It might be the furnace roaring at 2,200 degrees, looking and sounding like the gaping mouth of hell, but for any number of dangerous reasons blowing glass attracts an audience.
Since opening a year ago, East Side Glass Studio’s owners, Leigh Wyatt and Shara Funari, have been building an audience that includes Girl Scout troops, craft beer drinkers, lawyers wooing new talent, bachelorette parties, 12-year-old girls’ birthday parties and groups of friends who want to feel the honeyed glass coming out of the fire and bending it to their will.
“People get mesmerized by it, like we are,” says Funari.
East Side Glass will be one of more than 150 stops on the annual East Austin Studio Tour, which begins this weekend and continues Nov. 17 and 18.
On a recent visit at the industrial studio, where East Sixth Street dead-ends, the shop’s “renter” artists had just finished for the day.
Part of the studio’s goal is to welcome the public. Anyone can attend a watch party, or start with a hands-on intro that leaves you with a paperweight, a terrarium, or a pumpkin for Halloween.
“They don’t just buy it, they make it,” says Wyatt. For $30 or $40, about the same price you’d find in craft stores across Central Texas, you can craft your very own Christmas bulb.
“Glass is not for everyone,” says Funari. “But last weekend we had a family in here (with) a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old blowing glass.”
Glass is appealing because it changes. Early in the visit, Wyatt pulls a gelatinous blob from the furnace and, constantly turning the steel rod, toys with it until it forms a bulbous mass. She heats it some more, and then brings it to Funari who madly slices into it with big metal shears. As the glass starts to cool it becomes brittle, and the shears won’t slice through cleanly. Her wrist is a few inches from molten glass.
If there’s one constant about working with glass, it’s that, to quote Marvin Gaye “it takes two, baby.” Opening oven doors, blowing or forming little add-on pieces, Wyatt and Funari work quickly together, often in focused silence
The studio was freshly minted by last year’s East Austin Studio Tour. “We started off on a sprint,” says Funari. They were essentially blowing glass nonstop. “My hand was asleep for half an hour in the mornings,” says Wyatt.
This year, things are under control, with set hours and a few special events, including two public access days and one of their popular “Hot Glass Cold Beer” collaborations with neighbors, Hops and Grain brewery (which involves sipping craft beer, standing behind the red line, and watching artists play with fire).
“We are a full-service glass studio,” Wyatt says. Sharing information, renting out time, giving public access.
For some people, this can spark a kind of addiction. “Of all the mediums, it has the ability to get people’s attention, because it is glowing,” Wyatt says.
The pair met at the Appalachian Center for Craft, in Tennessee. Wyatt, in midcareer, has worked in glass studios all over the country, while Funari is a little greener. But something in their attitudes aligned.
“It’s not a cheap habit to have,” says Wyatt. “Especially when you’re addicted. If you want to blow glass all the time, owning a studio is the way to go.”
They’ve done a couple of successful coupon campaigns, including one that was a little too popular. In two hours, 34 people came in. “We blew through like 2,000 pounds of glass in two weeks,” Wyatt says.
The fires never stop burning, and when the furnace shuts down, as it did by accident last August, it takes five days to regain full working temperature. Wyatt and Funari went to the beach.
So, most afternoons, Funari and Wyatt can be found working on their own projects. Today Funari has a paper list of commissions, and she starts with a trophy for a swim team.
She begins with a piece the size of a shot glass, and it quickly blooms to pint glass size, which she rolls onto colored glass sticks, with Wyatt’s help. Before long the trophy is the size of a football, constantly being turned and shaped and blown until Funari flattens the cylinder with three rounded angles. The colors and lines have stretched and softened — like a transparent cucumber.
She dribbles a scant drop of water and the piece cracks cleanly at the neck, now held on a second rod by Wyatt.
It’s been more than an hour of nonstop work, exhausting to look at.
Not for Funari, though.
“That’s one down.”
She grins, then dips into the furnace again.
East Austin Studio Tour
When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 10, 11, 17 and 18
Where: EAST encompasses the area east of Interstate 35, west of U.S. 183, south of U.S. 290 and north of Lady Bird Lake.
Info and downloadable maps: www.eastaustinstudiotour.com
Catalogs: Free EAST catalogs are available at 22 Austin Public Library locations as long as copies last. See www.eastaustinstudiotour.com for a list of libraries.
EAST Hub: Group show of EAST participants at 2000 E. Sixth St.
A few tips for a better EAST experience
Finding: EAST participants have signs with numbers that correspond to the official map.
Going: Cluster your visits — studios are often closer than you think. Consider parking and then walking to several nearby destinations.
Parking: Remember that much of East Austin is a residential neighborhood. Park respectfully on residential streets and obey all parking signs.
Buying: Bring cash or checks. Many artists are not equipped to take credit cards.
Special EAST event:
‘Hot Glass Cold Beer + EAST Auction’
What: The East Side Glass Studio artists will have hot glass blowing demos while Hops & Grain will be on hand to provide samples of their craft beers. All auction proceeds will go to support EAST.
When: 7 t0 9 p.m. Nov. 17
Where: East Side Glass Studio, 507 Calles St.