The half-hour creation is one of the smaller gems among the 200 or so they'll be bringing to the 11th annual Great Glass Pumpkin Patch at the Palo Alto Art Center next week. They'll be joining thousands of entries, from petite to humongous, by 30 California artists displayed on the rolling grassy knoll behind the center.
Each pumpkin in the patch is a one-of-a-kind creation, ranging from the classic orange with a green stem to cobalt blue or even brown and green, with a metallic gold stem. They'll sell for about $50 to well into the hundreds, for those coveted by glass collectors. The annual glass pumpkin sale is a fundraiser for children's art-education programs at the Palo Alto Art Center, as well as BAGI, which offers classes and workshops in a public-access, glass-working facility.
Bensen first studied glass art as an undergraduate in the mid-1980s at the University of Idaho, where he had switched from thinking about biology and forestry to art. But after graduation he spent more time on ski racing, using his glass-blowing skills to support his ski passion. An injury took him out of glass blowing for six years, but he never lost his interest.
Attending an arts festival in Michigan re-sparked his passion. Soon he returned to California and began taking workshops and classes at BAGI, eventually working for other glass artists. Today he mostly creates vessels and redwood-tree sculptures, which he calls his "signature work." (Some are in the window at the Pacific Art League in Palo Alto.)
"What Dean has been searching for is something that's a combination of art and his personal interest -- a strong environmental basis, where his passion is," his partner Theofanous said, noting that he was recently juried into the Made in California exhibit at the Oakland Museum and that he was a guest artist at BAGI in 2004, working with a team to create a large-scale project.
As for Theofanous, "my first look at glass was in second grade when I saw a movie on glass blowing. I was captivated by it."
As a child, however, her creativity was channeled into music (violin and piano) and dance. In college she studied finance and accounting, thinking of her artistic side as "outside enrichment."
After working as a tax consultant and experiencing some health problems, she took some time to think about what she really wanted to do. "I realized I wanted to be doing something a lot more creative, but I had physical limitations. I couldn't do glass blowing," she said. But she could do a lot of the tasks associated with it -- including working with the layering of color.
Much of her personal work is making glass beads and jewelry and small-scale sculpture, such as perfume bottles. She works for Kathleen Elliot, who creates botanical sculpture, which "allowed me to explore more sculptural ideas."
Today Bensen and Theofanous create their pumpkins as a team, with Bensen doing the heavier work, beginning with gathering a blob of molten clear glass on the tip of a five-foot blow pipe, and Theofanous choosing the layers (and order) of colors that are fused before the blob is blown into a pumpkin.
The originally clear glass blob appears like a red-orange Q-tip as it's heated, and it's impossible to actually see the real color until after the item has cooled.
"That's one of the mysteries. Until it comes out of the kiln the next day, you're not sure what you have," Bensen said.
A separate blob is fused to the hot pumpkin, then twisted into the team's "signature stem," more organic than the stub or the curlicue seen on other glass pumpkins. Molten color is then added to the stem, using a blow torch. Then the piece is tapped off the pipe, smoothed on the bottom and placed in an annealing oven (at only 970 degrees) overnight. If the piece were just left on a rack at room temperature to cool, it would crack, they said.
Bensen and Theofanous met in class at BAGI and have been working as a team for the past year and a half. Over time they've worked out their tasks, with Theofanous offering design and color input and Bensen the technical expertise -- not to mention the brain and brawn -- required to blow the glass.
In addition to the glass pumpkins, Theofanous will show pumpkin salt and pepper shakers and little glass pumpkin-topped wine corks.
Mountain View resident Ann Duesterberg will be offering more than 100 of her distinctive pumpkins -- from the modern-looking white ones layered with gold adventurine with gold stems to the traditional orange variety, topped with either a green or a gold stem. She creates mostly small- and medium-sized pumpkins with her teammate, Nan Fairly of Palo Alto.
Duesterberg's interest in glass dates back to high school, but beginning in 2002 she discovered BAGI and also began taking classes at San Jose State University. Soon she won a competition that allowed her to study at the Pilchuck Glass School near Seattle.
"I love three-dimensional work. Glass is so incredibly beautiful in the molten state. I like the malleability of it, the flow . . . and its transparency," she said.
While it doesn't take that long to make a pumpkin, she said, "what takes the longest is to learn how to do them." She estimates she spent a year, watching and practicing, to get it down.
"You can intellectually understand, but your body has to understand the moves, because it involves balance and gravity," she said, adding that you need to know what different temperatures look like, the different ways to use tools.
Besides the pumpkins, Duesterberg creates glass sculptures, beginning with a wax figure that is cast in plaster and silica. After the wax is melted out, molten glass is poured over glass pieces.
One of her realistic pieces, dubbed "Test Tube Babies," was accepted in the Bullseye Gallery (Portland, Oregon) contest for emerging artists.
Last year she accepted a fulltime job -- teaching sixth-grade special-needs students at Jordan Middle School in Palo Alto -- so she doesn't have as much discretionary time for her glass artwork.
But she made time to finish her quota of pumpkins.
What: Great Glass Pumpkin Patch
When: Exhibition -- Tuesday to Thursday, Oct. 3-5, 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday, Oct. 6, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sale -- Saturday, Oct. 6, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 7, 1-5 p.m., rain or shine
Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road, Palo Alto
Cost: Free to look; pumpkins range from about $50 to hundreds. "Candlelight Cocktails" party and pre-sale, Friday, Oct. 6, 7-9 p.m.; tickets $250/couple
Info: 650-329-2366, www.cityofpaloalto.org; 650-617-3143 for Palo Alto Art Center Foundation fundraiser tickets
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