A glass act

Publication Date: Friday Oct 13, 2000

A glass act

Thousands of glass pumpkins will be on display at the Palo Alto Art Center

by Carol Blitzer

It's the ultimate pumpkin patch: 2,000 hand-blown glass creations all on display at the Palo Alto Art Center Oct. 13-20, then offered for sale on Oct. 21-22. Many were made locally and each is unique. "They're all different--different color, size, shape. Some are more like zucchinis or eggplants. They really range. People have different opinions about what makes a good glass pumpkin," said Michael Binnard, a founder and board member of the Bay Area Glass Institute, co-sponsor of the show.

Pumpkins range from three inches in diameter to several feet and most sell for $30 to $100; a few gigantic ones (two-and-one-half feet in diameter) go for up to $1,200. There are collector's items as well, which were created especially for this year's show and sale.

The fifth annual Great Glass Pumpkin Patch is the main fundraiser of the institute, which offers classes and studio space in San Jose for glass artisans. Five years ago, glass institute member Bobby Bowes came up with the glass pumpkin idea to help fund a new studio.

In 1996, "it was wildly more successful than I expected it to be," said Binnard. "With the money from that sale, we were able to start construction on our glass studio," he added, noting that they did most of the construction themselves and it took six months.

Since then, most of the activities of the glass institute have been supported by proceeds of the sale and some private donations. Next summer the group plans to expand its studio space, creating an outdoor area to blow glass, as well as metal and wood shops, a glass-casting facility and photography area.

Binnard began working in glass almost 11 years ago while an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A mechanical engineer, he learned how to build equipment in the materials science department's glass studio. "Once I started blowing glass, I knew this was something I had to keep doing," he said.

"At MIT I started blowing glass--typical lousy beginner making crooked bowls and M & M holders," he said. And soon he was hooked. "I like building things. . . Glass-blowing is a hobby. I do it because it's fun."

Binnard continued his interest in glass while earning his doctorate in engineering at Stanford University. Today he spends about one day a week on his glass creations, either in the studio or working on the glass institute's accounts.

Although many of the glass artists display their wares at local shows or stores, most have not given up their day jobs. Brendan Wheatley plays in a band and works as a valet at the Garden Court Hotel, when he's not working as an apprentice. Working as a three-person team, he figures they made close to 200 pumpkins for the exhibit.

Wheatley is relatively new to glass blowing. When he graduated from high school he thought he wanted to go into genetic engineering, but a National Geographic article on glass completely turned his thinking around. Soon he was working at Sundance Stained Glass, learning to make glass beads, slumping and fusing glass sheets. To learn more about glass blowing, he took classes at San Jose State University, then discovered the glass institute.

Today he spends a lot of time creating amphoras, classic Greek vessels, and, of course, pumpkins. "Who could not love pumpkins?" he said, noting that pumpkins in many ways are like seeing the universe in a grain of sand. "There are so many steps involved. You get incredibly good at the basics."

Wheatley finds glass blowing surprisingly technical. "It's like a chess game. Each move you make affects later steps. That's probably why it takes 20 years to master," he said. Wheatley says he loves glass blowing, but doesn't want to devote full time to it. "I'm kind of torn between this and music, but right now I can do both," he said.

Redwood City glass artisan Doug Brown doubles as a mortgage broker, but still manages to spend hours in his home studio. He was first intrigued by etched glass he spotted in a cafe in France. When he returned to California he began learning glass techniques on his own, working first with "hot glass," making equipment for furnaces and diffusion tubes that make silicon chips.

Then he moved on to sandblasted, flat stained glass, and fusing glass without lead. Now he combines fused glass and sandblasting into a cameo-like creation. "Because of the way light goes through glass, the more you remove, the thinner the color becomes. . . Pumpkins offer a wonderful palate to work in," he said.

Brown describes himself as a pumpkin traditionalist. "I like orange pumpkins. I like things to look like they're real," he said.

But many of the 2,000 examples at the art show will have external decorations, or will be frosted by sandblasting, or will have a different texture due to glue-chipping.

Besides making pumpkins for the show, Brown has been doing small lights and furniture knobs, which can be seen at the Antique Trove in San Carlos. Glass has been something the rest of the family can get involved in: Both of Brown's children have already mastered making glass beads.

Brown is pleased that the Bay Area Glass Institute will soon have new studio space to expand their class offerings, but he mostly works out of his home.

"I like having the ability to go out to the garage and fire up in 20 minutes. I can spend a few hours at the end of the day. . . Some guys golf; I go out to my garage and blow glass," he said. box info:

What: fifth annual Great Glass Pumpkin Patch

When: opening reception Oct. 13, 6-9 p.m.; exhibition Oct. 13-20 (Tues.-Sat. 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sun. 1-5 p.m., Thurs. 7-9 p.m.); sale Oct. 21, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Oct. 22, 1-5 p.m.

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

Benefits: Bay Area Glass Institute, Palo Alto Art Center Project Look children's art programs

Info: (408) 993-BAGI or www.bagi.org

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