Both Rick and Janet have artistic backgrounds, which became useful during their initial collaboration in 1979. They were also married that year, and it’s been a life of art ever since (sounds great, right?). They have a talented assistant or two that help them out in the studio from time to time (Matt Eaton and Chris Stenzel, to be exact), but I imagine that it’s quite the happy glassblowing family. I’m envious, I’ll admit. It must be wonderful making a life out of something you love, and we should all strive to do that as much as we can.
I also had the lucky opportunity to speak with Janet about some of the challenges and the joys of blowing glass for a living. With each new artisan interview, I am floored. I only hope these discussions are able to teach Connotation Press’s readers as much as they are teaching me.
When I first accepted the position as Artisan Review Editor, I made out a list of the different types of artwork that I’d be interested in doing a feature on. Some of my specifications were pretty loose, but blowing glass was a must-have at the top of my list. I am honored to have had the chance to speak with Janet about her and her husband’s incredible work. It has been a pleasure. A special thank you goes out to her for taking the time to answer my questions.
Please feel free to check out the Nicholson Blown Glass website to learn more about what the Nicholsons do, as well as to browse the MANY photographs of their wonderful blown glass creations. I plucked a few of my favorite photos from there, but there are tons that I neglected that deserve to be seen.
Janet Nicholson interview, with Brittany Connolly
What are some of the concerns you have when working with glass? What can go wrong, and what steps do you take to avoid error?
The glass furnace is 2200 degrees and stays on 24 hours a day. So it is always on your mind and needs to be watched. Glass blowing at this level takes a true commitment and a large investment both in time and equipment. It is best to work as a team. Rick and I have worked together for 34 years. He is the glass blower. We currently have an assistant since the process takes two people at least. Sometimes I assist but primarily, I do the color and design work. The process is very linear and you have to move forward and see the whole piece through the process. If something goes wrong, like you lose control or it gets too cold (under 1000 degrees) and cracks, you have to begin again. Practicing over and over helps to minimize the mistakes. In addition to being an artist, someone (Rick) has to have an interest in science and technology in order to keep the studio running smoothly. Of course, heat is a challenge too. We blew glass today with 103 degree temperatures outside and made it until noon!
What was your inspiration behind the Torso series?
The Torso Series began after Rick took a class from Maestro Dino Rosin from Murano, Italy at the Pilchuck School in Seattle in 2003. Rick has always been inspired by the classical female form throughout art history. He wanted to learn hot sculpting and combine it with blowing. These skills are very challenging and we continue to work on hot sculpting currently with our birds – Shorebirds and Quail. Initially inspired by the 1940’s pin-up illustrator, Alberto Varga, he creates each female form in a unique way to reflect a variety of women, and to express fluid movement. The trick is to be able to get the correct proportions while blowing freehand with no molds. Again, lots of practice. They don’t always come out as planned!
Please explain the glass blowing process for those who are unaware.
Although glass blowing is very old, around 300 BC, It had not been done in a small art studio in America until Harvey Littleton and Dominic Labino developed a recipe and small furnace at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1960’s. We tagged onto the movement in 1979 with a night class in glass blowing at USC in LA. At that time everything was very experimental. We moved to Auburn in 1981 and built our own studio slowly over time. We have a furnace that runs 24 hours a day and holds 300 pounds of molten clear glass. We fill it with the raw materials once a week and blow for 5 days. The 5 ft. long blowpipe is dipped into the clear glass and gathered much like honey on a stick. Colors are added in numerous ways depending on the piece but all are multiple layers of color and clear glass. This can take quite a bit of time and is done before the piece is blown and formed. The glass colors come from Germany and New Zealand so we have a broad palette to work with. The furnace is about 2200 degrees and the piece is between 1200 and 1800 while you are working on it. The hard part is knowing your heats so you can shape it. If it is too hot you can lose control and if it is too cool you can crack it. You move from the bench to another 2200 degree furnace to keep the piece hot enough to work it at the bench. After the initial shape is set, usually you transfer from the blowpipe to a solid rod called the punty and finish the top. Next it is cracked off from the punty and goes into a 950 degree annealing oven where it cools usually for 24 hours. This strengthens the glass so it will not crack easily. Most pieces require cold working (grinding and polishing) the next day. We have several videos on our websiteto help you get a visual sense of the process. We also create our metal sculpture here in the studio to work with our glass.
The primary characteristic that draws me to your work is your use of color. What informs your decisions to use certain colors within your work? Which color(s) are you drawn to the most?
I do think that color sets us apart from other glass artists. I put a lot of thought into planning color. Since we came from a clay background and with a love of nature, most of our colors are in a natural muted palette. We also like simplicity in design and try not to overuse color and the dichroic (sparkle). We want our glass to give a feeling of harmony and serenity. In our Landscape Wall Sculptures, for example, we add white powder behind the colors to suggest the textures of sky, water and grasses. The individual pieces are designed to hang together as one and flow into one another. My favorite colors are sage green, steel blue, and browns with a hint of coral and gold topaz. We are currently working in a beautiful garnet red and a brighter red that you can see on our recent blog posts. We are also currently working in ocean colors – lagoon and aqua with browns. We both love the ocean and Rick grew up in Hawaii.
Let’s talk about the Shorebirds. They’re certainly unique, and I am naturally drawn to birds. What prompted you to start up this bird series?
The Shorebirds are our newest series and we have recently completed Quail. They are very challenging since they are blown and hot sculpted at about 1500 degrees. I enjoy the color work with powder and frit designs. Rick was inspired through attending sculpture workshops with Karen Willenbrink-Johnsen and Jasen Johnsen. I attended a feature artist show at Ocean Galleries in Avalon New Jersey and was thrilled to go bird watching in the wetlands there with another artist and her husband with a scope. We also love to go to the coast whenever we can and enjoy the birds. It has taken about a year of work to get the series to where we are able to present it. And we will continue to work on it!
What are some of the challenges you face in your business on a regular basis?
We have blown glass for 34 years and the “business” of art has changed throughout the years. With the expense of a glass studio, you have to be actively selling your glass. Currently, we work primarily on custom commissions and also participate in national galleries as well as our local community. Every day is different. We both love this. We are creative problem solving daily. You really never know what is around the corner or what to expect for income. Our biggest challenge right now is affordable health care. We have a $5,000. deductible plan and our monthly payments are $1400 per month. That’s a lot of glass!
What advice would you give to someone looking to take on a similar venture?
Realize that art is a business and enroll in a couple of classes. We have the small business development center through our community college. You should have a budget and a mission statement before leaping in. Attend glass blowing workshops and/or apprentice at a working studio. Develop your studio slowly so you don’t have to go deep into debt to get started. Live frugally but with a passion that will sustain you. It is a lifelong lifestyle and you need to love it. Also have persistence. Don’t give up when you fail just push through it and learn. Work together as a team. Don’t try to do everything yourself. There are just too many hats to wear and it can be overwhelming. Go for it! If you think too long you’ll never do it.