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A Hot Gift for Glassblowing

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Before Mark Zirpel joined the School of Art in 2008 as Dale Chihuly Endowed Chair of Glass, the UW offered no studio art courses in glass. Zirpel carved out space and procured equipment to create studios in warm glass, cold glass, and lamp glass as part of the School’s Three-Dimensional Forum (3D4M) program. Now hot glass facilities—the kind needed for glassblowing—are being planned, thanks in part to a gift from glassybaby.

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Above, a glassybaby artist works with hot glass—something UW students will also be able to do thanks in part to a donation of furnaces from glassybaby. Media credit: glassybaby

glassybaby, a Seattle company that creates handblown glass votives, has donated two glassblowing furnaces valued at $50,000. The company recently reached $1 million in giving to the community, including generous gifts to the UW Medical Center and UW School of Nursing, but this is its first gift to the School of Art.

Sean O’Neill, a glassybaby employee as well as a parttime technician for the School of Art, suggested the donation to glassybaby owner Lee Rhodes after learning that the company was replacing two of its furnaces. Rhodes immediately warmed to the idea.

“glassybaby is all about giving back and this donation could give a lot of students experience blowing glass,” says Rhodes, whose company employs 70 glassblowers. “We love our artists and the glassblowing community. We want to support and nurture that passion every chance we can.”

For Zirpel, the donation is another step toward building the School of Art’s glass offerings. When Zirpel arrived, he acquired half a dozen small kilns through purchase and donations, allowing the School of Art to introduce warm glass to its curriculum, including techniques such as fusing, slumping, and lost wax casting. Next he found space for a cold shop, where glass is manipulated through grinding, surfacing, finishing, laminating, and similar techniques. He then introduced lamp working, in which a torch is used to work borosilicate glass. “This manner of working with glass is particularly well suited for our program,” says Zirpel. “It is an excellent introduction to glass, heat, and rotation. It’s economical and can easily be pursued by students once they have left school.”

All that was missing was a hot glass shop—surprising given the Northwest’s reputation as a mecca for glassblowers. The furnaces from glassybaby move the School one step closer to its goal of offering hot glass courses. Next comes the purchase of specialized equipment—from annealers that cool the glass to steel marvers on which the glass is shaped—and an electrical upgrade to accommodate the needs of the furnaces, which must reach 2300 degrees Fahrenheit to melt glass. (The kilns for warm glass reach 1500 degrees.) Zirpel also anticipates hiring more staff to oversee the glassblowing facility. “There’s no better place in the world to have a talented pool of personnel for this,” he says. “I intend to capitalize on that.”

Zirpel is thrilled at the prospect of adding hot glass to the School’s offerings. “It’s exciting,” he says. “I anticipate continued growth in interest in what we’re doing at the UW. I think we have a great thing going here.”