November 15, 2011
By Michael Gray
I’ve lived in the small town of Merrickville, Ontario for the majority of my life. I’ve been surrounded by glass, both hot and cold, since I was a young boy. My dad, who owned a glass blowing shop in town, introduced me to the fascinating, manipulative material. Glass blowing and sculpting became an addictive hobby of mine; little did I know it would later become my profession. After graduating high school, I moved to Oakville, Ontario to attend a three-year glass blowing program at Sheridan College.
In the summer following my second year at Sheridan, I attended Pilchuck Glass School for the first time. Fortunately, I was able to attend and participate in Rik and Shelley Allen-Muzylowski’s session where I was taught new sculpting, assemblage, cold working, and graal techniques. I was also given the opportunity to personally work alongside Rik and Shelly, where I gained great experience in teamwork and coordination. (Rik and Shelley’s website: www.scavo.net)
Pilchuck turned out to be an amazing place, with even more amazing people inhabiting it. The glass was ‘bumpin’ and so were the nightly festivities. Pilchuck had a thriving atmosphere, filled with creative and inspirational people.
Following my summer at Pilchuck, I returned to Oakville Ontario, where I began my third year in Sheridan College’s glass blowing program. Here, I was able apply new ideas, techniques, and enthusiasm into my work. Third year was a very formative time for me; I’ll always miss the sense of community at Sheridan College.
At the end of my third year, Koen Vanderstukken informed our class that Sheridan had been offered to do a demo at the Glass Art Society (GAS) 2010 glass conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I had never been at a glass conference before but had heard great things about it at Pilchuck. Rik, a board member of GAS and a coordinator for the conference, asked me to be his assistant. Fortunately for me, this position also involved assisting his wife, Shelley, in a hot shop demo at the Cressman Center of Fine Art. Some friends from Sheridan – Will Ruppel, Ainsley Francis and Jen Van Herten – all agreed this was an excellent opportunity, and joined me for the long twelve hour drive. We also had Sheridan alumna Silvia Jenson, owner of Colour Fusion, accompany us for the ride, as she was part of the tech display. (Colour Fusion link: www.colourfusion.com)
I got my first taste of a glass conference at the 2010 GAAC conference in Montreal, Canada. Although GAAC is a smaller group than GAS, the enthusiasm, demonstrations and parties were easily comparable.
The Louisville conference was eye opening. I spent the bulk of my time at Flame Run, where Rik was the hot shop coordinator. I was kept fairly busy working as Rik’s assistant; he had me doing many different jobs (i.e getting Rik lunch and acting as a human plinth at the glass auction). Rik made sure to introduce me to everyone around us, and this helped me to quickly build a network of new friends at GAS.
The two demos I participated in were intense: Shelley made a horse with a rocket engine strapped to its back. It looked as though it was flying through the air. The Sheridan team made a caricature monster head using Juicy Lucy the portable hot shop van. It was an honour to be a part of the team working in one of the smallest mobile hot shops in North America. Overall, the two demos were a success, and so was the trip to Kentucky.
After hibernating in the apartment above my father’s glass studio for the winter, I emerged from my den to attend my second annual GAS conference, Creative Crossroads, in Seattle (June 1-5, 2011).
It was an amazing adventure being in the glass capital of North America. Everywhere you go in Seattle, glass and art is the central focus. The city itself seems as if it were built around art. I wasn’t the only Canadian attending this conference. Meagan Smith, a resident of Seattle and current student at Sheridan, provided accommodations for me and eight other Sheridan students and alumni. It seemed effortless to meet and connect with other groups of artists, while traveling with my enthusiastic friends.
Even though I was once again busy acting as Rik’s conference assistant, I was still able to see numerous demos at Seattle Hot Glass Studio. Some of the highlights included demos by Raven Skyriver and Karen Willenbrink-Johnsen. They are both very talented sculptors and it was fascinating watching their team assemble sculptures so fluidly. (Karen Willenbrink-Johnsen demo at Seattle Hot Glass studio http://vimeo.com/24707131)
While touring Seattle, I was able to participate in a demo at the Tacoma Museum of Glass. The museum has a fantastic collection of contemporary American glass; the work in the gallery was outstanding! My favourite section was Kids Design Glass. The artist would choose one drawing out of a group of children’s designs and would then reconstruct it in glass. I was blown away by the precision and determination put into each piece of art. I assisted Rik and Shelly in their piece. They chose a young boy’s drawing to recreate, an alien in a space suit giving the peace sign.
It was a tricky piece but we were all up for a challenge. We started off by making the legs and torso. After connecting those, we attached the eyes, arms, a control panel and a jet pack. It took us three attempts to attach the glass dome over the head, but eventually we perfected it. It was well worth the hard work, especially after seeing the joy beaming from the face of the boy who was sitting in the audience.
Performing in front of a large audience, surrounded by cameras, was not easy. I was nervous, excited, and cautious of all the eyes fixed upon us but once we started most of those nerves vanished. I became enveloped in the piece, focusing on coordination, communication, and rhythm. It was easy to connect and flow with such a positive and encouraging team. (Museum of Glass Tacoma website – http://www.museumofglass.org/).
Attending Pilchuck, the GAAC conference, and the GAS conference gave me the opportunity to build a network with an abundance of glass artists throughout the world. These amazing experiences opened my eyes to the endless possibilities within the North American glass scene. Not only did I make lifelong friends and unforgettable memories, but I also gained new ideas and techniques that have furthered me as an artist.
After graduating Sheridan College in 2010, I moved back to Merrickville, Ontario, where I now work as the head gaffer at my dad’s glass blowing studio. At the store, Kevin Gray Glass Blowing – soon to be named Gray Art Glass, we make a variety of retail and wholesale products. I also continue to design and create sculptures that we display and sell within our gallery. (Link to article on Kevin Gray Glass http://www.ottawacitizen.com/news/todays-paper/that+glitters/5486320/story.html).
I look forward to GAS 2012 in Toledo Ohio, and can’t wait to learn, grow and connect with more of the glass society. Hopefully I’ll see you there!
Michael Gray’s website: mikegrayglass.com