as a way to introduce glass art to more people. Selling pumpkins also generates income for the artists and for education programs at BAGI and the Palo Alto Art Center.

In addition, the event allows visitors to chat with glass artists and find out about how they work. Murai says the most common question he gets asked is "How often do you get burned?"

He laughs, silver hoops wiggling in his earlobes. "I've never seen anyone get burned by hot glass," he says. "Maybe if you grab a hot tool."

Each of the 40-some patch artists gets to bring up to 250 pumpkins, Moore says. Prices can range from $25 for the smallest creation to $1,500 for an extremely large one, she says. Differences in color can also cause price variations, as some colors of glass are more expensive.

Later this afternoon, Janett Peace and fellow artist Deba Priya are in the back of the BAGI building, immersed in tagging and wrapping the pumpkins they made yesterday. This is just as much a team effort as creating works together was, and each pumpkin gets their special "Glass Divas" tag.

Peace and Priya are both full-time artists and veterans of the patch, but Priya gets extra points for flying in from a house-sitting gig in Maui to help make pumpkins for the event. That's dedication.

Meanwhile, Peace is musing about the nature of color in glass, how the viscosity varies and some hues are harder to blow than others. And even after 13 years creating pumpkins for the Palo Alto patch, she's still making unexpected discoveries.

She holds one pumpkin in her palm, turning it this way and that, admiring a silvery sheen that she hadn't planned for.

"We get surprises, like this chemical reaction," she says. "That part's fun."

What: The 13th Annual Great Glass Pumpkin Patch, an exhibit and sale with glassblowing demonstrations.

Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road.

When: The exhibition is from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sept. 30 and Oct. 1; and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 2 and 3. Pumpkins are for sale from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 4 and 5. (A party and presale are planned for Oct. 3 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. for art-center foundation donors above a certain level.)

Cost: Admission to the public exhibit and sale is free.

Info: Call 650-329-2366 or go to http://www.bagi.org .

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The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

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