The glass-blower as tradesman all but disappeared in the 19th century. Today the craft is preserved mostly in the hands of esoteric artists with private studios. "Glory holes," through which artisans pull molten glass from a furnace, are few and far between.
"Glass-blowing is an unusual art form -- not that many people do it," agrees 31-year-old Michael Kaplan, a glass artist and co-owner of the only open glass studio from Kent to Toledo. The studio -- so unique it doesn't even need a name -- is currently displaying its artisans' work in Tremont.
"We offer an opportunity no one else offers in Cleveland," Kaplan says.
When he and his partner Chris -- who eschews using his last name -- left Kent, they had no place to do glass work, so they decided to buy a studio and rent space in it to fellow artists. And with Cleveland becoming a museum for the rusting beauty of the machine age, they couldn't have found a better locale than Ohio City, overlooking the Flats.
"Originally it was a foundry, back in the 1920s, I think," Kaplan says of the building's history. But except for the two furnaces -- one with the glory hole and three annealing ovens to slowly cool the glass -- the space has undoubtedly changed since then. There is a mob of painted mannequins scattered about the offbeat furniture and chandeliers created out of scraps from the Kaplan family's junkyard.
"Actually, me and Chris are reincarnations of the original metalworkers," Kaplan explains with a laugh. Only they work in glass, shipping the raw materials in from a dealer in Athens County.
The glass-blowing process itself is a complete mystery to most. One of the studio's artists, Jason Wien, tries to explain the process of creating clear globes to be illuminated from within. After taking the steel rod out of the 2,300-degree furnace, Wien rolls the glowing orange jellyfish of glass onto a board in order to shape it. The tricky part is attaching the copper light fixture, which cools faster in the annealing oven than does the glass. On his first attempt, the glass breaks off; his second attempt is successful.
A blower could also unknowingly ruin someone else's piece by leaving just a smidgen of the wrong color in the mix -- until it cools, the glass is all the same shade of glowing orange. Luckily, the artists' visions are as malleable as the glass.
"Everything you make is beautiful," says Kaplan. "The best thing about glass is that, even if you screwed it up, it's still beautiful."