From the earthen paths of Historic Jamestowne to the paved streets of downtown Norfolk, the timeless art of glass blowing is alive and well.
At Jamestown, the outdoor 17th-century style Glasshouse shares the story of how colonists needed glass blowers to create everyday bottles and goblets. Inside the Glass Studio at the Chrysler Museum of Art, glass blowers demonstrate the artistic side of the craft.
Many say glass blowing is an addictive art, regardless of your skill level. “I saw it, I tried it, I couldn’t stop,” said Robin Rogers, program director and manager of the Glass Studio.
“We all get hypnotized by glass because it’s very seductive,” added Norfolk artist Josh Solomon. “The warmth of glassblowing draws you in. When you are away from the furnace, you miss it.”
Let’s learn more about local glass blowers and their work. Maybe you too will fall under the spell of this ancient art form.
The Glass Studio at the Chrysler Museum of Art
A $30 Million Expansion Panned in 2023
The Glass Studio at the Chrysler Museum of Art has a good thing going. Interest in its glass art programs is bigger than its capacity, so a $30 million expansion is planned for next year.
A new 200-seat theater will accommodate demonstrations, classes, and special events such as Glass After Dark. A second Hot Room, outfitted with 2,100-degree furnaces and tools such as blowpipes, blocks, paddles, shears, and tweezers, will double the time artists can rent/use the equipment and space.
Free glassblowing demonstrations occur throughout the week, and ongoing classes are held so visitors can make their own pieces, such as tree ornaments and holiday coasters this month.
“We offer opportunities for everyone from five-years-old and up to not only try glass for the first time, but to continue with it and find an artistic path with the material,” Robin said.
Robin, who has a master’s in fine arts from South Illinois University, specifically moved to Norfolk to help open the studio in 2011. He started as a shop technician and moved into his current position in 2017. His wife, Lisa, teaches there.
“For me, there is nothing like working with glass,” said Robin, who finds time to create his own glass pieces. “I get to sculpt a moving, glowing liquid that radiates light. It is pure magic.”
The Glass Studio is an interactive storyteller, where artists explain how glass is formed and how the process relates to the museum’s collection of more than 10,000 glass objects.
“Between the studio and the museum, people can experience glass in its most raw state, as a molten blob, and its most finished state in the artwork on view,” said Robin.
Family-Friendly Classes & Demos at the Glass Studio
Create Colorful Stars, Hearts, and Ornaments
When life becomes too much, Kelsey Finnie turns to her familiar friend—glassblowing. Any frustration or anger or teary eyes disappear while she concentrates on pushing liquid glass to its make-or-break moment.
“The good thing about glass is that it requires your full attention and presence,” said the 32-year-old Suffolk artist, who is also an instructor at the Chrysler Glass Studio. “All your other issues or distractions kind of melt into the background.
“The worst is, of course, when something breaks. I made a bowl recently that was more technically pressing, and I was so proud of it. When we went to break it off, it cracked out the bottom. It’s hard when you spend so much time on one piece and it breaks.”
Kelsey, who comes from an extended family of glass artists, took glassblowing at Ohio State University in 2010.
“Even today, I’m still learning,” said Kelsey, who came to the Glass Studio as an assistant in 2014. Now a full-time artist, she creates and sells glass items such as earrings, sculpture, and seasonal pieces through her KelseyFinnieGlass shop on Etsy and kelseyfinnie.com.
Families are welcome at the Glass Studio. Recently Ramsey Lohnes celebrated her ninth birthday with a glassblowing class at the Chrysler.
“My family has done it before,” said Ramsey, who lives in Virginia Beach. “The glass is so pretty and colorful. I wanted to come back and make more.”
Glassblower Michael Mills helps Ramsey and little sister Kennedy, 5, select items to make from a showcase of colorful stars, hearts, and ornaments.
“They are very kid-friendly here,” said their mom, Sarah. “They feel involved, like they really did something. It’s a fun thing we like to do as a family.”
The Glasshouse in Jamestown
Offers A Mix of Glass and History
At the Glasshouse in Jamestown, Eric Schneider and seven other glass blowers turn pallets of 40- and 50-pound bags of sand, soda ash, pot ash, and limestone into wine bottles and drinking goblets.
“Glass is a demanding material, so a lot of things can go wrong,” said Eric, Glasshouse foreman. “And we have added difficulties because we are outdoors, and any windy-day chills or fluctuating temperatures can cause things to break.”
After discovering the site’s long-abandoned glass furnaces in 1954, a re-creation of the original Glasshouse started in 1957, as part of the 350th anniversary of Jamestown. In 2003, Hurricane Isabel flooded the shop with four feet of water, so everything was replaced to include upgraded furnaces, which are tucked under a cobblestone façade made to resemble a 17th-century wood-burning oven.
“It’s gratifying that we have the mix of glass and history to teach people about glass blowing,” said Eric, 47, who has been with the Glasshouse for 28 years. “We get a lot of school trips, and people will tell us later that the Glasshouse was what they remember most.”
The Glasshouse produces 50 colonial-style items, including holiday decorations such as crackled pear ornaments and glass pineapples that are sold in the adjacent shop or online at JamestownGlasshouse.com. This year’s collector piece is a “pass glass,” a 17th-century reproduction of a German vessel used in a drinking game.
For Eric, the best times at the Glasshouse come from the many questions visitors ask. Lately, his favorite question has been “Have you seen ‘Blown Away?’” It’s a Canadian TV series that features glassblowers who go through elimination rounds. Eric has watched and taped “Blown Away” and had fleeting thoughts of auditioning for it. Nope, he finally decided.
“I specialize in making vessels,” he explained. “That show is more sculptural and conceptual, and it’s interesting to just watch.”
Norfolk Artist is the Master of His Design
Specializes in Cold Working Process
Josh Solomon likes to experiment with glass. “I guess you would say I am free thinking and independent,” said the Norfolk artist “I’ve worked with a lot of different artists and [been] exposed to a lot of different styles.”
Josh’s introduction to glass blowing began when he was taking off time from college and traveling in California. Working in a youth hostel, he met Lydia, who just happened to have a blow pipe. She introduced Josh to a nearby glass blower, and he was hooked.
“I’m very much a visual learner,” Josh said. “In college, I couldn’t sit long enough to be a chemistry student and get all the information needed to be an environmental scientist. All that thinking was just not for me.”
Josh returned to New York’s Bard College, where he received a degree in studio art and began an apprenticeship with a nearby glass artist. From there, he moved to Staunton to study with glass artist Minh Martin and explore the sculptural side of glass art.
A job opportunity for his wife, Sarah, brought the couple to Norfolk in 2011, and he became involved with the Glass Studio at the Chrysler Museum, where he still rents furnace time.
Josh sells at retail shows and online at Artful Home, a high-end craft site. His awards include local shows, such as An Occasion for the Arts in Williamsburg and the Boardwalk Art Show in Virginia Beach.
He describes his glass art as eclectic pieces that attract customers who like to collect unique handmade objects. For instance, he will purposely blow a vase thicker than usual and then cut a pattern into its surface, a process called “cold working.”
“When the light hits it, it refracts and bounces all over the place,” he said. “It can sometimes take me three to eight hours to carve a vase.”
In many cases, a glass blower blows the glass and then hands it off to a cold worker to do the design, he said. Josh prefers to handle a piece from beginning to end.
“It’s liberating to be the master of your own designs,” he said.