Becoming a city of glass

Humans see truth “through a glass darkly,” sources ranging from the Bible to 20th-century filmmaker Ingmar Bergman have told us. We all view life, ourselves
and one another from perspectives colored by our own experiences. Perhaps then, artists who express themselves through works of glass are merely taking the process a step further.

Glass artists, at their highest levels of skill and expression, are capable of rendering remarkably graceful, incredibly beautiful works from a rock-like medium endowed with varying degrees of translucence. Their works range from full-size representations of life forms and massive installations weighing a ton or more to blown-glass vases, bowls and tiny objets d’art.

Such works have become increasingly popular around the country, and New Orleans, which is home to some well-known glass artists, grew to become a regional hub for such activity during the past few decades.

The city lost some of its momentum in glass artistry following Hurricane Katrina, as many practitioners who fled the city eventually re-established themselves elsewhere. But today, a fledgling nonprofit organization is working to strengthen New Orleans’ ties with its glass artists while nurturing a crop of next-generation artisans who can continue carrying the torch.

These efforts are under way at the headquarters of New Orleans Creative Glass Institute, a Mid-City warehouse equipped with all the major tools of the trade. Along one wall stands a massive steel oven that keeps the artists’ feedstock in a molten state by heating it to more than 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. Next to the oven are two steel-frame “glory holes,” where glassmakers plunk portions of molten glass and heat them to still higher temperatures so that they can work and shape them more easily.

Nearby is a pipe warmer for heating the steel pipes that glass blowers use to shape vases and various vessels. There are kilns for gradual heating of the glass and annealers, where artists park their wares for periods of controlled cooling. In addition, the warehouse features a “cold shop” equipped with cutting blades, grinding wheels and various other tools that the artists use to finish and polish their works.

Laurel Porcari, the institute’s chief executive officer, says donors and granting agencies put up the more than $300,000 it took to equip the once-flooded warehouse and get it ready for business. The institute opened its doors in September 2006.

“Our group got together when there were no studios operating in town and no glass being made,” Porcari says. “A lot of artists had left the city, and we saw that we needed to do something before everything just spiraled down.”

The group of advocates, which eventually became NOCGI’s board of directors, had the idea of creating a public studio in which space and equipment would be available to individual glassmakers at an affordable hourly rental rate. “They believed that individuals who are making art shouldn’t lose their shirts making their art,” Porcari says.

Another major goal was to offer a setting for glassmaking classes, including blowing, kiln forming, box casting and lamp working. Classes are available in skill levels from novice to intermediate. Porcari says many beginners start by making glass beads, paperweights and blown ornaments.

In addition, the institute’s board felt strongly about developing an outreach program into area schools. “We’re hoping to grow the glass community, and we feel it’s important to begin developing the next generation of glass artists,” Porcari says.

NOCGI regularly hosts groups of local high school students who come to view glassmaking demonstrations and try their own hands at shaping simple objects.
The institute’s board comprises a who’s who of local and regional glass experts and art advocates. It includes Tulane University’s Gene Koss, one of the foremost cast-glass artists in the region; Mitchell Gaudet, known widely for his iconic New Orleans works, such as cast-glass tombs, statues and architectural elements; and Carlos Zervigon, whose glass works range from large outdoor sculptures to graceful, finely crafted vases. Other directors include Angela and Edward Bernard, Steve Dumez, Gayle Seybert-Gish and John Hankins. 

Along with contributions from a number of private donors, the institute has received support from the National Endowment for the Arts; the Louisiana State Arts Council; and the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism.

Porcari says the board has been gratified by the number of individuals who are regularly turning out to use the institute’s facilities. “More private artists are coming back and doing production work,” she says.

In addition, the classes are drawing increasing interest from novice glassmakers and high school students. “Fortunately, people find glass to be incredibly alluring as a medium,” Porcari says.

New Orleans Creative Glass Institute, 3924-B Conti St.,
482-6003
, www.nocgi.org

Categories: Masters of their Craft