Some Like It Hot: Glass Art at Third Degree

BY Arts Desk  April 30, 2009 at 5:58 PM EST

Third Degree Glass Factory. Photo by Molly FinneganDespite the medium’s tendency toward transparency, glass blowing has a surprisingly opaque history. “The tradition was, if you took a secret from someone’s studio, the Italians would kill you,” co-founder Jim McKelvey of St. Louis’ Third Degree Glass Factory explained to us. “They would send hit men after their masters who escaped from Murano. That culture defined how glass was taught.”

Glass blowing is getting an entirely new education on Delmar Boulevard.

St. Louis isn’t exactly Murano (though it is home to some exceptional silica, the base ingredient of glass). Despite having never developed a local glass-making industry some fine art glass companies cropped up a couple of decades ago, but they closed shop. For many years, there was no big studio and no glass art community.

So how do you establish a community without a foundation to build upon, and against a tradition of secrecy and cutthroat competition? Simple: start from scratch, build it yourself, make it educational and not exclusive so that you can grow a sustainable local movement — and a sustainable business.

“Glass blowing is a team activity: the greatest works are created by multiple pairs of hands,” said McKelvey. “Instead of a place we could produce our own work, we decided we would essentially train the next generation.” But like many traditional arts, glass blowing has been taught for centuries through apprenticeship. Not until recently has the art adopted modern educational curricula. Apprenticeships were not an option at Third Degree, a space which houses many hobbyists, students and artists alike. Third Degree now boasts the first-ever glass-blowing textbook and accompanying instructional DVDs.

“We wanted a place to empower artists,” says McKelvey. Situated in what was once Tom’s Pontiacs, Third Degree is a gallery, studio, educational institution, even a place to get married or hold a bar mitzvah (at the request of a student, they started to rent it out as an event space to help offset the great cost of their furnace bills).

McKelvey and co-founder Doug Auer put the iron to the fire in 2002 when they built the site furnaces and facilities from the ground up. After removing about 20 bus-sized dumpsters of trash from the warehouse and power washing the floors, the beautiful warehouse space became a place where people could take classes, invest in studio time, and display and sell their wares.

“The idea that glass should be accessible is something I personally feel very strongly about,” says McKelvey, who builds Third Degree’s shimmering glass water faucets (supposedly the only ones in existence). “That flies in the face of the art/craft debate, where you have people who say it can’t be art if it’s useful, and I argue against that point. I like the fact that I’m getting fantastic amounts of positive feedback from something that actually functions.”

In 2006, Third Degree hosted the Glass Art Society’s Annual Conference, “a huge deal” in their trade. After some skepticism (St. Louis and glass not being an obvious pair), the studio earned worldwide accolades. And on the third Friday of each month, Third Degree brings in 200 to 300 people for an open house, featuring local music and live demonstrations, and displays of work by glass artists, as well as 2-D artworks. Glass Faucet by Jim McKelvey. Photo by Molly Finnegan

The darkened studio takes on an almost alchemical ambience: charred planks of wood flatten the glass and quietly catch fire; a variety of metal prods, tongs and pokers line the work benches and areas. Medieval melds with contemporary: large metal masks have been replaced by stylish sunglasses and artists wear a large, heavy burnt glove instead of armor.

The trick to blowing glass, Auer and McKelvey explained, is not in strength, but in balance and delicacy. Pairs of young artists worked methodically — heating the glass to roll it, heating it again to blow it, heating it again and again to shape it.

“Some of the most beautiful pieces depend on the thinnest connections and the point that is just strong enough to hold it together.” Amber, one of the young artists, finished her piece and dismounted it by adding three droplets of water to its base. A very gentle tap dislodged it from the rod.

Glass-blowing is an art with the expectation of catastrophe, as we saw when after an hour’s worth of a young woman’s work fell to the ground and shattered. A delicate touch is essential to the art, as much as diligence is to its process. She began again.