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A look inside the glass

Three artists share inspiration, stories behind their work at the Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival

In high school, Forrest Lesch-Middelton signed up for pottery, the one course that would prevent his artistically gifted brother from becoming his rival classmate. He ended up finding his niche and passion, his ceramics and tiles now world-famous -- and coming to Palo Alto this weekend at the 22nd annual Clay & Glass Festival at the Palo Alto Art Center.

The two-day exposition, hosted by the Association of Clay and Glass Artists (ACGA), will display the work of more than 150 juried California artists, featuring both fine and functional art. Thousands of visitors will have the opportunity to browse the collections, purchase favorite pieces and also attend demonstrations and hands-on activities.

Lesch-Middelton will present his pottery and tiles at the festival, his art both practical and decorative. Trained as a potter for "everyday use," he said, he developed a technique that allows him to apply ornate Silk Road-inspired patterns. He teaches his technique, volumetric image transfer, to artists worldwide and currently serves as president of the ACGA board.

"There's an aesthetic goal; (it's) not just about the function," Lesch-Middelton said of his work. "The pattern allows them to be a little more formal."

His designs are not only inspired by the crossroads of Asia and the Middle East, but also by "areas that have been drastically changed by war or commerce," he said.

The patterns convey "commentary on what's going on now in the world ... the weathering of the place ... the segregation of culture," Lesch-Middelton said.

His tiles, new to his collection last year, were originally created so that people could still take home a piece of his artwork even if a pot was not in the budget. Alternatively, many also purchase them to tile an entire wall or floor.

"The pots are more developed, (but) the tiles definitely sprung from the techniques I use in the pots," Lesch-Middelton said.

The tiles, an "afterthought" at first, are "a part of my business that's really taken off a lot," he said. In its first year of production, the Origins tile collection has been featured in The New York Times, Architectural Digest, and multiple other major international design publications.

Palo Alto-based ceramicist Corinna Mori, once a law student, decided to change course and instead pursue a longtime passion for creating art. Growing up in Johannesburg and Cape Town, she attended ceramics camps as a child and now channels the "vibrant art scene" in South Africa through her signature dishes and totems.

"It's reinvented constantly," she said of the art scene, "and never stale, whether it's ceramics or beadwork."

Mori's work, described by many as "delicate," combines inspiration from her South African roots and contemporary European design. She focuses on making creative pieces designed for everyday use, her totems enhancing outdoor settings through color and simple use of space.

Her totems are currently on a three-month exhibition at Filoli Gardens.

Mori plans to emphasize green and orange color schemes at the Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival, presenting an array of dishes including platters, vases, espresso cups, and candlesticks. She will also display meditation bowls shaped from a mold she created with an ostrich egg.

"Surface texture ... is what excites me about my work," Mori said.

She seeks a balance -- a "harmony" -- between color and surface decoration to create simple, elegant pieces.

"I really love to work with my hands and create ... what I perceive to be beauty," Mori said.

For Bob Kliss of Kliszewski Glass, beauty takes a whimsical turn. He is best known for his Amazons and Bobtanicals, both wildly colorful creations inspired at once by nature and animation.

"It's all been done before. I wanted something a little different," Kliss said.

Bobtanicals, created by Kliss eight years ago, combine the characteristics of succulent and underwater plants while capturing a gentle wave-like motion, much like the movement of ocean botanicals. The delicate flowers on the top of Bobtanicals are challenging to perfect, he said.

"One of the hardest parts is making everything thin, but not breakable," Kliss said.

Kliss runs his business with his wife, Laurie, who played a key role in his inspiration to try creating glass. The fused glasswork he saw on their honeymoon, combined with a childhood fascination with stained glass and Cinderella's slipper, encouraged him to try a glassblowing class at Cal Poly's summer sessions.

"The first time I blew glass, it was pretty magical," Kliss said.

Working at Costco at the time, Kliss continued taking glassblowing classes, and later spearheaded the revival of the glass program at Fresno State.

"I was trying to figure out what I wanted to make so that when I got on my own I could hit the ground running," he said.

"It's one thing to be able to make something, but another thing to be able to sell it and make it all work," he said of the years and research it took to begin his own business.

Amazons, big flower vases with "crazy glass flowers," were Kliss' first collection, inspired by the bright, juxtaposed colors of the Memphis Movement along with a bit of Disney fantasy.

"They're whimsical flowers ... they're just different and kind of crazy," Kliss said. "It's like Alice in the Wonderland ... and Dr. Seuss ... with a bit of Tim Burton thrown in."

Amazons were succeeded by Bobtanicals, but Kliss plans to bring back the Amazons at the Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival, this time smaller and with a greener stem.

He will also exhibit Bobtanicals of every color and his newest collection, teapots, which, according to Kliss, are challenging to create due to the process of attaching a handle. The three collections, though different in silhouette, share the defining characteristic of Kliss' work: vivid color and a polished finish.

"The true color you get from glass ... it's just amazing," Kliss said.

What: Palo Alto Clay & Glass Festival

When: 10 a.m. To 5 p.m., Saturday, July 12 and Sunday, July 13

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

Cost: Free admission

Info: Association of Clay and Glass Artists

Editorial Intern Christina Dong can be emailed at

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