As I opened the door to the Kingston Glass Studio & Gallery I was immediately hit with a wall of heat ― a stark and welcoming contrast to the sleet and snow currently overpowering Kingston.
Mischka Alexi Hunter, who owns the studio and gallery with his wife Mariel Waddell, tells me the furnace is heated to over 2,000 degrees and usually sits at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Peering around the corner, I saw the large and looming furnace, which opens to reveal a glowing inferno that harbours molten, melted glass.
Hunter and Waddell have owned the Kingston Glass Studio & Gallery at Queen and King Streets downtown for the past seven years, and have both been creating blown glass art for over a decade. While the gallery features artwork from over 30 local artists, most of the blown glass belongs to Hunter and Waddell.
They both came upon glassblowing unintentionally.
“When I was in high school I was a horrible student, I was 20 when I finally graduated — me and school were like oil and water,” Hunter said.
However, after five years working laborious jobs, Hunter decided to return to school, enrolling in the crafts and design program at Sheridan College.
“I knew it had to be something with my hands so I took ceramics and I got to choose glass as a second elective … I was intrigued by the heat and fire,” he said, “and after a month I fell for it.”
Hunter said that the basic glassblowing studio consists of a furnace in which a glassblower inserts their pipe to collect the molten glass from inside.
The bench, where the glass is blown, is accompanied by the tools used to mold the glass.
During this process, the glass begins to cool, and so the glassblower continuously brings their glass to a second furnace called the glory hole to keep the glass malleable.
Once the glassblower attains their desired bubble size and shape for their piece, it’s placed in an annealer, an oven similar to a kiln, in which it sets and cools over a period of 12 hours.
While watching Hunter and Waddell create a glass cup, I could hardly contain my awe at the glowing glass which behaved like honey, and the ease with which the couple completed the piece.
As Waddell heated the glass and molded it on the bench, Hunter seamlessly blew into the pipe to create the bubble. They worked together like a well-oiled machine, unconcerned with the dangerously high temperatures.
Though small burns are an issue, Hunter said that one of the big dangers with the medium comes in the form of coloured powder. The coloured powder, which is one way to add colour to blown glass, contains heavy metal residue that’s dangerous to breathe.
“The dust is probably our biggest enemy. We try to be careful, like we wear masks [but] nothing’s 100 per cent,” he said, adding that they try to use alternative means of colouring glass, like rolling the hot glass in coloured glass chips.
Despite the risks with glassblowing, Hunter isn’t willing to let them stand in his way.
“I think you should always find a little bit of time to do something that makes you happy, whether it’s flying a kite or blowing glass,” he said. “I think you need that and I’m just really lucky that most of my days are spent doing this.”
Waddell came to the crafts and design program at Sheridan College as an international student from Trinidad, initially looking to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a ceramic artist.
“I also applied for furniture because I didn’t know anything about glass. I honestly thought it was probably stained glass, I didn’t realize it was hot forming,” she said.
However, when the furniture program filled up, Waddell was thrust into glassblowing.
“It’s an incredible medium to work with … and the heat also was really attractive to me because I’m from a very hot country, so it was really nice to be in front of those furnaces all day. Even when it was freezing outside, I’m still in my flip flops,” she said.
I was nervous and concerned while watching Waddell near the scorching furnaces, swinging pipes carrying molten glass around her exposed feet.
Waddell admitted that wearing flip flops in the hot shop isn’t very safe, and always forbidden in schools. However, with her experience, Waddell said she would rather wear flip flops than sweat in her shoes.
Creating custom pieces for the City of Kingston, Queen’s, St. Lawrence College and even the Canadian navy, Waddell and Hunter are continuing to expand their business. With pieces in galleries all across Canada, they’re broadening their business into the United States and online.
“I have to say one of the biggest challenges is the cost — it’s extremely expensive to run a glassblowing studio,” she said. “The material itself is not the most expensive, but to heat the glass is extremely expensive. Our furnace runs 24/7 and all year long … so basically even while we’re sleeping, we’re still paying bills.”
With the gallery unable to sustain the business on its own, Waddell said that they also participate in many shows across the country and sell their product wholesale.
Waddell said that glassblowing hasn’t just impacted her life, but that it is her life.
“I basically left my family and my home country to do what I love, which is glassblowing and to be with [Hunter],” she said. “We just feed off each other when it comes to glass … our relationship just worked when it came to glass and when it came to everything else. That’s why I stayed in Canada.”
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